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date: 21 July 2018

Party Organization and the Radical Right

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter begins by outlining some persistent challenges—conceptual, methodological, and theoretical—that have characterized the study of party organization in general, and radical right organization in particular. It then evaluates recent work and contends that it has done more than establish that “organization matters.” The intellectual challenge of demonstrating a causal relationship between organization and dependent variables of interest should not be underestimated. But in the social sciences, everything “matters” to some degree, so simply calling attention to another dynamic of the radical right phenomenon would be useful but perhaps not so interesting. Fortunately, recent work on radical right party organization (including several studies that include radical right parties in their comparative framework) offer excellent examples of creative data collection and theoretical innovation. Finally, the chapter speculates about what lines of inquiry are worth pursuing, and which ones might not be worth the intellectual investment.

Keywords: radical right, right-wing parties, political parties, party organization

That organization is a critical and free-standing dimension of politics is self-evident to nearly every politician I have met. Contacting constituents, raising money, recruiting candidates, creating sets of selective incentives to induce voluntary cooperation from supporters—these are the activities that consume far more time than debating policy positions, corralling votes from other legislators, drafting bills, or articulating an ideological vision. With some notable exceptions, politicians are also normally enmeshed in an organization that they have spent years working in. Theoretically, whether one views institutions as shaping incentive structures or as changing political actors themselves, at the very least politicians are aware of the organizational dynamics of their own parties. And, perhaps most telling, politicians and (in the United States, at least) their donors think that organization is worth the money. Even in an era in which massive ad buys in primary states have long been a fact of life in the United States, there is broad consensus that a “ground game” is necessary to turn support into votes.

Given all this, it is at the very least curious that political science has relegated the study of party organization to an uncommon, albeit intellectually respected, pursuit in the field. Comparing the study of Congress to that of political parties in American politics, Hans Noel noted that “if the study of the party in government [Congress] is among the most theoretically and empirically sophisticated work in political science, the study of party organization may be the opposite” (Noel 2010, 63). Party organization has, to be sure, a much richer theoretical tradition in comparative European politics. There the study of the internal life of parties has generated concepts that have traveled across the discipline. The iron law of oligarchy (Michels 1962), the rise of the catchall party (Kirchheimer 1966), and the cartel party thesis (Katz and Mair 2009) are examples of what close studies of organizational development can reveal about democratic politics. Yet while work on party organization appears regularly in venues such as Party Politics (founded only in 1995) and increasingly in other journals, it is certainly less prevalent than papers on voting behavior, legislative politics, and various methodologically (p. 240) driven exercises that relate to political parties. Party organization has never been a core publishing interest for either the “big three” journals in the field in the United States (the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics) or the “little three” in comparative politics (Comparative Political Studies, Comparative Politics, World Politics). Thus while party organization is not exactly an intellectual backwater in political science, it would be a stretch to call it a growth industry.

The same cannot be said about radical right political parties. The “insatiable demand” identified several years ago shows no sign of letting up (Bale 2012). The more work that appears on the radical right, the greater the difficulty of finding something new to say about it. As one recent paper notes: “Case studies and comparative contributions have taught us almost everything we ever wanted to know about green and radical right parties” (Beyens, Lucardie, and Deschouwer 2016, 258). The fact that the radical right is now receiving its own handbook, in this volume, suggests that nearly every interesting aspect of the phenomenon has been intellectually picked over.

One exception, until very recently, was radical right party organization. Although many scholars noted in passing that organization mattered during the 1980s and 1990s, the initial currency of the charismatic-leader hypothesis combined with the assumption that radical right organization took a hierarchical form in every case rendered it among the least studied components of the radical right phenomenon. There was no empirical testing of the hypothesis that organization mattered for radical right party performance until Lubbers, Gijsberts, and Scheepers (2002) and Carter (2005) found strong support for it. Further theoretical development followed, and organization has become one of the trendier arguments in so-called supply-side theories of the radical right (Mudde 2007). The last five years in particular have seen the proliferation of organizational studies of the radical right in some of the field’s leading journals (Bolleyer and Bytzek 2013; Bolleyer, van Spanje, and Wilson 2012; Beyens, Lucardie, and Deschouwer 2016; Dinas and Georgiadou 2013; Goodwin, Ford, and Cutts 2013; Loxbo and Bolin 2016).

