The Tea Party, A Modern Movement
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Depending on where you stand, the Tea Party movement is either a burgeoning grassroots movement filled with anti-establishment patriots or a marginal group of mostly white, mostly older, mostly conservative people, which also attracts some extremists.
You may think it's over-covered by the press or that it's been ignored by the mainstream media. The truth can be hard to find. As we've seen from time to time in the past, it's hard enough to count Republicans and Democrats on election eve, and the Tea Party is self-defined as diffuse, decentralized, unaffiliated, and we know more about what it's against than what it's for.
We hear the slogans, read the signs and listen to Tea Partiers themselves, but not all of those things agree all the time. No surprise, there are factions and fringes in every political group.
So if you consider yourself part of the Tea Party, tell us what you stand for and what the movement means to you. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, questions and answers on the nuts and bolts of the oil spill in the Gulf. You can email us now if you'd like, email@example.com.
But first, the Tea Party. In recent weeks various pollsters have tried to measure and describe this movement, among them Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. He joins us now from his office in New Jersey. Nice to have you with us.
Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Gallup Poll): Thank you, good to be with you.
CONAN: And polling information on this group is very important because a lot of different people have vested interests in saying, well, they're on our side.
Mr. NEWPORT: Well, that's right. A lot of people have a vested interest in who they are and also how big they are as well, and I have to say, studying the data, it really depends on how you ask the question in this particular instance -which isn't a bad thing; we learn from it. But estimates of what percent of Americans are Tea Partiers, as it were, stretch all the way from nine percent up to about 47 or 48 percent.
CONAN: So nine percent, a significant but a pretty small fraction of the country, to about half the country.
Mr. NEWPORT: That's right, and the smaller estimates come when you ask Americans: Are you an active participant in the Tea Party movement? - when you actually say have you done something. The large estimates was a poll, for example, by the Washington Post-ABC News, where they said: Do you agree with some of the ideas of the Tea Party?
And then, of course, you've got a lot of conservative Republicans who say, sure, I agree with some of the ideas. So that's the range in there. We at Gallup asked the simple question: Do you consider yourself a supporter or an opponent of the Tea Party movement or neither? And we found 28 percent who agreed, which I think is probably a good - as good an estimate as any, using that word supporter.
CONAN: Supporter, and as I read your figures very broadly, more or less a quarter of the country in support, a quarter of the country opposed, and 50 percent with no opinion or don't know.
Mr. NEWPORT: That's right. So you've got a lot of people in the middle. The New York Times had a poll, which got a lot of play, where they said: Do you consider yourself to be a supporter or not? They didn't give the opponent or don't you, and they found 18 percent in that asking, a little lower than ours.
So again, it's amorphous because you're not a card-carrying Tea Party - you know, you don't have to sign up and pay a fee. It's just amorphous whether or not you tend to agree with the ideas. So again, I think there's a lot of sympathy out there perhaps, but in terms of being really active, it's a fairly small group of Americans.
CONAN: Which I think broadly describes a lot of movements in this country, but be that as it may, taking your sample of those 28 percent who support the movement, who are they? What are they like?
Mr. NEWPORT: Well, this comes as no great shock or surprise, but the number one characteristic that all polling shows is that they tend to be Republican and conservative. You know, again, that's not something that most people would be dumbfounded by.
In our data, we found about half of Republicans said they were Tea Party supporters, and remember, our overall percent was 28. So that's quite a bit above that, and 43 percent of independents, and eight percent - that's still eight percent of those who self-identified as Democrats were supporters.
Ideology a little bigger predictor: Seven out of 10 conservatives, self-reporting conservatives, said they were supporters. So that's by far the biggest predictor.
We did not find, other than that, huge differences in demographics. You know, there was some slight skew towards being - the same thing, skews you find for any Republican, which is they're more male than female. Democrats tend to be more female than male, perhaps a little older and a few other things like that. We didn't find major differences.
The New York Times reported a few more differences. You know, they said, oh, you know, they tend to be wealthier and better educated, but we didn't find as big differences as did their poll.
