After a tumultuous year in politics, 'populism' is on everybody's lips. But what is it? Is it good or bad for democracy? How is it that populist movements often have superrich leaders? Political scientist and longtime populism observer Cas Mudde recommends the best books on populism.
I just read your book, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, and I was quite intrigued by your observation that nobody refers to themselves as a populist: it’s usually a term used to denounce political opponents. At the same time, you also argue that it does have positive aspects.
Populism does have some positive connotations here in the United States, but definitely, in Europe, ‘populism’ is exclusively perceived as negative — although that is starting to change a bit. The positive aspect of it is that it voices discontent and often raises questions that need to be addressed. Populism’s answer to those questions are not necessarily the best for liberal democracy, but the questions that populists ask are clearly questions and concerns that are shared by a sizeable portion of the population.
Yes, because another thing you point out in your book is that many of us interpret political reality through the lens of populism: when we say things like, ‘Oh politicians, they’re all corrupt.’ Even people who don’t consider themselves populists use their rhetoric.
The media often use populism in a pretty broad way, as a general anti-establishment sentiment. Anti-establishment sentiments are very broadly shared in the US, in southern Europe, and increasingly in northern Europe too. It’s a lens through which particularly the elites are shady, or only interested in their own interest and only listen—or pretend to listen—to the voters every four years.
“The questions that populists ask are clearly questions and concerns that are shared by a sizeable portion of the population.”
Those types of ideas are very broadly shared, and also are very broadly published. The frame that many media use these days about politics is also, partly, a populist frame in which you have these innocent, pure people that are being betrayed by a corrupt elite.
And it’s not true?
Well, it depends on your country. There are certain countries where the political establishment is almost completely corrupt. Romania or Italy, for example, have massive corruption problems. But when you go to Denmark or the Netherlands, which also have strong populist parties, corruption is marginal. Is it true that politicians are representative of the interests of all the people? There clearly is a gap, but there always has been one.
The point is that in most countries, populist parties get only a minority of the vote because they represent only a minority of the people, but those people believe that they are the majority.
You’ve been studying populism for a long time. Do you think that it’s been strengthened by social media? For example, I’ve just finished reading Nick Clegg’s political autobiography that was published in September. He points out that people are very empowered in daily life. If you order from the supermarket, they can deliver the food within 24 hours. By comparison, politics seems very slow and out of touch, and that exacerbates people’s frustrations with politicians. He is of course speaking as a politician who’s felt under pressure from all these grievances coming from all directions, which, as a politician, you can’t really solve even with the best possible intentions.
Yes, but the problem is that most politicians pretend they can solve it, at least during the election campaign. When you promise to do the impossible, you’re going to be punished, and Nick Clegg is a pretty good example of that. He came to power with a certain agenda and then in power just didn’t deliver.
With regard to social media, I don’t think it qualitatively changes politics in a fundamental way — but it has strengthened certain processes that were already underway. Particularly in Europe, until the 1980s, roughly, most of the traditional media were strictly controlled by the established political parties. That was already changing because of the commercialisation of the media. The gatekeeper function of the media for the political establishment was already weakened. Social media has weakened that even further.
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If you can get a lot of traction on Twitter, the traditional media are going to write about it. But if the traditional media doesn’t write about it, not that much happens. The power of social media is to set an agenda but it still comes down to the established media to take that agenda to the mass of the people.
Another interesting point you make in your book is that populism doesn’t need a populist leader. Those sentiments are already there. But, for example, in the UK, a lot of the, say, anti-immigrant sentiment is stoked up by newspapers like the Daily Mail. To what extent does populism need someone to be stoking it up and encouraging these views in a systematic way?
As a clarifier, not all populists are xenophobic, and not all xenophobes are populist. Leaders—be they political or media—are important in the sense that they do influence some people who didn’t have an opinion and then get that opinion. But, more importantly, they tend to strengthen existing opinions and prejudices.
“Not all populists are xenophobic, and not all xenophobes are populist.”
So, when you already feel that Muslims are problematic, and then you read in the newspaper all the time about Muslim crimes, it heightens the importance of it. It’s the same if you already feel that the politicians aren’t really listening to you. Then you read in the newspapers every day that politicians are corrupt and that they’re ignoring the voter etc. etc. It will strengthen your view. But generally, the media is a representation of existing views, its consequence as much as its cause. If the media were populist but no one had populist attitudes, no one would read that media.
It wouldn’t touch a nerve.
Yes, and, in the end, the media is about money. If no one reads the newspaper, then there is no purpose to it.
