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Can We Change the Political System? Strategic Lessons of the Bernie Sanders Campaign

What is the Sanders campaign’s long-term significance, and how can the left make the most of this political opportunity?

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, on January 25, 2016. (Photo: Alex Hanson)

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Less than two months into the 2016 primary season, and in defiance of all expectations, it appears that Bernie Sanders has profoundly reconfigured the US political landscape. By relentlessly denouncing what he refers to as the United States’ “billionaire class” and its “rigged economy,” he has given voice to the mounting anger of millions of young and working-class Americans whose economic insecurity has intensified in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. For anyone who has longed for such a full-throated denunciation of class inequality and corporate power (not seen since the campaigns of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Ralph Nader in 2000), his campaign represents more than just a welcome departure from the standard dismal fare of US elections; it offers an extraordinary political opportunity.

The key is to get money out of the political process, and bring more people into it.

Of course, the rising anger toward the economic status quo did not begin with the Sanders campaign. The “Battle of Seattle,” Nader’s 2000 Green Party run, the “Wisconsin Uprising” and the Occupy Wall Street movement all laid the groundwork in the United States. This anti-neoliberal upsurge is also part of a larger worldwide phenomenon, starting more than a decade ago with Latin America’s so-called “pink tide” and the World Social Forum, and continuing with the Arab Spring and the recent emergence of a new European left. And while the Sanders campaign may be less radical than many of its international counterparts, it has nonetheless initiated an almost unprecedented conversation about class inequality in the United States and even removed much of the stigma from the word “socialism.”

What then is the long-term significance of the Sanders campaign, and how can the left make the most of this opportunity and avoid the pitfalls encountered in other places and times?

This question is especially relevant in light of the fact that most recent attempts to forge an electoral challenge to neoliberal capitalism have not been particularly successful. Indeed, they have often failed to go beyond denunciations of neoliberalism, and in some cases, have served to maintain or consolidate it, leaving many supporters disillusioned and defeated.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

The Brazilian Workers’ Party is a case in point. Founded in 1980 by powerful social movements strongly committed to democratic socialism, the party saw its political fortunes rise steadily, culminating in the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002. After more than a decade in power, however, it has made very limited changes to Brazil’s neoliberal economic order and now finds itself in a deep political crisis. Meanwhile, the social movements that gave birth to it have been significantly weakened.

In Greece, Syriza initially fueled great expectations of its own, but it came crashing down much more rapidly and dramatically, going from a dream to a nightmare within the span of a year. Closer to home and in a similar span of time, the Wisconsin Uprising went from an extraordinary grassroots rebellion that captured the attention of the world to a conventional electoral mobilization that ended in heartbreaking defeat and left its participants demoralized and with nowhere to go.

The Clinton campaign is now benefiting from “reforms” instituted in the 1980s to block insurgent candidates like Sanders.

In assessing the Sanders phenomenon, the question of strategy takes on central importance, given the significant obstacles Sanders would need to overcome to advance his program. Sanders appears to recognize the importance of strategy himself, as he frequently emphasizes the difficult road ahead. Indeed, he typically concludes his campaign speeches by asserting that he tells his audiences “what no other candidate for president” will tell them: that the powers that be, specifically Wall Street and corporate America, are so powerful that “no president can do what has to be done alone.” And that, he insists, is why we need a “political revolution.”

So what would the political revolution that Sanders has in mind look like? His answer is a fairly straightforward one: less money and more people. The key, in other words, is to get money out of the political process, and bring more people into it.

It is of course true that big money has an extraordinarily destructive impact on the US political process, and voter turnout in the United States has long been the lowest in the industrialized world, particularly among poor people and the working class.

But what if the problem lies more fundamentally in the political process itself, and in the limited capacity of poor and working-class people to confront the power of money outside of it? What then would it take to make a political revolution, and how might the Sanders campaign contribute to it?

The Immediate Obstacle: The Democratic Party

Ironically, the most significant impact of the Sanders campaign may be the role it is playing in exposing the severe limitations of the US political process. With each passing day it becomes increasingly evident that the immediate obstacle to Sanders’ political revolution is the Democratic Party itself.