CONAN: Did you find big ethnic differences?
Mr. NEWPORT: Well, that's, you know, an interesting question, but Republicans tend to be non-ethnic, as you might imagine. So Tea Party supporters among blacks are very rare, although, you know, we found a small percent of those who were black who said they were supporters of the Tea Party.
CONAN: And based on the polling, should, you think, both major political parties take them seriously?
Mr. NEWPORT: Well, I think that both political parties already take seriously the idea that there are hardcore conservatives out there in America today who have strong feelings and emotional attachments to their feelings, and they're having an impact on politics.
We've seen that, you know, in cable news ratings, when the ratings for the conservative channels are much higher than the others because there's that emotion on the right side of the spectrum, and if you look at talk radio, it's the people who are appealing to the people who are fervent on the right that tend to get the highest ratings and make the most money.
So we already know that there is a group of conservatives out there in America, Republicans and conservatives, who feel very strongly about their views and therefore are more likely to have an impact.
So I think putting the label, quote, "Tea Party" on top of it is really just what I mentioned. It's a label. It's simply saying here's these people who feel strongly about their views and they're more conservative. But I don't think the movement per se makes the difference. It's just a new label for an old phenomenon.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you consider yourself a member of the Tea Party, a participant, a supporter, however you want to define it, how do you define what your movement is? What does it stand for for you? We'll start with Maggie, and Maggie's calling us from Cincinnati.
MAGGIE (Caller): Hi, how are you today, Neal?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
MAGGIE: I guess it's very simple for me. The Tea Party in Cincinnati is about fiscal responsibility, limited government and free market solutions. That's all that it's about, and it unites a wide spectrum of people who differ somewhat on social issues but are all very concerned about the overreach of government into our lives.
And when you see things like the Cornhusker Kickback and the Louisiana Purchase and people who proudly admit to not having read the bill that they're voting on, it's very disturbing and distressing to a wide variety of Americans.
CONAN: No, I could hear that, but how is that different from a Republican?
MAGGIE: Because we have a lot of Republicans who don't read bills, who can't fight(ph) taxes, and who are in public service for their own ends because they're opportunists and not because they really embody the values of what we consider or what I consider the Republican Party to be, which is fiscal conservatism and small government.
CONAN: What is the mischaracterization that you hear about Tea Partiers on media or from other people that bothers you the most?
MAGGIE: That bothers me the most? Well, that's hard because we're called rednecks. We're called uneducated. We're called stupid. We're called racist. And it's probably the racist label that really, really bothers me the most, because it is simply not true.
You can disagree with the president because of his policy, and his race or his religion play absolutely no part in your disagreement. And it seems, starting last summer, if - to disagree with President Obama was to not want a person of color as president.
CONAN: There are, there have been at least some signs at some Tea Party rallies that some people say, wait a minute, that's over the line.
MAGGIE: Well, I've seen that, I've seen that - you saw it with Bush. I mean there were movies - there was at least one movie about, you know, fantasizing about Bush being assassinated. There were numerous anti-war rallies where both Bush and Cheney and other members of the administration were demonized, literally and figuratively. But there wasn't this (technical difficulties) that's so over the top, we can't allow that. You know, that's dangerous talk, but when it comes from the conservative side of the political spectrum, then it becomes (technical difficulties) then we can't allow it. And I think it's a complete - I think it's complete hypocrisy.
CONAN: All right, Maggie, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
MAGGIE: Thank you. And I wonder, Frank Newport, Maggie's views, do they mirror those that you're finding from Tea Party supporters in your poll?
Mr. NEWPORT: Well, her political positions certainly do. You know, she enunciated at the beginning of her discussion there, you know, we stand for fiscal responsibility, more limited government and what have you, and yes, those are the principles that conservatives in general hold. I would say again that Tea Party or no Tea Party, she - that call we just heard could've been made, you know, two years ago, five years ago, back in Ronald Reagan's days from a Republican who is conservative saying I'm worried about fiscal responsibility and too much government.