So do we now know “everything we always wanted to know” about radical right party organization? Put another way, is it time to pronounce that the internalist perspective has reached the same limitations in terms of theoretical innovation that demand-side approaches have arguably done? Ours is indeed a field in which it is pretty difficult to be both cumulative and innovative, and the enduring media and public interest in the radical right does not exclude us from addressing the dreaded “So what?” question that students of less studied parties and interest groups face as a matter of course.

While I admit my own theoretical prejudice up front (Art 2008, 2011), I want to argue in this chapter that recent work on party organization represents excellent examples of social science research. We have gone from knowing very little to knowing quite a bit in a short period of time. In other words, knowledge has cumulated, and while that is the point of positivist-inspired social science (as most work on the radical right is), it is not always accomplished within subfields to such an extent. In terms of concept formation and refinement, creative data collection, and mixed-methods testing, recent work on radical right party organization is exemplary. The European financial and refugee (p. 241) crises—both of which constitute ongoing and monumental challenges to the European project—have only increased the already insatiable demand for studies of the radical right. The challenge for future work is to continue to engage discipline-wide empirical and theoretical debates in democratic politics beyond the subfield of the radical right.

The first section of this chapter outlines some persistent challenges—conceptual, methodological, and theoretical—that have characterized the study of party organization in general, and radical right organization in particular. The second section evaluates recent work and contends that it has done more than establish simply that “organization matters.” The intellectual challenge of demonstrating a causal relationship between organization and dependent variables of interest should not be underestimated. But in the social sciences, everything “matters” to some degree, so simply calling attention to another dynamic of the radical right phenomenon would be useful but perhaps not so interesting. Fortunately, recent work on radical right party organization (including several studies that include radical right parties in their comparative framework) offers excellent examples of creative data collection and theoretical innovation. The final section of this chapter speculates about what lines of inquiry are worth pursuing, and which ones might not be worth the intellectual investment.

Research Challenges

As Antonis Ellinas noted in the first significant review of the literature on radical right party organization, a basic conceptual problem exists. Since “most scholarly works avoid specifying what party organization actually means,” it is a good example of a fuzzy concept (Ellinas 2009, 212). This applies not only to scholarly analysis of radical right organization but also to theoretical work on party organization in general. Part of this has to do with the evolution of modern comparative politics, as neither structural functionalism nor the modernization paradigm had much to say about partisan politics. Even Huntington, who in Political Order in Changing Societies argued that “the stability of a modernizing political system depends on the strength of its political parties,” did not provide much guide to measuring or explaining party strength or weakness (1968, 408). Other scholars have adapted some of his terms and invented others. Levitsky’s (1998) concept of “value infusion” is one recent example. But the field in general remains underdeveloped, and it is fair to say that the “organizational imperative” that Huntington identified as the key challenge for modernizing societies has not been a research imperative for most political scientists.

Now, there certainly is a specialized literature on party organization. Yet efforts to operationalize the concept have produced no consensus on how to do so. Some extensive efforts at data collection, such as Katz and Mair’s handbook of party organization, did not lead to much downstream theorizing because, in large part, it was unclear how to interpret that data in the absence of concepts that structured the enterprise (Katz and Mair 1992). To even use party organization as a dichotomous variable that takes the (p. 242) values “strong” or “weak,” one must have an idea of what dimensions to measure. Thus while this sort of “barefoot empiricism” is crucial (how can one test arguments without data?), it is telling that it has not had much influence on the study of the radical right.

A second take on party organization—referred to as the “life cycle” approach—is less concerned with measurement than with constructing ideal types of political parties and positing developmental trajectories. Panebianco’s (1988) is the seminal work in this tradition, along with notable papers by Pederson (1982) and Harmel and Sväsand (1993). It was the latter two authors who introduced the concept of the “entrepreneurial” party that analysts of the radical right have developed further, as we will see below. These typologies are indeed useful, but they can obscure as much as they reveal about organizational dynamics. For whenever one adopts a life cycle model in the social sciences, a set of obvious issues arise: How many discrete steps in the developmental process are there—three, five, seven, more? Is it possible to skip steps, or to move through them in different orders? Are such models inherently deterministic? Or are they simply post hoc descriptions masquerading as theory? Despite some recent efforts to think through these other issues (Arter and Kestilä-Kekkonen 2014), they remain open questions.