Let’s look at some of these issues in the context of the populism books you’ve chosen. The first one on your list is a fairly short work of political philosophy by Margaret Canovan, The People (2005). She starts with the populus Romanus of Ancient Rome and takes it from there. Tell me what you like about this book and why it’s important.
Populism studies has two doyens. One is Ernesto Laclau, an Argentine philosopher who was important in a specific, critical philosophical tradition. The other is Margaret Canovan who wrote, already in 1981, the classic study called Populism. Margaret Canovan is a foundational scholar of populism.
“This book shows that while democracy and populism are different interpretations of the people, they are both, essentially, about the power of the people.”
In this particular book, what she does that is so interesting is that she looks at the importance and the complexity of the concept of ‘the people.’ It is this importance of the people that connects populism and democracy. Both in a democratic discourse and in a populist discourse, the power of the people is central. What she shows is that ‘the people’ is a very complex and fluid concept, but what populists do, by and large, is make that mythical concept very concrete and thereby claim it. That is their strength.
What I also like about the book is that it clearly shows how closely democracy and populism are related. In general, populism is seen as a pathology and pathologies are completely unrelated to whatever they’re a pathology of. This book shows that while democracy and populism are different interpretations of the people, they are both, essentially, about the power of the people.
What is the difference between democracy and populism?
I think there are two key differences. The first is that for populists, the people are homogeneous, whereas in most understandings of democracy, the people are plural: they have different interests, different motivations. The second is that for populism, the people are pure. It’s a moral concept as well, whereas in a democratic context, the people don’t have a particular moral.
It is both the homogeneity and the morality that sets populism apart.
She also discusses why ‘the people’ generally only includes people within your own country. Why should that be the case?
She goes through all kinds of different discourses in history about the people and how politicians have tried to mobilise populations with the concept of ‘the people.’ What she argues, by and large, is that while there is a kind of a global understanding of the people as humanity, in practice, the concept of the people can only really be successfully mobilised if it is relatively clearly conscribed to a certain geography. That used to be city-states, and nowadays it’s states or nation-states.
The book is pretty complex. It really is a philosophical discussion and to me— and I’m sure for most readers—this will be the least accessible of the books I’ve chosen. But for anyone who wants to understand populism better, it is essential because it looks beyond populism today and puts it in a historical perspective.
And it is a very complex issue.
Let’s talk about the next one on your list which is Michael Kazin’s book, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (1998).
This book is the classic study of US populism. It was published well before populism got a lot of attention again. It really is a history of populism in America, going back to the 19th century and particularly to the so-called People’s Party.
What does it argue, in terms of populism in America?
One of the things that it argues—which is important to remember today—is that populism has a very long history in the US and is, to a certain extent, part of the political mainstream. Whether it is expressed by specific political actors or not, populism is very much in line with the American understanding of politics, which has to do with the founding myth of “We the People” and a longstanding, deep distrust towards Washington.
Which must make it very hard to govern from Washington, mustn’t it, if everybody is always so distrustful of their own central government?
Yes, it does. On the other hand, what you see in the US is that there’s often a big difference between concrete and general values, and that even applies to politics. For example, Congress traditionally has a very low support rate. I think around 10% of the people think Congress is doing a good job. Yet the vast majority of the people traditionally believe that their representative does a good job. While it is difficult to govern well in Washington, there is a bit of a difference between Washington in the abstract and specific politicians in Washington.
“It is very important to see that Trump is an American phenomenon. Yes, there are similarities with the rise of populism in Europe, but Trump is an American phenomenon that stands in a long tradition of American populism.”
What the book also makes clear is that in a country that has, in a sense, a populist culture, it is not always easy to draw a clear line between who is populist and who is not a populist but uses some populist rhetoric. I think that Kazin, in the book, is too broad in what he includes. He has various chapters about progressive movements which I wouldn’t consider populist, even though they speak in the name of the people.
Why wouldn’t you call them populist?
It goes back to their interpretation of ‘the people.’ I don’t think it is a homogeneous interpretation of the people, and I don’t think it is moral. Many of these groups spoke for a certain class—the working class—and their discourse was mostly about interests, not about morality or values.
So using, as the definition of populism, an appeal to the idea of a pure people arranged against a corrupt elite?
What do you think we can learn from the history of populism in America for today, as we go forward? I know your book also touches on how an understanding of populism can help us deal with the present and the future.
First of all, that it is very important to see that Trump is an American phenomenon. Yes, there are similarities with the rise of populism in Europe, but Trump is an American phenomenon that stands in a long tradition of American populism. So if we try to explain his success, we shouldn’t just look at the last couple of years or the rise of TV, or social media, or the shift to the right of the GOP. All of those things can play a role, but at the same time, Trump is the latest in a long line of populist politicians. He’s the most successful, because he does it at the national level, but populism has played a role in American politics at least since the late 19th century. I think that is crucial because to understand why something happens, you also have to understand when it happened before.