CONAN: Back then it was called the Prairie Fire, I think.
Mr. NEWPORT: Well, yeah, it probably has a lot of labels. So I think there's no question she's right, there are - there is a solid segment of American society who are Republican, who are conservative, who feel strongly about these views, and that's in some ways nothing new.
CONAN: Frank Newport, thanks for your time today.
Mr. NEWPORT: My pleasure.
CONAN: Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. He joined us on the phone from his office in New Jersey. You can find a link to his blog post on polling on the Tea Party at npr.org.
One of the accusations leveled against Tea Partiers, as you just heard, is lack of diversity. There are several prominent African-Americans who do identify with the movement. One of those is Mychal Massie, a conservative commentator, chairman of Project 21, an organization of black conservatives. He joins us on the line from outside Philadelphia. Nice to have you on the program with us today.
Mr. MYCHAL MASSIE (Chairman, Project 21): It's a pleasure to be with you, thank you.
CONAN: And how do you measure this movement? How do you describe it?
Mr. MASSIE: How do I describe the Tea Party? (Clears throat) I think - excuse me - it's a group, a movement, a wave, if you will, that was founded, brought into the present, into being, out of frustration and anger over what was taking place in the government and what - how many people viewed that the government was not responding to the needs of the people, the government was not acting constitutionally, that the government was overstepping its constitutional limits, and people became upset and sought an avenue of address.
CONAN: And you're not a pollster, but how do you describe the size and power of this movement?
Mr. MASSIE: Well, I think it's something that, it's something whose time has come. It's a remarkable, it's a remarkable undertaking. It speaks to the very core and spirit of what the United States was founded on, the right to disagree and protest. Indeed, Jefferson advocated that in the Declaration of Independence.
CONAN: Stay with us, if you would, Mychal Massie, chairman of Project 21, a black conservative organization. And we'll hear more about the Tea Party when we come back from a short break. We want your calls as well. If you consider yourself a supporter of this movement, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
The Tea Party may be about to claim its biggest win thus far. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican, will reportedly abandon the party to run as an independent for United States Senate. Marco Rubio, backed by the Tea Party, holds a sizable lead over the incumbent.
But who is the Tea Party? If you consider yourself part of this movement, tell us what you stand for, what the movement means to you, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Mychal Massie, who spoke at the Tea Party rally in Morristown, New Jersey on Tax Day. He is chairman of Project 21, a black conservative organization. And I wanted to ask you, Mychal Massie: There have been some African-American commentators who, when they hear some people in the Tea Party say we want to take our country back, they hear that slogan and they hear Jim Crow. Is that wrong?
Mr. MASSIE: Well, it's certainly - it's certainly inaccurate. It's an inaccurate articulation of what the Tea Party people are saying. When people say we want our country back, I think reasonable minds are forced to agree with that. When they say we want our country back, what is being said is: We want the will of the people, based on our constitutional rights, adhered to and respected.
There is nothing racist about that. Indeed, again, Thomas - I go back to Thomas Jefferson saying that governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Now, that's not racist. That is what the Tea Party is about.
And keep in mind, the Tea Party movement started in, what, February or - I believe it was February of '09, when Keli Carender in Seattle, Washington, who blogged under the name of Liberty Belle, became upset and frustrated with the stimulus package and encouraged people to meet at a park and voice their disgust for the stimulus package. That is how this movement got started.
It wasn't based on racism. It was based on fiscal, a lack of fiscal restraint. That's not racist. And anyone that says that this is a racist movement or when they hear someone say we want our country back and they claim that's racist, that's simply the last best argument of someone who has no basis in fact and indeed no argument whatsoever.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Jerry, Jerry with us from St. Louis.
JERRY (Caller): Hey, hello.
CONAN: Hi, how are you doing?
JERRY: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
JERRY: I disagree with Mr. Newport's earlier comment about it having a lot of Republicans and conservatives in it, because the two terms are anathema to each other. I mean, there are no conservatives left in the Republican Party.