Initially, Sanders’ seemingly quixotic run for the presidency was met more with bemused condescension than concern by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the party establishment. But as his campaign has gained strength, the Democrats have attempted to block him at every turn.

The repertoire of tactics has included attacks on Sanders’ credibility by Clinton surrogates and the party’s media allies, denying his campaign access to the party’s voter database, restricting debates to times when audiences are unlikely to tune in, questionable and opaque ballot counting procedures, lifting restrictions on donations to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and limiting voter registration.

The primary contest has rapidly turned into a national referendum on Clintonism, which has worked in Sanders’ favor.

Moreover, the Clinton campaign is now benefiting from “reforms” instituted in the 1980s to block insurgent candidates like Sanders. Perhaps the most significant of these is “Super Tuesday.” By forcing candidates to compete simultaneously in a large number of predominantly Southern states early in the nominating process, Super Tuesday was designed to create a nearly insurmountable lead for a moderate front-runner with sufficient funding to campaign on a broad front. Clinton predictably won seven of 11 Super Tuesday states (including all six Southern states by wide margins), which together with blowout victories in four subsequent Southern primaries, has given her a sizeable lead in pledged delegates.

Another 1980s “reform” was the creation of hundreds of “superdelegates,” i.e., office holders, party officials and lobbyists who, unlike the pledged delegates generated by the popular vote in primaries and caucuses, are free to support a candidate of their choosing. While they can switch their support at any time during the nominating process, they typically line up behind an establishment candidate, either out of clientelistic loyalty or as a way to discourage others who are considered to be too liberal or unviable.

In a recent interview, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained the purpose of the superdelegates in stunningly blunt language: “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.” In 2016, they number 712, or 30 percent of the total needed to win the nomination. As of this writing, Clinton has 467 to Sanders’ 26.

The Right Turn of the Democratic Party

These reforms were part of a broader turn to the right by the Democratic Party beginning in the late 1970s, which itself reflected a radical shift in the country’s balance of social forces. Most importantly perhaps, big business launched a major coordinated offensive against organized labor in response to the significant fall in profits triggered by the crisis of the postwar economy. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement, which had been the driving force behind the advances of the 1960s, saw its power and influence quickly dissipate during the 1970s.

The effects of this changing social and political landscape were seen in the Carter administration’s response to the economic crisis — deregulation, tax cuts (especially on capital gains), large increases in military spending, cuts in social spending and an embrace of monetarism with the appointment of Paul Volker to the Federal Reserve. In other words, the launching of what later came to be known as “Reaganomics” occurred under the leadership of a Democratic Party that not only controlled the presidency, but also had large majorities in both houses of Congress.

Once Ronald Reagan was in office, moreover, many Democrats easily accommodated his policy initiatives, signing on to additional massive tax cuts, increases in military spending and social spending cuts, while doing little to stop the intensifying assault on organized labor. Ignoring the growing popular discontent generated by these policies, the party instead engaged in a heightened competition with Republicans for business support. Indeed, corporate lobbying and campaign contributions (to both parties) exploded during this period, marking the birth of the modern era of campaign finance.

The formation in early 1985 of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) signaled the growing consolidation of the party’s rightward shift. Founded by a group of largely Southern governors and senators, the DLC set out to deepen the party’s ties to business, while further distancing it from organized labor, Black people and poor people. Its mission came to fruition in 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who proceeded to implement a series of landmark policy initiatives that heavily favored big business at the expense of virtually everyone else, most notably: the North American Free Trade Agreement; the 1994 crime bill; the “end of welfare as we know it”; the 1996 Telecommunications Act; and the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

Hillary Clinton: The Ideal Establishment Candidate

It is against this backdrop that Hillary Clinton’s campaigns for office, and the party’s reaction to Sanders, must be situated. She is both the heir to the DLC legacy and the product of a party well practiced in crushing leftist challenges.

While the rhetoric of “revolution” is unconventional, Sanders’ basic assertion that he cannot do the job alone is not.