Has America always had this right-wing strain of populism? You mention in your book that some people question whether populism even exists because it seems to encompass so many different things: people on the left, people on the right, xenophobia in Europe, irresponsible economic policy in Latin America.
But one of the features in America—with the Tea Party and now with Trump—is that it is surprisingly right-wing. Is that typical historically?
No, and actually Kazin emphasises the progressive roots of populism. Particularly in his interpretation, the People’s Party, the original populists of the late19th century, were a predominately progressive force. He includes a lot of other progressive forces in his study of populism. As I said, I think several of them fundamentally aren’t really populist. But for him, as with quite a few progressive historians here in the US—not all—populism is positive and linked to progressive forces.
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He does highlight the shift to right-wing populism that starts in the1960s, in particular with the anti-Communist movement and McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. You could see the Tea Party and Trump in that tradition of right-wing populism that became particularly successful in the 50s and 60s.
I find it surprising that Trump has been voted in as a result of populism, when he is an extremely rich businessman and completely part of the corrupt elite. How is it possible that he then wins?
This is a good segue to the book by Paul Taggart.
OK, let’s talk about Paul Taggart’s Populism (2000).
Taggart’s book is mostly a historical overview of populism worldwide, but it is full of fantastic, small insights. One of the ones I like the best is (paraphrasing) when he writes that populism is politics for ordinary people by extraordinary leaders. What he shows—and what we also discuss in our book—is that a lot of populist parties are led by people who are in no way descriptively part of the people.
“Populism is not about who you are. It is not about class. It is about morals.”
Silvio Berlusconi was one of the richest people in Italy. Ross Perot was one of the richest people in the US. Thaksin Shinawatra was one of the richest people in Thailand. In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn was a flamboyant gay man leading one of the most homophobic electorates in the country. And the reason for this is that populism is not about who you are. It is not about class. It is about morals. So the idea is that Trump—while being from New York, which is home to the East coast liberal elite—is actually, in terms of his values and his morals, part of the people.
Those morals being anti-establishment, anti-Washington?
And common sense. Common sense comes up a lot as well, doesn’t it?
Exactly. Common sense is used by others as well, but it is central in populist discourse. Common sense is partly a critique of ideology and partisanship. It is a fundamentally apolitical term because by and large it argues that there is one solution that is good for everyone and that’s common sense. It also links to anti-intellectualism, which is very strong in the US, but generally also strong among populists. When you have common sense, you don’t need experts, you don’t need academics. We don’t need to think about whether a wall is good; that’s common sense.
The other thing that Taggart introduces in his book that’s related to this is the concept of the heartland. The heartland is Middle America, or…
Middle England, I suppose. What is the heartland exactly?
The heartland is that subset of the people who are the authentic people. When populists—like Trump—speak about the people, they don’t include everyone. But they’re also not without any definition. So they tend to reference the real America, and that’s the heartland. The heartland is where the real people live, the salt of the earth. They are God-fearing (here in the US), they work for their money, they’re not pretentious, they have common sense, they know what is good, they’re pure. The heartland is a subset of the people, but are also, morally, the definition of all the people. Anyone who’s not in the heartland is not legitimately part of the people.
Is somebody of colour or somebody who’s an immigrant or gay, are they automatically excluded or can they be part of the heartland?
Technically, populism doesn’t have to be xenophobic. Most of its successful representatives are, but if you look, for example, at Podemos or Syriza, at the moment, in Europe, they’re very inclusive towards immigrants. Occupy Wall Street had a strong populist discourse that was inclusive, at least in rhetoric, with regards to ethnic and racial groups even though the movement itself was incredibly white.
Does the heartland exist?
The heartland is a stereotype. Popular stereotypes always have a kernel of truth, but it is a simplification. So yes, there are people that are exactly as the heartland is described. But many people who live in what is allegedly the heartland do not fit that stereotype. Similarly, many people living on the coasts fit the heartland stereotype better than the coast stereotype.
These elites then — are we talking about academics? If, as in the case of Trump and Berlusconi, they’re allowed to be superrich, are they just not allowed to be superclever, then? If it’s not about money, is it just about whether you study books or not?
That depends a lot on the country and the role of intellectuals. The US has always been very strongly anti-intellectual in general and particularly on the right. Intellectuals were always part of the elite.
In Britain, that wasn’t so much the case. One of the reasons why the populist part of Brexit turned against experts was because experts featured almost exclusively in the ‘Remain’ camp. So they became part of the political struggle.
“Populists…often…will be very respectful when they write about a professor.”