Why is the literature on party organization much thinner than, for example, that on party systems? There are at least three major reasons. The first is empirical, methodological, and theoretical at the same time. For example, the observation that party X falls somewhere along a continuum of strong or weak, or that it qualifies as “rooted” as opposed to an “entrepreneurial” party type, or even that it has organized at all is possible only because some organizational threshold has already been reached. The challenge of detecting very low levels of party organization leaves open the possibility of selection bias. While not insurmountable in itself, the problem is magnified given that party organization—despite some monumental efforts noted above—is still data-thin as a discipline. Parties may not have an inherent interest in providing data about their members in the first place, or any requirement to do so. Membership figures also need to be interpreted carefully. For example, just as economists do not take Chinese economic growth rates at face value, party experts long read Italian party membership with an enormous grain of salt. With regard to the radical right, the data are arguably even less reliable. The Dutch Center Democrats, for example, reported a membership of exactly three thousand for years. Whether this was off by a factor of two, five, or ten is anyone’s guess.

A second issue is the gulf between the formal and informal realms of party organization. To what extent do the party statutes or equivalent documents (assuming they exist) actually structure individual behavior? While Bolleyer (2012) demonstrates that formal practices can be a useful data source, this research design has some drawbacks. There are the rules, and then there are the implementation and interpretation of those rules. As most academics know, some university committees end up meeting more than others. (The best ones don’t meet at all!) Without direct observation of power relations and standard practices, it is difficult to read off important characteristics of party organization from rules alone.

The third challenge is theoretical. The tendency to view party organization as the derivative of another political variable has stymied inquiry. While this is clearly not the (p. 243) only field in political science in which endogeneity concerns are both widespread and legitimate, the knee-jerk response by many scholars of party politics to view organizational strength as a result of electoral success, or somewhat less commonly as a product of the party’s ideological profile, has probably been the chief reason for the underdevelopment of the subfield.

Turning to radical right party organization in particular, the first point to make is that early references to it were scarce. The focus on charismatic leadership turned radical right organization into a theoretical oxymoron for at least a decade. For if the ability of radical right leaders to communicate directly with the electorate over the mass media, and to forge loyalty among a group of supporters, depended on their personality, then organization seemed to be irrelevant. In addition, the fact that most radical right parties appeared to adopt a hierarchical organizational model meant that there was not enough variation on the independent variable to allow for systematic testing.

Later formulations, however, changed their tune: “One of the most important determinants of success is party organisation. The most successful radical right-wing populist parties are led by charismatic figures capable of setting the political and programmatic direction. In addition, most parties display a highly centralised organisational structure, with decisions being made at the top by a relatively circumscribed circle of party activists and transmitted to the bottom” (Betz 1998, 9). Since then, there has been a rejection of charisma as a useful category (though see Eatwell, Chapter 13 in this volume) and recognition of some organizational differentiation among radical right parties. Initial efforts to test the hypothesis that organization mattered relied on existing case studies of radical right parties to code that independent variable (Carter 2005). Fortunately, there were enough studies to get a sense of general sense of which parties were organizationally strong and which were weak, but this research design was ultimately limited by the lack of reliable data on some of the less well-known parties. Moreover, relying on information from one or at best several studies was problematic. Expert surveys of party organization ameliorated this problem, but we are still left with the problem of too few experts on some of the smaller parties. And there is the additional nagging question of the extent to which these expert judgments are independent of previous scholarly efforts. Perhaps we are simply reading one another’s work closely (a laudable practice), and we return to the one existing study of the True Finns, for example, to make an “expert judgment”?