However, the accumulating fallout from the party’s right turn has left Clinton very vulnerable to a candidate like Sanders, for whom she represents the very personification of the party’s alliance with Wall Street and corporate America and the devastation it has wreaked. Sanders has thus thrown a wrench in the works, triggering an unprecedented reappraisal of the Clintons’ destructive record. In fact, the primary contest has rapidly turned into a national referendum on Clintonism, which — in the short run at least — has worked in Sanders’ favor.

At the same time, this dynamic also has serious strategic implications for Sanders’ long-term objectives. The more he exposes the Clintons as the embodiment of a corrupt political establishment, the more implicated anyone remotely connected to the Clintons becomes. This includes the great majority of Democrats in Congress.

It also includes the Obama administration, which represents the continuation of Clintonism, both in its policies and many of its personnel. This effect is only intensified by the fact that one of Clinton’s main lines of defense against Sanders’ assault has been to associate herself with Obama, not only by embracing most of his policies but also by offering him as an example of someone who, like her, has long taken Wall Street money.

Not surprisingly, as Sanders’ criticism of Clinton has intensified, growing numbers of congressional Democrats have bristled at how it has implicated them and have sharpened their criticisms of him in return. Particularly noteworthy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already declared his plans for a tax increase and a single-payer health care system dead on arrival. Regarding single-payer, she declared: “It’s no use having a conversation about something that’s not going to happen.”

This puts Sanders in an awkward position, as was illustrated during the New Hampshire debate. In response to a question about how he planned to accomplish his agenda, when, unlike Clinton, he does not have the backing of congressional Democrats, Sanders desperately tried to establish his own Democratic Party bona fides. He insisted that he has been a de facto loyal Democrat, even while a nominal independent, his entire congressional career, noting that his Democratic colleagues have long rewarded him by naming him to important committee positions. In essence, he was insisting that, like Clinton, he too is part of the Democratic establishment. Three weeks later, in an interview with Chris Matthews, he tried to have it the other way, insisting that he is “not an inside-the-beltway guy,” despite having spent 25 years in Congress.

Thus, by choosing to run as a Democrat, Sanders finds himself caught in something of a trap. To win the nomination and make the case for his democratic socialist program, he has to maximize his criticism of Clinton (and by implication Democrats in general). However, if he loses and backs Clinton in the general election (as he has promised to do), he will be complicit in perpetuating Clintonism. Indeed, the more people he mobilizes by contrasting himself with Clinton, the greater the sense of disillusionment it may produce if he falls short. Alternatively, should he win both the nomination and the general election, he will have to work with, and thus placate, the very “establishment” on whose cooperation he has built his entire congressional career and whom he is now alienating — with all the limitations that implies.

The “Rigged” Political System

All of this underscores what is perhaps the most serious strategic shortcoming of the Sanders campaign — despite its implicit condemnation of the political system, it has, to date, offered no real plan for transforming it, or even the partisan composition of Congress. For example, there is no army of Sanders allies running for the House and Senate, and even if there were, they would run up against the extraordinary power of incumbency.

Since 1964, the average re-election rate for incumbent members of the House has exceeded 93 percent, with most races decided by huge margins. In 2014, for example, the rate was over 96 percent, with 279 races decided by margins of at least 20 points, and 110 of those by at least 40 points (among them Nancy Pelosi). Meanwhile, 32 other races were uncontested, i.e., more than twice the total number of incumbents who lost (14). This phenomenon is even more pronounced at the state level. In Wisconsin, for example, 47 of 99 State Assembly races in 2014 were uncontested.

The principal causes behind this phenomenon are well known: (1) gerrymandering — by both parties; (2) mountains of cash that create barriers to entry and make virtually all candidates and officeholders — of both parties — beholden to big money; and not least, (3) a winner-take-all system of single member districts and restrictive ballot access laws that benefit both parties by excluding alternative candidates, parties and policy positions. Indeed, rather than a two-party system, the overwhelmingly dominant pattern at the level of congressional and state legislative districts is a one-party system.

As the Democrats move further to the right, they enable the Republicans to go even farther down that road.

