Democrats Have Power. How Can They Keep It? - Rolling Stone
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The Democrats Have Power. How Can They Keep It?

The party reclaimed the White House and the Senate, but there are signs of trouble for Team Blue. Rolling Stone talked to some two dozen experts about what they think is the party’s best path forward

how the democrats can save themselves

Illustration by Victor Juhasz for Rolling Stone

The following two statements stand in complete opposition to each other, and yet they are both true: The Democratic Party is dominant. The Democratic Party is screwed.

Consider these facts. In 2020, Joe Biden received more votes than any other presidential candidate in U.S. history. He rebuilt the “blue wall” of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; turned Georgia blue for the first time since 1992; and clinched Arizona thanks to a commanding performance in the state’s most populous county, Maricopa, which no Democrat had carried since Harry Truman in 1948. It was a banner year for progressive policies, with red and blue states voting in November to approve a $15 minimum wage, new taxes on the rich for education, and legal weed. And after two victories in the January Georgia runoff elections, Democrats regained control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 2015.

Yet for all of these promising signs, the 2020 election brought plenty of grim news for the Democrats. They lost 10 seats in the House in a year when they were projected to expand their majority. At the state level, Democrats failed to flip a single legislative chamber in this crucial last election before the 2021 round of redistricting. And after four years of autocratic creep and catastrophic incompetence, amid a pandemic he vowed was “going to disappear,” Donald Trump still won 74 million votes, 11 million more than he earned four years ago. Biden won the Electoral College by a comfortable 74-vote margin, but had just 22,000 ballots gone the other way in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, Biden would have lost. “It was a near-death experience,” Ben Wikler, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, told me in December. “A few voters in the wrong places and Trump would be planning his second inaugural right now.”

A close brush with death typically prompts a re-evaluation of one’s actions and some form of course correction. Yet in the wake of the 2020 election, the debate inside the Democratic Party has reverted back to the blame game between the moderate wing and the insurgent left. Two days after the election, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) told fellow House Democrats on a private debrief call that “we will get fucking torn apart in 2022” if they repeat their strategy from this year, urging her colleagues to “not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again . . . We lost good members because of that.” On Twitter, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) blamed poor strategic decisions such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s refusal to work with consultants aligned with the progressive left and a lackluster use of digital-media tools like Facebook during a pandemic election year. Aggressive policy positions weren’t the real issue, she added: Most candidates who ran on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal won their races. “So the whole ‘progressivism is bad’ argument just doesn’t have any compelling evidence that I’ve seen,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

This intraparty squabbling obscures far more daunting problems that face the Democratic Party in the coming decade. Even as the party grows its ranks in Sun Belt metropolises like Atlanta and Houston, the geographic clustering of Democratic voters on the coasts and in the cities will make it ever more difficult for Democrats to gain a clear majority in the U.S. Senate, let alone a 60-vote supermajority. The Supreme Court is stacked with conservatives for decades to come. And thanks to gerrymandering, a conveyor belt of right-wing judicial nominations, and bottomless dark money, Republicans have locked in minority rule for possibly a generation. Meanwhile, the Democratic brand is so weak that tens of millions of people voted for legal weed, new taxes, and higher wages, and then, on the same ballot, chose Republican candidates who opposed those very same policies. “Progressive policies are popular until Democrats start talking about them,” says Matt Hildreth, executive director of RuralOrganizing.org, a research and activism hub for progressives in rural America.

What is the future for the Democratic Party? What can it do to persuade more voters that it is the party of big popular ideas that will improve people’s lives? How can it break the GOP’s increasingly desperate grip on power, as evidenced by the party’s willingness to shred democracy in order to preserve that power? And what can Biden do to hold on to his 2020 coalition, avoid an electoral wipeout in 2022, and tackle the many crises that face the country?

