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masses


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The body of common people in a society. Anxiety about ‘the masses’ is as old as anxiety about democracy (see e.g. Plato; Aristotle). It took clearer shape with eighteenth‐ and early nineteenth‐century writing about the tyranny of the majority (see also Madison; Tocqueville). In his Democracy in America (1835–40), Tocqueville expressed anxiety about the rootlessness and lack of social networks of Americans, who were, as they remain, much more mobile than Europeans: ‘Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of all the rest.’ However, this sits awkwardly with Tocqueville's admiration for American political activism and their enthusiasm for voluntary associations. Similar difficulties of definition have dogged all attempts to define the ‘masses’ and the nature of the threat they pose to elites or to democratic stability (see also mass society).

Subjects: Politics.


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