Another research strategy was to get at organization indirectly. I admit that I eventually abandoned both the empirical and life cycle approaches to party organization, as neither proved particularly helpful in understanding the internal dynamics of radical right parties. Rather, I began from the proposition that radical right parties will reflect the qualities of the activists that work on behalf of them. To the extent that there is variation in the human capital that the radical right recruits, those differences should be reflected in the party’s organizational dynamics. My central hypothesis was that the greater the pool of human capital, the greater the chances that radical right parties would build organizations capable of winning votes and surviving the challenges of incumbency (Art 2011). Several scholars have developed and tested this claim further, as we shall see below. (p. 244)

Irrespective of the theoretical lens, the central challenges for research on party organization remain the three that Ellinas has identified. Below I will analyze how recent works have dealt with them. The first challenge, conceptual clarity, is one that nearly every published paper wrestles with before moving to an empirical analysis. Fuzziness is no longer tolerated, which represents progress in itself despite the fact that we are far from developing a unified set of concepts and measures. The second challenge, demonstrating that organization has an independent effect on political outcomes, has been met through careful research designs, creative data collection, and rigorous statistical and qualitative testing. In my opinion, recent works represent such a significant advance over previous studies in this regard that they should become the benchmarks for future work. Yet Ellinas’s third challenge—the integration of the media into studies of party organization—has been more or less ignored. In the last section of this chapter, I reflect on what this omission means for our understanding of the radical right phenomenon. But first to the more sanguine story of social science working as it should.

Research Advances

One recurring concern in the study of the radical right is that the field becomes self-referential. More specifically, if scholarship on one type of political party becomes disconnected from broader concerns in comparative politics, our intellectual contributions become more difficult both to disseminate and to defend. The first decade of work on the radical right, for example, was focused on the question “How was this possible in advanced industrial democracies?” While this was an important question to ask, at least for a while, treating the far right as a democratic “pathology” meant that scholars were left with few tools to analyze it. It is not surprising that work with a broader theoretical agenda had a much greater impact (Kitschelt 1995; Meguid 2005; Rydgren 2008; Blinder, Ford, and Ivarsflaten 2013; Spoon 2011).

One of the more fruitful moves in the recent literature has been to compare organizational dynamics across parties. While radical right, Green, and ethnoregionalist parties still receive most of the academic attention—with the unfortunate result that the organizational practices of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic parties no longer appear to be interesting terrain—their grouping into the category “new parties” has at least extended the universe of observations in a meaningful way. One question has been to explain their appearance in the first place (Tavits 2006). The second question, and in my view the more important one, concerns their persistence. Organization, it turns out, matters for both.

One approach, inspired by historical institutionalist and life cycle approaches, is to concentrate on party origins. Drawing a distinction between parties that consist of preexisting organizations and those that are the construction of a political entrepreneur, Bolleyer and Bytzek hypothesize that the former are more likely to persist than the latter. Their logic is organizational. “A party’s capacity to rely on ties to social groups, which pre-date a newcomer’s formation, so-called ‘promoter organisations,’ ” they write, “make (p. 245) it more likely that a party is able to sustain support after a parliamentary breakthrough” (2013, 775). Put another way, it is preexisting organization that allows parties to survive the period of vulnerability that follows an electoral breakthrough. Although versions of this argument appeared in earlier work, it had not been tested quantitatively. Thus the construction of an original and large data set on new parties since 1945, coupled with the use of multilevel analysis, increases confidence in their findings. And it also marks a cumulation of knowledge, in that both in their initial paper and in additional work (2016) Bolleyer and Bytzek find strong support for their “rooted” versus “entrepreneurial” hypothesis. It has also sparked a scholarly debate about whether entrepreneurs can create strong organizations if they are so inclined (Arter 2016).

There are political in addition to theoretical implications of this research. One of the underlying questions in the literature on the radical right is how other political parties should respond to it, particularly once it has emerged as a potential governing party. On the basis of several case studies written shortly after radical right parties entered coalition governments (or cooperated with government coalitions), it appeared that incumbency was the trick to dismantling them. Give the populist insurgents a chance to govern, so the thinking went, and they will collapse under the weight of their unrealistic promises and political inexperience. But Bolleyer, Van Spanje, and Wilson effectively refute this taming hypothesis using a mixed-method research design. They conclude that “new parties—through active party building—can effectively respond to and profit from government participation and eventually strengthen their organisation in the process” (2012, 988). Thus radical right parties can benefit from incumbency, a finding not overly shocking to students of parties in general, but one that scholars of the radical right had resisted before.