In the absence of any real postmortem by the Democratic Party, Rolling Stone interviewed some two dozen people — elected officials, pollsters, historians, consultants, grassroots organizers — and asked what Democrats can do to regain their standing and break GOP minority rule. They offered different and sometimes competing theories about how the Democrats lost touch with their populist roots, the disconnect between Democrats and progressive policies, and what Democrats can do to regain their identity as the party of the people. But they all agreed that the results of 2020 require some soul-searching about what comes next.

Justice Must Be Done
Less than 24 hours after a violent mob stormed and occupied the U.S. Capitol, Congressman Jason Crow (D-Colo.) was already thinking about how to repair the damage done. The short-term solutions were apparent. Law-enforcement authorities at all levels of government needed to arrest anyone who participated in the pro-Trump, QAnon-inspired insurrection, no matter how long it took. “America needs to see that — the world needs to see that,” Crow says. “These people need to be walked away in handcuffs and put in jail.”

But the more difficult question is this: What do we, as a country, do to ensure the events of January 6th, 2021, never happen again? And to broaden the scope even more, what can we do to ensure another Trump never happens again? The first step, Democratic lawmakers and rule-of-law experts say, is a commitment from Biden that he will not turn a blind eye to the actions of his predecessor. More than a decade ago, Barack Obama’s administration vowed to “look forward and not backwards,” ruling out any form of accountability for the Bush administration’s use of torture or for the lies and deceptions sold to the American people to justify the invasion of Iraq. As a presidential candidate, Biden tried to have it both ways, saying he would not interfere in the Justice Department’s decisions but insisting that any discussion of prosecuting Trump was “a very, very unusual thing and probably not very . . . good for democracy.”

But Trump and his allies’ desperate final acts in the period between the election and Biden’s inauguration — pardoning political loyalists, spreading dangerous lies about a “stolen” election, pressuring state-level officials to commit voter fraud, and inciting a mob of supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol — leave Biden and the Democrats no choice. “If we don’t engage in holding this president accountable for the crimes and the impeachable offenses he’s committed,” John Bonifaz, a constitutional-law expert and president of the liberal advocacy group Free Speech for People, told me last fall, “then we only feed the idea that the rule of law is being destroyed and therefore those who want to can follow in his footsteps and engage in unconstitutional or abusive behavior in violation of the law.” In other words, if there are no real consequences for anyone involved, what’s to stop it from happening again?

Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greet each other Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greet each other Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Patrick Semansky/AP

But impeaching or prosecuting Trump won’t be enough; it won’t prevent another Trump from rising to power. It won’t address the underlying rot in our democracy. For that, we need to restore the people’s trust in government. Government-reform experts say that with control of the House and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill should vote on legislation like H.R. 1, the sweeping package of voting-rights protections, campaign-money transparency, and anti-corruption provisions that House Democrats approved in the last Congress. Norm Eisen, who served as Obama’s White House ethics czar, says Biden should immediately sign an executive order that would drastically limit, if not ban, special-interest lobbyists from serving in the Biden administration.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a senior member of the judiciary committee, says he envisions a three-pronged strategy to repair the damage done by the Trump administration and restore faith and trust in government. The first step, he says, is re-establishing the independence of the Justice Department. Whitehouse suggests creating a special cleanup committee of DOJ veterans. Operating outside the day-to-day workings of the department, the committee would identify wrongdoing by the last administration and recommend reforms to better protect the DOJ from political interference. “If you aren’t running an honest Department of Justice, it’s hard for anything else in the government to be honest,” Whitehouse says.

To root out possible Trump-era corruption in federal agencies like the EPA or the Commerce Department, Whitehouse says Congress should launch a special legislative committee that could function unrestrained by the typical committee jurisdiction lines. “There should be one-stop shopping for people who want to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Hey, here’s a file that I kept or a story that you need to hear,’” he says. “We now have the chance for a bicameral committee, and I think there was enough corruption across enough agencies, very often with common threads, [that] it’s more important to see it as a whole and deal with it as a whole.”