The US Senate is similarly influenced by big money and winner-take-all races, but poses an even greater obstacle to change than the House. As one of the most undemocratic legislative bodies in the world, that is in fact its principal function. By giving equal representation to each state, it grossly marginalizes the great majority of the population and racial minorities in particular. Moreover, only a third of the Senate is on the ballot in any election and a super majority is needed to pass legislation. Its inherently oligarchic character is reflected in the fact that while there is a high correlation between senators’ positions and the views of the upper third of income earners, for those in the bottom third, the correlation is actually negative. In other words, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson put it in Winner-Take-All Politics, “when the poorest people in a state support a policy, their senators are less likely to vote for it.”

The overall effect of the US political system, then, is to make candidates and officeholders of both parties impervious to the demands of most voters — especially low-income voters — thereby creating a massive disincentive to voting.

But other than decrying the role of money in politics, Sanders ignores these other factors when he laments the abysmally low voter turnout in the United States. And while he regularly refers to the economy as “rigged,” he rarely, if ever, uses that term to refer to the political or electoral system. Instead of openly addressing the system’s severe limitations, it would appear that he is gambling that his call for a political revolution will somehow generate a sufficient political groundswell to overcome them.

However, while the rhetoric of “revolution” is unconventional, Sanders’ basic assertion that he cannot do the job alone is not. In fact, Barack Obama made a very similar claim during the 2008 campaign, routinely insisting that as president he would not be able to overcome the power of the “special interests and the lobbyists” by himself. He even went so far as to stress that he needed to be “held accountable,” implying that without a countervailing source of pressure, he would end up doing the wrong thing.

At the time, many interpreted Obama’s plea as an artifact of his past experience as a community organizer, while others viewed it as reminiscent of the famous (though perhaps apocryphal) accounts of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson telling labor and civil rights leaders that they had to make them “do the right thing,” since they weren’t going to do it on their own.

In the end, however, there were no movements comparable to those of the 1930s and 1960s pressuring Obama to do the right thing. While his campaign succeeded in inspiring legions of young people and others to campaign and vote for him in an historic election, all but a few returned to their normal lives following his inauguration. The biggest long-term consequence of their participation was to expand the administration’s email and donor list for the next election. And to the very limited degree that they did get involved post-election, it was through the creation of a tightly controlled “special project” of the DNC dubbed “Organizing for America.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Obama administration fell far short of its promises of hope and change. Within two years, the Democrats had lost their majority in the House, together with a large number of governorships and state legislatures. The latter in turn precipitated a new wave of gerrymandering and a raft of reactionary measures, including new restrictions on the basic right to vote. By 2014, the Democrats had also lost their majority in the Senate.

How might the Sanders campaign avoid a repetition of this outcome and lay the groundwork for a lasting sociopolitical movement, no matter how the election turns out?

Occupying the Democratic Party?

Whether or not Sanders is able to win the nomination or accomplish much of his program if he’s elected president, the popular support for his campaign could nevertheless herald a significant turning point by provoking a serious crisis in the Democratic Party. For some, this presents a very welcome opportunity for the left to transform (or occupy) the party, or at a minimum, reverse its rightward march.

Two organizations in particular have been dedicated to this goal for some time, namely the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). Both have been critical of the Democratic Party’s steady move to the right and its subservience to corporate business interests. Both nonetheless believe that working within the party is necessary because of the nature of the US political system, which poses huge barriers to third parties. Although their memberships are not particularly large, they are among those who have most consistently set their sights on pulling the party to the left.

PDA in particular has formulated an explicit strategy designed to accomplish this objective, which it has dubbed “inside-outside.” In essence, it boils down to working “arm in arm with the Congressional Progressive Caucus” inside the party, while working with peace and justice movements outside of it.

While this strategy has the virtue of acknowledging the importance of social movements, it ignores the systemic obstacles to transforming the Democratic Party from within. An inside-outside strategy can succeed only if the outside component is a source of real power, including the power to stay outside if what goes on inside is unacceptable.