The Tea Party movement is being hijacked. I mean, the early meetings that I went to had people who really did believe in the principles that were being espoused, but now there's these Republicans who are coming in who were the thieves that have destroyed our economy, almost destroyed our nation, and they're trying to take over the movement.
They say the words, but I have absolutely no faith that they intend to do anything good for the country, and it scares the living daylights out of me.
CONAN: Could you give us some examples of who you're talking about?
JERRY: The meetings here in St. Louis, and I know there was one that Ron Paul came as a speaker, and it was interesting because there were people in the audience who, you know, were still dismissive of Ron Paul. You know, they were like, yeah, yeah, he can say those things, but you know, it's like we'll push him aside, and you know, we'll get our people back in.
Yeah, I just - there is this identification that's coming - the Republican Party with the Tea Party movement, and it's really a stealing of the movement, I think.
CONAN: Mychal Massie, I wonder how you would respond to that.
Mr. MASSIE: Well, I'm inclined to agree with the caller to this extent: I think the Tea Party movement should remain independent of the Republican Party, and of course the Democrat Party. The Tea Party movement is a movement of people. It has crossed all political lines. There are Democrats. There are independents. There are Republicans.
There are those that heretofore have not participated in any way in the political community that are now frustrated with the direction this country is going, and I think the Tea Party runs the very real risk of being not only misidentified, but even more egregiously, being co-opted by a party that has for a long time not represented the best interests and indeed the will of the persons that send them to office. And I am of course speaking of the Republican Party. And I say that as a card-carrying registered Republican.
CONAN: Well, is the Tea Party then going to be establishing itself as a third party?
Mr. MASSIE: That's a very good question. I think that the Tea Party's best course of action and what I advocate for is that we become a feeder party, a feeder system and not seek to form a third party nor endorse or - nor endorse the Republican Party as such, but that we find candidates, we vet them and we support them into office so that we start replacing the old guard.
We have candidates who have been in office for a very long time, and I would argue that one of the greatest oxymorons is career politician. That is not what the intent was, but that is what it has become, and it's time that we start replacing these candidates on both sides of the aisle that do not understand -the Democrats who are just openly liberal and Republicans who believe that a cover is - that have forgotten that a cover is something you sleep under and not run for when you're faced with criticism from the media.
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the phone call.
JERRY: Thank you.
CONAN: And we want to thank Mychal Massie for his time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. MASSIE: It was a privilege. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Mychal Massie, chairman of Project 21, a black conservative organization. He joined us today from Pennsylvania. Here's some emails, this from Hugh in Ephesus, Georgia: While I support some concepts of the Tea Party, I take extreme exception to the racist component that I perceive in this group.
I utterly disdain a group that screeches and screams and does not engage in meaningful dialogue with those they disagree with, and they do not identify with which socialist programs they would like to do away with: Social Security, Medicare, checks to farmers for land that is not farmed? These are the very programs that the majority of this bunch leech off of. Show us the way.
This from John in Nevada: When they, Tea Party members, say they are for limited government, what exactly would they do away with: defense, Social Security, Medicare, national parks, national responses to crises like the oil spill, tornadoes, hurricanes or other disasters, interstate highways, control of national airspace, et cetera? And he goes on with that.
William Blue(ph): I am a former GOP county chairman. Tea Party helps fragment, divide and exacerbate partisan vitriol.
So obviously, a lot of reactions to this organization, which is producing a lot of passion.
But of course the reference Tea Party itself is meant to evoke the American Revolution. Our next guest, Jill Lepore, examined that connection in an article in the current edition of the New Yorker titled "Tea and Sympathy," and she's with us today from Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a studio at Harvard. Nice to have you with us today.
Professor JILL LEPORE (Harvard University): Thanks.
CONAN: And you've traced this movement back to the roots. Its claims, we heard Mychal Massie, for example, making a lot of references to Thomas Jefferson.
Prof. LEPORE: Yes, and the founding era has enormous purchase in the imagination of Tea Party people, at least those in Boston with whom I spoke over the last few months. I certainly can't claim to speak for the movement as a whole.