And finally, Whitehouse says, President Biden should establish a commission made up of experts to investigate the fossil-fuel industry’s decades-long campaign to undermine climate science and block ambitious action to fight climate change. “We’ve done a crap job as Democrats and as a Congress in taking a thorough look at this apparatus that is the beast that defeats us,” he says. “Why would you not try to undermine and expose that beast, particularly if you want to do something serious about climate change? America needs to know this story.”

Actually Stand for Something
For the past four to six years, the central animating principle of the Democratic Party boiled down to this: Trump is a menace, and we’re not him. Biden shaped his entire presidential run around a promise to “turn the page” on Trump and “restore the soul of America.” In Biden’s telling, Trump was a hideous aberration and Scranton Joe was the candidate who could bring about a return to calmer, more “normal” times, an elder statesman with the experience and connections to work across the aisle.

Put another way, the Democratic Party chose a strategy in 2020 that provided an off-ramp for independents and Republicans to abandon Trump and vote for Biden. It was a choice that maximized the chances Trump would lose but, as you might expect, offered little in the way of support for the rest of the Democratic ticket. And as a result, Democrats underperformed in key down-ballot races. “Joe Biden didn’t have coattails,” Sean McElwee, a progressive pollster who runs Data for Progress, tells Rolling Stone. “He was wearing a crop top.”

Now, Democrats won’t have the big, bad orange man to kick around anymore (unless Trump runs again in 2024, in which case God help us). They will have to do more than insist to the American public that Trump must be stopped. They will have to come up with something more than feel-good, pollster-approved, focus-grouped slogans (“Stronger Together,” “Build Back Better”) and value-heavy paeans to equality and representation, a living wage and affordable health care, a clean environment, racial justice, and a good education — values that couldn’t be more important but don’t mean anything without policy to make them real. The Democrats need to really stand for something.

The party’s progressive insurgency of Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have put their weight behind Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and a Green New Deal, but other factions of the party tend to define themselves more in opposition to the left’s ideas than by offering their own distinct vision. “There’s so much of that in our party — defining yourself by what you’re against, not what you’re for,” says Faiz Shakir, who ran Sanders’ 2020 campaign and before that worked for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. “I understand moderates saying, ‘I’m not for the progressive side of the ledger,’ but it’s awful to be defined by what you’re not.”

So what should Democrats stand for? Michael Kazin, a Georgetown professor who’s writing a book about the history of the Democratic Party, says the party has been most successful when it embraces what he calls “moral capitalism” — a system that balances market forces that help people earn a living and build wealth, with strong regulations and oversight to rein in big corporations and ensure economic growth is spread widely across society. In practical terms, Kazin says, this might look like a combination of what Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, and Elizabeth Warren, a progressive capitalist, put forward during their ill-fated 2020 presidential campaigns: economic programs like free college, tougher laws against monopolies, a fair tax code, improved labor rights, and trade deals that benefit American workers.

“When Democrats do well, they do it by getting voters to unify around a set of programs and a rhetoric that put some muscle behind the boilerplate talk about having an economy that works for everyone,” Kazin says. “People like to get stuff from the government, and they like to feel the government is doing something for them.”

The 2020 election showed there are issues with broad popular support that neither party has fully championed, issues that could reinvigorate the party under President Biden, such as legalizing marijuana. Public polls consistently show somewhere between 60 and 70 percent support for legal weed. In 2020, there were seven different ballot proposals involving legal weed, and all of them won, including in the ruby-red Republican states of South Dakota, Mississippi, and Montana.

One of the loudest voices in the Democratic Party saying that Democrats should own the issue is John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and a possible U.S. Senate candidate in 2022. The way Fetterman sees it, legal weed is an economic issue (regulating and taxing it could provide much-needed revenue for states), a racial-justice issue (ending the failed War on Drugs and the discriminatory policies that imprisoned tens of thousands of black and brown people), and a veteran issue (marijuana is seen as a much safer option for vets with chronic pain and PTSD). “Prohibition is so much more work than just admitting you were wrong on legal weed,” Fetterman says. “Let’s just get it done.”