In part, this stems from the nature of the party system. Under a two-party system, no such power exists, primarily because voters have little or no leverage over candidates and officeholders. What gives voters leverage is an exit option — the credible threat to vote for a better alternative. In a two-party system, however, the only available alternatives are abstention or an unviable third-party option, neither of which poses much of a threat to dominant party candidates.

Thus, a necessary condition for groups like DSA and PDA to be able to reverse the rightward march of the Democratic Party is the existence of a strong party to its left. But this possibility depends entirely on institutionalizing a multiparty system, which means radically changing the rules of the game. In fact, even if a new left party were somehow able to replace the Democrats entirely in a newly reconfigured two-party system, it would quickly succumb to the same systemic constraints shaping the current Democratic Party and evolve into something very much like it. This is because the direction taken by the party has far less to do with the people running it and the internal rules by which it is governed than with the larger political, social and economic context in which it operates.

Indeed, even more significant than the institutional features of the political system, the rightward march of the Democratic Party, and of the party system as a whole, is the product of the shifting balance of social forces that has been underway since the 1970s. Obviously, in addition to reflecting this shift, both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to it by greatly privileging the class interests of Big Business while selling out nearly everyone else, especially the working class, Black and Brown people and the poor. Thus, it is the combination of the heightened power of capital and a highly undemocratic political system designed to serve its interests that has concentrated the gravitational pull at only one end of the political spectrum.

The Power of Capital

Key to the ability of Big Business to shape the political arena is its relative independence from it. Most fundamentally, this stems from the privileged structural position of business in a capitalist economy, the product of the pivotal role played by private investment. As a result, any political project that fails to satisfy the interests of business does so at the risk of triggering a fall in investment and thereby threatening the stability not only of governments, but also of the entire social and political order.

Furthermore, capitalists confront far fewer collective action problems than trade unionists or other social movement activists, because they only have to mobilize financial resources whereas the latter have to mobilize people. And unlike labor, which is embodied in people, capital is disembodied and mobile, an attribute that has only been heightened by globalization.

Finally, capitalists typically adopt a very instrumental, even mercenary, approach to politics. They are far less concerned with advancing the careers of professional politicians than with dispensing rewards and punishments in order to force candidates and officeholders, regardless of political affiliation, to serve their interests. In short, politicians are considered disposable and dispensable, political rhetoric is regarded as meaningless theater and the electoral arena is understood as but one among many institutional sites of struggle, all of which are subject to redesign.

Capital’s version of an inside-outside strategy thus stands in stark contrast to that pursued by groups like DSA and PDA, or progressives more generally. For many, if not most of the latter, politics is largely limited to voting, or at most to volunteering for electoral campaigns. To the degree that social movements enter their calculations, they are subordinated every two years to the imperatives of the electoral process and the constraints of working within the Democratic Party. This is especially true of the labor movement, which has long devoted far more resources to elections than to organizing.

For most everyone else, social movement building is simply too difficult because of the collective action problems it poses, thereby making the simplicity of elections, with their very limited time commitment and narrow objective of electing or unseating individual politicians, that much more seductive.

And unlike capital, most people tend to view politics in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys,” identifying with the personal attributes of candidates and measuring political success by their ability to advance the latter’s professional careers. Thus, instead of holding them accountable, they are far more inclined to refrain from criticism and rally to their defense when they fail to meet expectations, or to settle for a shift in rhetoric as a sign of victory. Even more striking, they tend to view the political system as though it were a permanent feature of the institutional landscape — like an immutable force of nature impervious to change — rather than something that is subject to redesign and thus an appropriate focus of political struggle itself.

None of this is to say that the rightward march of the political system presents no problems for capital. The skewed dynamic of the political process opens the door to ever more extreme possibilities, including some that may be perceived as threatening to business interests, such as Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Indeed, it is a sign of the shifting political landscape that the rise of figures like Trump and Cruz has made those who only a short while ago were regarded as extreme seem moderate by comparison (e.g., George W. Bush). It has thus become increasingly commonplace for liberals to quote Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan in order to demonstrate how reasonable they seem compared to today’s Republicans.