But you know, watching it, watching national coverage of groups across the country, people are essentially literally dressing themselves in the trappings of the Sons of Liberty from the 1760s and 1770s. And in Boston, that matters, I think, especially to people who are involved in the movement here in Boston.
CONAN: In fact, one of their regular meetings is at one of the taverns that was - hosted the Sons of Liberty.
Prof. LEPORE: Yes, the Green Dragon Tavern, which is just down the street from Faneuil Hall. I was really struck when Frank Newport was saying, you know, it's a label, a new label for an old phenomenon, and I think that's probably true in terms of the political views held by at least, again, the people that I spoke with.
But it's not just any label. It's a quite powerful label, and over the centuries of American history, calling something revolutionary, invoking the legacy of the American Revolution, has been very powerful for all sorts of political movements.
CONAN: Yet you describe the era of the American Revolution as an ocean of ideas and that any movement from any political stripe could fish in there and find things they agree with.
Prof. LEPORE: Yeah, and they certainly have. You know, gun-control advocates cite Jefferson. Gun-right advocates cite Jefferson. And I think to be perfectly frank and mechanical about it, Google makes this a little bit worse, this fishing-out of ideas.
There's a lot of cherry-picking of quotes from, you know, the founding fathers, and then the founding fathers themselves is this elusive category and becomes narrower and narrower and narrower the more you get into a discussion with someone, who people actually are interested in, who they think of when they think about people from the 18th century. And, I guess, you know, this is not surprising and it's not, I guess, it's not necessarily a bad thing. But the vision that most Americans have of 18th century history is, of course, not what - how historians necessarily think about the 18th century, or think about the causes and origins of the Revolution, and the nature of the political forces there.
So - but it was striking to me - I guess, last spring, I was teaching the American Revolution seminar I teach at Harvard, and taking my students out on field trips down along the Freedom Trail and go out, you know, to the State House and the old South, do these sights and talk about the history of the Revolution, to be then watching - you know, on C-SPAN at night, watching people on the Mall dressed in their tricorns and their knee breeches and calling themselves Sons of Liberty was a bit surreal.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Casey(ph), Casey with us from Fremont, California.
CASEY (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you doing?
CONAN: I'm good, thanks.
CASEY: My point is that I think it's a real war of ideas and there are a lot of people who are just coming to some of these good constitutional ideas but they don't fully understand them, and especially the Republican Party has found their grounds to try and steer it into their party. And I think if a lot of these people are allowed to do further research without being affected by either party, they'll learn that it's a third way of doing things. Instead of the Republican ideas of, you know, being for business or the Democratic ideas of allegedly being for the people, it's saying - well, like with the financial reform bill, it's saying, you know, maybe we should look at our whole system and look at what the Federal Reserve is doing in regards to all of these things, which is something that neither party really seems to bring up at all.
CONAN: And Casey, have you been to Tea Party events?
CASEY: Yeah, I've been to several of them. And, honestly, I've been disappointed with several of them because you find a lot of the people pushing constitutionalism which is great. When it comes to the health care bill, which I disagree with the health care bill, but then you also have to follow the Constitution when it comes to declaring war. And the Congress declaring war and wiretapping with people's phones without warrants and things like that, a lot of the Republicans in the movement want to forget about those parts of the Constitution and cherry-pick like your guest just said, the ideas.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Casey. Appreciate it. And, indeed, part of your article, Jill Lepore, was talking about how both the anti-war movement of the 1960s and '70s, and the current Tea Party movement both found support for their ideas in the Founding Fathers.
Prof. LEPORE: Yeah. I don't know if you remember the bicentennial, Neal, but it was a kind of very powerful moment in American history where you kind of just couldn't escape it. There was - well, I grew up in Massachusetts, so there was bicentennial stuff going on all over the place. But when I was working on the piece and I said about, you know, researching what actually happened during those years, from '73 - 1973, which is the 200th anniversary of the Tea Party to '76 and the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and even starting in 1970, there was just this sort of extraordinary set of political symbols clashing with one another.