Short of a 60-vote supermajority in the U.S. Senate, though, how ambitious can Biden really be in his first two years? There are some in the party, like Shakir, who argue Biden should go big — say, a bill raising the minimum wage to $15 — barnstorm the country in support of it, and if Senate Republicans block it, tell every American he fought for higher wages while the Republicans stood in the way.

McElwee, the progressive pollster, takes a somewhat different view. While there are some policies Democrats can pass with 50 votes through a process called reconciliation (like a large clean-energy infrastructure package), the filibuster creates problems for other issues. McElwee suggests a focus on what he calls the “90 issues” — issues that have nearly unanimous support among the general public and the Democratic Party. These might not be the sexiest issues, but if passed into law, people will see immediate benefits. Examples McElwee offers include capping interest rates on payday loans (instead of blanket student-debt cancellation), Medicaid expansion (instead of Medicare for All), expanding the child tax credit (instead of universal child care), and free two-year public college (as opposed to free college, period).

“Often, we’re talking about the things that will get the most media interest, and I think we need to, for the next two years, center on our most popular issues,” McElwee says. “We need the stuff that is the 90-percent issue. That’s true for the center of the party, and true for the left part of the party.” And if Democrats leverage those gains into a filibuster-proof Senate majority in 2022, he adds, Biden and his allies can pursue their most ambitious policies. “Once we pass these reforms,” McElwee says, “voters will see the government creating positive change in their lives and support even broader expansion of government in their lives.”

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, speaks during a press conference to announce Green New Deal legislation to promote clean energy programs outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, February 7, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, speaks during a press conference to announce Green New Deal legislation to promote clean energy programs outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, February 7, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Always Be Organizing
The story of how Obama and his top aides failed to sustain their history-making, grassroots-fueled 2008 campaign once he took office is one of the great cautionary tales of recent political history. Rather than find a way to channel the millions of field organizers, block captains, and fired-up volunteers into an organization that could shape and support Obama’s legislative agenda, the 2008 Obama machine was rebranded as Organizing for America and shoehorned into the bureaucracy of the Democratic National Committee, where it was used to sell trinkets and drum up halfhearted phone-banking efforts. Meanwhile, the newly energized Republican Party used Obama’s policies to mobilize its own base, and in 2010, the GOP wiped out the Democrats, ending the Democratic supermajority in the Senate and winning back the House. At the state level, Republicans won nearly 700 seats in legislatures across the country, which gave them the ability to gerrymander the hell out of battleground states during the 2011 redistricting.

Everyone interviewed by Rolling Stone agreed on this: The Democratic Party cannot repeat Obama’s mistake this time around. “We have to mobilize for midterms like the presidential race, and mobilize for the presidential like the apocalypse,” Wikler, the Wisconsin party chair, says.

Wikler understands this better than most. He spent a decade in the trenches of liberal grassroots activism, including a stint as the Washington director of MoveOn.org, watching his home state of Wisconsin, once a progressive beacon, become a Republican stronghold under the governorship of Scott Walker and GOP leaders like Reince Priebus and former Speaker Paul Ryan. So in 2019, Wikler launched a bid to be the next chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pledging to supercharge organizing from the ground up.

He won the chairmanship and took over an organization faced with demographic trends that mirrored the national party’s. In the cities of Milwaukee and Madison, African American and white college-educated voters couldn’t wait to vote Trump out of office; in the once-reliably Republican suburbs outside Milwaukee, masses of disaffected voters were looking for an off-ramp to not vote for Trump; and across rural Wisconsin, small but significant numbers of Democrats lived in near-hiding among the white voters who identified so strongly with Trump that they would vote to give him not just a second term but a third and a fourth, if they could. “This is a diverse coalition,” Wikler says. “It’s diverse ideologically, racially, geographically, experientially, age-ly, educationally, and in every other dimension of identity.”