Cross-national statistical analysis and case study research have thus largely confirmed the intuition that “organization matters” for electoral persistence. But given the propensity of academics to challenge any emerging conventional wisdom, further empirical support is always welcome. Beyens, Lucardie, and Deschouwer’s (2016) research design provides two other sources of analytical leverage. First, the investigators limit their universe of new parties to those that entered parliament in the Netherlands or Belgium between 1950 and 2003. Given the high proportionality of their electoral system and the number of societal cleavages, the Low Countries (a term the authors use themselves) offer the closest Western Europe has to a laboratory for studying party emergence and subsequent success and failure. Of the thirty parties that entered parliament (i.e., achieved a breakthrough), only fifteen have survived. Second, and partially a result of the “medium N” sample size, the authors perform qualitative comparative analysis and thereby add another methodological tool to the literature on the radical right.

Given that multiple studies have come to the same conclusion, we can say that organization matters for the survival of radical right parties. Call it a central finding, if you will, of the last decade of research on new parties in advanced industrial democracies. And while this conclusion might strike nonspecialists as unsurprising (or, less charitably, as not worth the effort to reach), I have tried to demonstrate why it matters both theoretically and empirically. Sometimes social science does come down to confirming common sense. (p. 246)

Still, one could always object that the historical sweep of these arguments (survival measured over a number of years) opens them up to a different set of methodological objections. What if the same factors that produced “rooted” parties also allow for their survival? Several recent analyses of electoral breakthroughs (or elections over a shorter period than a decade, as in survival studies) address this endogeneity concern by shortening the timeline. In a study of the Sweden Democrats, Loxbo and Bolin find that “a developed organizational base not only matters to the long-term persistence of radical right parties, but also that it is crucial for facilitating electoral breakthroughs” (2016, 3). Their research design is an analysis of four consecutive local elections from 2002 to 2014 in 290 Swedish municipalities. The authors use the same dimensions of organization that I did in Inside the Radical Right (Art 2011). They also use the same operationalization for the socioeconomic status of candidates for office by assigning International Standard Classification of Occupation (ISCO) codes to self-reported occupation status. As an aside, this constitutes a nice example of replicability irrespective of whether the initial findings are confirmed. Loxbo and Bolin also include a number of control variables and robustness checks that largely insulate them from the major methodological challenges that Ellinas (2009) identified. Furthermore, they collected original data, which represents a significant contribution to knowledge in and of itself. Even in the age of big data, finding good data to work with can be labor intensive. But the benefit is that whereas ten or even five years ago there were not much data on radical right organization, there are now a number of datasets for scholars to work with.

Dinas and Georgiadou (2013) provide more fine examples of creative data collection and mixed-method research design. Part of a growing number of studies that leverage subnational variation, the authors’ work analyzes a particular municipal election: Athens 2010. This was the electoral breakthrough for Golden Dawn (GD), and it occurred before the financial crisis that reshaped the Greek party system. Their paper thus challenges the conventional wisdom that GD is a direct product of economic collapse. This leaves them with a puzzle: “How did the GD manage to convert from a marginal activist group into the third largest party—according to all opinion polls from the late 2012 onwards—of the Greek political system?” (1).

Their answer is through “bonding with local communities” (2). Using a combination of semi-structured interviews with activists and an original survey, Dinas and Georgiadou document GD’s grassroots initiatives. They conclude that

GD . . . succeeded in accessing the local population through residents’ initiatives and committees, mainly interested in anti-immigrant mobilization. It offered goods and services to Greeks and thus managed to get identified as an organization that protects the residents while eliminating the foreigners. It was constantly present in certain city areas, either by taking action on its own, or by penetrating existing initiatives . . .

This local mobilization strategy, as the authors note, is not unique to GD: researchers have documented similar actions by the British National Party and the German NPD (p. 247) (Art 2004). In a coordinated effort to behave like Boy Scouts toward fellow Greeks fearful of immigrant crime, members of GD walked countless elderly women across the street and helped untold numbers of retirees to carry their groceries. More substantively, members of GD joined preexisting citizens’ initiatives and gained posts on numerous committees. The lines between the GD and the local community organizations became blurred.

That these tactics worked—the key finding is that local mobilization had a strong positive effect on voting for the radical right—hinged on another element of the GD’s strategy: concentration of scarce resources. With few members and zero history of electoral success, the party was hardly a household name, and a national strategy of community mobilization was not viable. By focusing on one particular district, which initially appeared to be promising terrain given the preexisting degree of anti-immigrant mobilization, Golden Dawn maximized its visibility. Through its own labors, GD constructed an electoral bastion. In this sense, its trajectory is similar to that of the Vlaams Belang, the British National Party, and arguably the Sweden Democrats.