So in 1970, Kent State - the shootings at Kent State - the Ohio National Guard fires into a crowd of students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and kills five people, everyone started talking about the Boston Massacre of March 5th, 1770, when the British army fired into a crowd of Bostonians and killed five people in...
CONAN: Five in Boston, four at Kent State.
Prof. LEPORE: Right, five and four, right. People - students got this poster that prints - an engraving that Paul Revere made in 1770 of the Boston Massacre and wrote over it, Kent State. I mean, there is this kind of wind which the anti-war movement really appropriated the story of the Boston Massacre, which was, in some ways, used at the time by Samuel Adams and others in Boston as the way to argue against military power and the military power of the British Empire. So it was...
CONAN: And not a current criticism...
Prof. LEPORE: ...a useable story. Yeah...
CONAN: ...not a lot of criticism of military power amongst the Tea Party.
Prof. LEPORE: Not anymore, no. That's how the bicentennial was largely observed from the left, was appropriating it for the anti-war cause. So in 1971, John Kerry, for instance, was arrested in Battle Green in Lexington, a number of 500 veterans who were protesting the war, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When they were arrested, they gave their date of birth as 1775. Howard Zinn was arrested in 1970 in an anti-war rally; he said he was acting in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party.
It was a very powerful political metaphor. In the same way as it is for the Tea Party today, but it was a political metaphor in the left then.
CONAN: We're talking about the Tea Party. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to - this is Tom(ph), Tom with us from Portland.
TOM (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, Tom.
TOM: Oh, well, I'm - I guess, I would be classified as a white male although I'm part Puerto Rican, but nobody notices that. And I would say that the Tea Party - and I am a supporter - is and should be about fiscal responsibility, basically, about eliminating deficit spending until the debt is under control. And it's unfortunate that you have to go after entitlements, but that's where the money is. You could shut down the entire U.S. government with the exception of entitlements and defense, and you wouldn't even have enough money to service the debt.
CONAN: Maybe unless you raise taxes?
TOM: ...so you got to go with entitlements to get to where you want to go, or you got to raise taxes, or both.
CONAN: Okay. Tom, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
TOM: My pleasure.
CONAN: And Jill Lepore, I wanted to ask you about something you - a conclusion you reached in your piece. To Tea Partiers, Obama's administration, his very presidency is unconstitutional. Massachusetts is a foreign country. The present is a foreign country.
Prof. LEPORE: Well, I was struck first in speaking to so many people involved in the Tea Party in Boston how many of them were not from Massachusetts. The president of the Boston Tea Party - which is actually, I think, technically known as the Greater Boston Tea Party because it mainly draws people from the suburbs - is a woman who moved to Massachusetts. And she had said to me, you know, when she moved here from Ohio, it felt to her like a foreign country which, you know, I could understand.
There are so many things - and I think at the top of your hour, she spoke about this - so many things about Massachusetts politics that were not just strange to her and outlandish in a foreign way, but repulsive, I think, kind of almost viscerally. And you could hear that when you talk to a lot of people who had moved and a number of the people I spoke to - who were all very open and eager to talk, I should say, by the way. I don't think that - I mean, I think they were anxious to be understood as best possible. But I think that they had found, in coming to Massachusetts, that kind of almost intense sectional tension that we think about in the 19th century - we think about the antebellum period and we think about slave states and free states.
And I hadn't actually encountered that in such strong language from so many people before. I'm a native Massachusetts person. When I go to other parts of the country, I don't think I feel like I'm in another part of the country. But I did hear from a lot of these people that that was the case. And I think when I think about the metaphors and the symbols of the Revolution that are so appealing to many of these people, it's how far back they go into a common history.
CONAN: Jill Lepore, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Prof. LEPORE: Thank you.
CONAN: Jill Lepore, a staff writer at The New Yorker, professor of history at Harvard, she joined us from a studio on that campus. You can find a link to her article on our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
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