Trump had won Wisconsin by the slimmest of margins in 2016, and with more than a year to go until the 2020 election, Wikler recognized a few things. One was that Trump’s performance against Hillary Clinton represented the floor, not the ceiling, of his possible support in Wisconsin. Another was that unless he and his team started ramping up their organizing and turnout machine for the general election right then, more than 12 months out, they would stand a real chance of losing to Trump yet again. “We built a plan intended to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and we got one,” Wikler says.

But a question hangs over Biden’s victory: Are all the suburban voters and white college-educated voters who turned out for Biden now Democrats? Or did Democrats merely lease them for one election because of their revulsion to Trump? Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked with Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, says he fears Democrats will soon lose parts of Biden’s winning coalition if the party doesn’t continue to court those voters. In Belcher’s view, the best way to do that is by good old-fashioned party building — namely, diverting a chunk of those hundreds of millions of dollars normally reserved for Super PACs into the DNC itself and into state parties and grassroots groups in battleground states. Amanda Litman of Run for Something, which recruits and advises state and local candidates nationwide, says nothing less than a revival of the DNC’s 50-state strategy, made famous by Howard Dean in the mid-2000s, is needed. “If I was Joe Biden trying to find a DNC chair, I would find someone who would invest in that,” she says. Belcher suggests more targeted investment in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and other emerging battleground states. “I love Ohio, but it’s not the future,” Belcher says.

Organizers and political candidates say year-round organizing is the best shot for Democrats to win back swaths of rural America and not cede the middle of the country to the GOP. J.D. Scholten, a progressive populist who ran in 2018 and 2020 in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District in the northwest part of the state, says Republicans have the built-in support of local chambers of commerce, farm bureaus, churches, and, of course, conservative TV and talk radio. “They all feed off of each other, and Democrats have to compete against that,” Scholten says. Without that organizing, Democrats are defined as much by the right-wing echo chamber as they are by Democrats themselves. “Right now, in rural America, it’s not a debate between Democrats and Republicans,” says Matt Hildreth of RuralOrganizing.org. “It’s a debate between Republicans and the Fox News caricature of Democrats.”

But Fox News and the rest of that echo chamber do more than warp the public’s view of Democratic policies and politicians — they act as a 24/7 outrage machine aimed squarely at the Republican electorate. “It keeps Republican voters inflamed and ready to vote,” says Rachel Bitecofer, a political analyst and commentator. We saw it in 2009 and 2010, when Fox covered the tea party ad nauseum and whipped up fears about Obama’s Affordable Care Act leading to “death panels.” If Democrats don’t keep their voters equally energized over the next two years, Bitecofer says, “they’re going to get hammered in the midterms.”

Take a Cue From Donald Trump
He may have been the Democratic Party’s bête noire since he first emerged as the GOP’s birther-in-chief almost a decade ago, but if you talk to political operatives, especially those on the progressive left, you’ll find an almost begrudging respect for certain elements of Trump’s pugilistic political style, as well as a belief that a Democratic Party led by a small group of AARP-card-carrying coastal elites could learn a thing or two from it.

Shakir, the Sanders adviser, says one hallmark of Trump’s presidency was his willingness to take the fight to his enemies, perceived and real. Sometimes those enemies were real (pharmaceutical companies) and sometimes they were not (the “deep state”), and quite often Trump’s bluster about battling those opponents was just that — talk. Still, one way Biden can keep his supporters energized and on his side, Shakir says, is to remind them that he’s fighting for them, day in, day out. “If there’s one thing to learn from Donald Trump’s politics — and there’s a lot we should disregard — it’s that he woke up every day looking to fight somebody,” he says. “It sends a message to those who are struggling that there’s someone in the White House who is fighting.”

