This week's Economist features a special report on the "burgeoning bourgeoisie," referring to the emerging global middle class that now encompasses - by generous estimate - roughly half the world and is centered in the emerging markets of the East and South. Arriving amid the first truly global recession of this now truly globalized economy, such mainstream media attention could not be timelier.
Roughly a century ago, the middle class was rapidly expanding in numerous Western nations, a great number of which were engaged in consolidating colonial empires around the planet. Now, those former colonies provide much of that emerging global middle class.
This raises the most important ideological question of the 21st century: Will that emerging global middle class result in - on an aggregate basis - radical rule from the left, authoritarian rule from the right, or democratic rule from the middle?
History provides all three results in the West.
In imperial Europe, the burgeoning middle class, when put to the sequential stresses of World War I and the Great Depression, yielded both extremes, with Leninist Russia's radical Bolshevism promising to prevent the bourgeoisie's unjust rise on the backs of exploited workers and Nazi Germany's authoritarian fascism promising to protect the bourgeoisie from such labor radicalism from below. In combination, they produced World War II and its lengthy denouement - the Cold War rivalry.
In America, the consolidation of its inland "empire" produced a different outcome: stabilizing rule from the middle. After our Civil War, America's rapid integration of its "Wild West" generated a centering middle-class ideology that sustains us to this day: the widespread belief that these United States are made up overwhelmingly by the hard-working members of the middle, who collectively suffer - on the margins - the special interests of the both the powerless poor and the powerful rich.
It's impossible to overestimate what a crucial political lubricant that middle-class mindset has been for America in the decades since, powering our now-50 state union through two world wars and the Great Depression, plus the Cold War and its disorienting aftermath. And through it all, democratic America, armed with that centering sensibility, has served as global champion for an international liberal trade order we now call globalization.
But today, with our own definition of middle-class America under fierce assault from this harshly competitive global landscape of our making, can the United States still serve as global champion of this much sought-after lifestyle and its associated democratic values?
Or do we succumb to protectionist sentiments and thus - arguably - doom much of this emerging global bourgeoisie to similarly extremist solutions out of our collective impulse for self-preservation?
In general, what the rich want from government is protection from the poor, and what the poor want is protection from their very circumstances. When such impulses are given free reign, freedom is naturally circumscribed.
But what the middle class wants from government is more complex: Having achieved modest wealth, it wants protection from uncertainty or the future. That middle class, more than anything else, aims to preserve its good life, asking only that it be reasonably improved for the next generation's inevitable expectations of a higher standard of living.
History tells us that democracies emerge where incomes are rising, where a middle class dominates, and where populations are at least middle-aged - meaning, no longer skewed to the young. Thus, viewed on a global scale, America's decades-long grand strategy of promoting globalization's advance has yielded all the makings of globalized democracy - if we play our cards right in the coming years.
Does that mean sacrificing America's middle class on the altar of this global version's rising resource requirements?
Don't confuse consumption with standard of living: While American consumers engage in much-needed dieting, there is much long-term profit to be found in our becoming familiar with, and meeting, this global bourgeoisie's demand for a better life.