But they also look reasonable compared to many of today’s Democrats. A few years ago, for example, Obama admitted that in the context of the 1980s, he would have been regarded as a moderate Republican. He could have added that in the sociopolitical context of the 1970s, when social movements still had a modicum of power, he would have been seen as a conservative Republican.

Insidiously, the rightward turn plays into the hands of mainstream Democrats like Hillary Clinton, who are then positioned to blackmail their voting base into supporting their own move to the right by raising the specter of the increasingly extreme Republicans. And as the Democrats move further to the right, they enable the Republicans to go even farther down that road, thereby intensifying the downward spiral. Thus, contrary to those who claim that there are no differences between Democrats and Republicans, the rightward march of the political system in fact thrives on them. This is the dynamic at the heart of a competition between “lesser” and “greater” evils.

An Alternative Inside-Outside Strategy

In order to reverse this dynamic, a radically different inside-outside strategy is therefore called for — one specifically designed to counter the sources of power of Big Business and its allies, and thus capable of realizing Sanders’ goal of less money and more people. First and foremost, this means placing a priority on constructing a source of power external to and relatively independent of the political arena — namely, mass social movements that are committed to building politically autonomous organizations (unions, co-ops, community organizations etc.), to disrupting business as usual (via strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and the like), and to entering the electoral arena only very warily and with the goal of transforming it.

Clearly, we should not romanticize (much less fetishize) social movements, precisely because they are beset by such significant collective action problems. It is also necessary to acknowledge that their current strength is at a low historical ebb. But without the kind of militant social movements that made the advances of the 1930s and 1960s possible, it is hard to imagine countering the power of capital and its allies. However difficult they may be to build in this day and age, they are no less necessary.

The second imperative is to democratize the political system so that it is more susceptible to pressure from below and becomes an arena that serves the interests of the great majority. At a minimum, this will involve undoing all the institutional underpinnings of a two-party system described above and thereby paving the way for the emergence of a viable party (or parties) of the left. Over the longer term, it will require a democratization of the larger political system and the state apparatus itself. This is no doubt a far taller order than building mass movements, but it is also no less necessary, and indeed will depend on those movements. The unavoidable truth is that it is virtually impossible to use a system designed to block change as an instrument for change — unless one is committed to changing the system itself.

Seen from this perspective, the Sanders campaign presents both opportunities and risks. Its most significant impact is that it is exposing not only the depth of popular outrage toward the predations of corporate America and the country’s intensifying class inequality, but maybe even more importantly the severe limitations of the US political system. But this also illuminates the central irony of the Sanders campaign — in exposing the limitations of the political system, it has also exposed its own.

The key to whether a sustainable movement emerges from 2016 will therefore turn on whether people come to understand this central irony. This is no easy proposition. It means celebrating the socialist aspirations and class politics of the Sanders campaign, while simultaneously recognizing that in order to succeed, the groundswell it has generated will have to pursue a radically different strategic path and embrace a much more explicitly anti-imperialist, anti-racist and feminist orientation.

Whether Sanders wins the presidency or not, the built-in limitations of the system (and the profound structural problems afflicting the US economy) virtually ensure that many of his supporters will be left disappointed if not disillusioned, much as occurred with Obama and insurgent candidates of the past like Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader. Some will no doubt respond by lowering their expectations and settling for the lesser evilism of Hillary Clinton, or by waiting passively on the sidelines for the next insurgent leader to come along. Others may join the majority of Americans by embracing Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” and ceasing to participate in electoral politics altogether. Still others may join the ranks of those attracted to right-wing populists like Trump who have been so effective at tapping into working-class resentment. These are the all-too-typical outcomes of systems that are engineered to block popular aspirations.

The greatest potential, however, lies with those who build on the momentum of the Sanders campaign and learn from the lessons it offers by devoting themselves to building militant, politically independent social movements and to radically democratizing the political system. The 1980s, an earlier period of widespread discontent, offered similar lessons, but they were largely ignored. It would be an even greater tragedy if it were to take another 30 years to learn the lessons of 2016. The Sanders campaign has created an extraordinary political opportunity. The challenge now is to ensure that it is not squandered.

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