And when Biden wins one of those fights and passes a key piece of legislation or an important executive order, he should take a page out of Trump’s playbook and promote the hell out of that victory, says Chuck Rocha, a longtime Democratic consultant who runs Nuestro PAC and led Sanders’ Latino outreach efforts in 2020. If Biden pushes for a $15 minimum wage for federal contract workers, or better yet, for all workers, he should build an entire campaign around that proposal and take that campaign to Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia, barnstorming the states and putting surrogates on radio, TV, and online. And then when Biden succeeds, Rocha says, he should go back to those same states and show the people what he accomplished.

“Barack Obama was horrible at spiking the football,” Rocha says. “We have to be more like Donald Trump: ‘Me, I, I did this, my government.’” He adds, “All of us Democrats love to clutch our pearls and say, ‘Ah! We couldn’t do that.’ That’s why we fucking lose.”

Remember Your Roots
On the night of the 2020 election, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tweeted that the Republican Party was “a working-class party now. That’s the future.” Hawley’s analysis relied on early election returns that showed strong turnout for Trump among not only the white working class but also working-class voters of color in places like Florida and Texas. Hawley’s tweet triggered another round of hand-wringing about how the Democratic Party had lost touch with working- and middle-class voters, and how Donald Trump had cracked the code for how Republicans could appeal to the masses and not just the GOP’s usual constituency of boat owners and country-club members.

We saw this same narrative in 2016; it was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. For four elections in a row, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden have all won majorities of voters with incomes of less than $50,000 a year, according to exit polls. In 2020, Biden not only won voters who make under $50,000 a year but also handily won voters who earned between $50,000 and $99,999, according to exit polls by Edison Research.

There is no mass exodus of working-class voters from the Democratic Party. Political experts say this is partly due to the fact that “working class” is too often thought to mean “white working class,” which couldn’t be further from the truth. The working class is wildly diverse in this country, made up of black, Hispanic, and other communities of color, and many in those communities clearly see little for them in a Republican agenda focused on corporate tax cuts and preserving white supremacy.

All that being said, there should be alarm bells going off at DNC headquarters. Despite Biden’s success among working- and middle-class voters, he was not the candidate of choice for those who said the economy mattered most. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that if Trump hadn’t bungled the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and handed Biden his most potent campaign issue, Trump would have won re-election without breaking a sweat. If the 2020 election taught us anything, it’s that the Democratic Party has the support of working people, but it must now show that it’s deserving of that support. And to do that, the party needs to exhume its populist DNA.

The Democratic Party has been most successful when it took on the wealthy and the powerful, busting trusts, breaking up monopolies, empowering workers. The party drifted from those roots in the 1980s as it sought to find a path out of the wilderness of the Reagan years. The path it chose was to act like the Republican-lite Party, courting big corporations for financial support, passing racist criminal-justice measures, and trimming the social safety net.

We’re far enough from the Eighties and Nineties for many in today’s Democratic Party to see how ill-advised those Republican-lite policies were, and how far the party of the New Deal and the Great Society had strayed. You can hear echoes of FDR and Lyndon Johnson in the platforms and policies of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Warren, a return to the belief that the fundamental axis in American politics is whether you want to take on powerful corporate interests or not.

If the Democratic Party has any hope of re-establishing itself as the party known for making people’s lives better and taking the fight to the powerful forces in our country, it needs to elevate the fight for working people over the lure of bipartisanship with the Republican Party. Bipartisanship rings hollow when you don’t have a job or health insurance or money to feed your family. An economic populism that recognizes our country’s diversity but also the commonality that everyone wants a better life is, was, and always will be the Democratic Party’s best hope. Anything else only portends the rise of the next Trump-like demagogue, if it isn’t Trump himself. “I think populist without progressive is what gets us Donald Trump,” says Hildreth of RuralOrganizing.org. “But I think progressive without populist is also what gets us Donald Trump.”

 

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