Open Questions

But what about the media? None of the articles I have analyzed above deals with the objections that Ellinas (2009) raised about the potentially decreasing importance of political organization in an age of media saturation. This is, to be sure, not a new argument. V. O. Key noted in the late 1950s that “the door-bell ringers have lost their function of mobilizing the vote to the public-relations experts, to the specialists in radio and television, and to others who deal in mass communication” (1958, 376). Panebianco similarly claimed that “changes in communication techniques are causing an earthquake in party organizations” (1988, 273). Perhaps “earthquake” was the wrong analogy, as it was not the reshaping of party organizations but their gradual disappearance that many scholars predicted. If television allowed politicians to communicate directly with voters, then one of the central functions of party organization could be rendered obsolete.

The strong version of this argument now seems wrong. It is not that political parties have stopped investing in their organizations because the media allows them such great opportunities to amplify their messages (this is not in dispute). As any voter in New Hampshire can tell you, it is possible to be politically bombarded by both the doorbell ringers and by the local television station. Parties, not surprisingly, thus want both a media presence and an organizational presence. At least in the United States, the lack of limitation on campaign contributions means that candidates for office don’t necessarily need to think in terms of efficiency to the degree that Epstein suggested. There is thus not a zero-sum game at work. Moreover, that parties still invest heavily in building an organization suggests that this money is not wasted. Personal canvassing still works remarkably well in this media age (Gerber and Green 2000).

One of Ellinas’s most compelling points is that the media can substitute for organization in early stages of party development. Using the French National Front as an (p. 248) example, he argues that “media access limits the need for complex organisational structures granting political newcomers the means to make themselves known with minimum organisational effort” (2009, 219). Students of the radical right can certainly point to other cases of electoral breakthroughs that were at least enabled by the media. Clearly, the media are not simply reporting existing voter preferences when, for example, they devote breathless coverage to relatively small parties (and nearly every radical right party started out as small) whose primary claim to newsworthiness is their public antipathy to immigration. This clearly amplifies the radical right’s message, irrespective of whether the media coverage is positive or negative. Only in a few isolated instances—such as the Swedish media’s early treatment of the Sweden Democrats—have the media decided not to make the nativism of marginal political players into a story. Usually, however, the draw of radical right mobilization proves irresistible.

But measuring media impact on voters—to say nothing of the impact of the media on party political organization—is tremendously difficult. The literature on media effects was grounded in experiments, raising questions about the external validity of the findings. And much of it was conducted before the rise of digital media and the expansion of cable news. That the media matter is not in dispute. How they matter and whether political scientists can develop useful metrics to test specific hypotheses remain open questions.

Returning to the concept of charisma, perhaps one of Ellinas’s observations could help resuscitate a concept that—at least in my view—has not proved particularly fruitful in analyses of the radical right. He writes that “market pressures compel media outlets to continuously search for political actors that are likely to generate public interest and attract new audiences. Media spotlights tend to reward good public performers, especially those with unconventional rhetorical style like [Jörg] Haider, who can stir controversy by breaking taboos or attacking the establishment” (Ellinas 2009, 220). Substitute “Donald Trump” for the name of the deceased radical right Austrian, and you have an Occam’s razor version of the 2016 Republican presidential primary in the United States. While the rise of Donald Trump awaits rigorous academic analysis, one can say unequivocally that his primary victories had little to do with a sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort and everything to do with his domination of the press cycle for month. He faced off against candidates with national organizations and won handily. Ted Cruz’s organizational infrastructure helped him compete for a while, and for a time it looked like his team’s detailed knowledge of the nomination process would help him swing delegates away from Trump. But Cruz, like the sixteen other Republican challengers, was ultimately overwhelmed by Trump’s media omnipresence.

The power of elite persuasion and the dissemination of their preferences through party organizations either failed in this case or were not very important mechanisms to begin with. Either way, Trump’s success constitutes a frontal challenge to any theory that privileges organization and ignores the media. And whether or not Trump constitutes an outlier, studies that seek to connect the media and party organization remain a worthwhile challenge for future work on the radical right.


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