What you see with populists is that often they will be very respectful when they write about a professor. They always indicate that he or she is a professor when they say something that is useful for them. When a professor says that the political system is rotten, they’ll highlight the fact that it is a distinct professor who said that. But when a professor says that it’s bad to leave the EU, then he or she becomes a ‘so-called expert.’ It’s all very opportunistic.
So, in Britian, for example, where 90% of economists opposed Brexit—because obviously Brexit is bad for the economy whichever way you look at it—they then all had to be vilified, I suppose.
This is a newer thing and, in part, about how the experts are both presenting themselves and are being presented. So many of these economists—as well as political scientists—came out in a political way and stated that Brexit was bad, not just for the economy, but for Britain. Then many of the ‘Remain’ groups would roll them out as evidence for their claim, and so that made them politicised.
Is there anything else you want to say about the Taggart book? I dipped into it and saw that he has six themes that he looks at in populism around the globe. One of them is that it is a powerful reaction to a sense of extreme crisis.
The problem with Taggart’s book is that he never really clearly defines populism. That might be one of the reasons why the book isn’t as influential as it should be. He speaks about six key features, but he doesn’t really say whether populism has all of them or how exactly that works. So it gives you a very good overview of different groups that have been described as populist, but, at the end, you’re still not completely certain what the core of populism is.
He brings in the idea of crisis. Populism has pretty much always been linked to crisis. Taggart also links it to being episodic. He argues that populism really only emerges in times of crisis and just as crises are short-term, populism is episodic. It comes up in times of crisis and it disappears as soon as the crisis is over. This is a very powerful idea, which is the basis of Judis’s book.
This is The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (2016). Is he arguing that populism is a response to economic difficulties then?
Yes, and specifically the Great Recession. Because Judis’s book, although it has some historical background, is really very much about the last couple of years. His key argument is that the populist explosion, as he calls it, is a direct consequence of the Great Recession, and so of crisis.
The strength of the book is that it’s written by a journalist and, therefore, very accessible. It’s also, therefore, much more simplistic. It makes it more attractive for many readers because it tells a very clear story. But that story— that populism is predominately, if not exclusively, an effect of an economic crisis—is empirically not true.
It’s not true?
No. there were several very successful populist parties well before the economic crisis like the Front National in France, or the Freedom Party in Austria which, already in the 1990s, got really high percentages of support. Traditionally, right-wing populism does particularly well in countries that are the most affluent in Europe, like Denmark and the Netherlands.
The problem is that there are very few concepts as vague as ‘crisis.’ When you look at the Great Recession you can empirically define that as a crisis. Clearly Europe is still in that crisis. But, on a day-to-day basis, while most people in Greece are fundamentally impacted by it, most people in Germany are not. Nonetheless, people in Germany or the Netherlands feel that they are in an economic crisis. It is also a kind of state.
This is even worse with political crises. A lot of voters for Trump, for example, felt—and we saw in the polls—that the economy is doing terrible, that we’re going the wrong way, and that we’re in crisis: even though empirically the US is not. People act politically not so much on the basis of actual facts, but of what they think is the truth. In that sense, crisis is important. When people think that there is an economic or a political crisis, they will act accordingly.
Let’s say somewhere like the Netherlands then, do they feel they’re in crisis right now? Is that why Geert Wilders is popular?
Not economically, but there are a lot of people in the Netherlands who feel that civilisation is in crisis because we are being threatened by global Islam and by European integration. They feel that it is a crisis because things are changing fundamentally for the worse and there’s a matter of urgency. That is what crisis does, and that’s what, for example, a lot of people on the right, including Trump but also others, were pushing all the time. This idea that this was the last election, that if Clinton won, it would be over forever. That’s the idea of crisis. It’s now or never.
If it is a kind of self-imposed mindset, how do you get people out of it?
I don’t think that it helps to be reactive. In our discourse we’re always trying to convince people—who say that we are in a crisis and that Muslims are going to kill us, or that there’s a big conspiracy of east Cost elites—with our numbers or our rational arguments. We say, ‘Well, that’s not the case.’
The only way to get out of it is, first of all, to realise that in most countries the vast majority of people don’t believe that we’re in crisis, and to present a positive and effective programme.
Let’s just take the US, because it’s the most pronounced example. A large portion of people who voted for Trump voted for the party they always support. They didn’t support a populist, necessarily. They had no choice but to vote for a populist, but they would have voted for Cruz or Rubio had he been the candidate for the Republican Party. While populism is important, we shouldn’t act as if it is the only game in town.
Trump didn’t get the majority of the popular vote. Almost 3 million more people voted for a positive programme with regard to, particularly, multiculturalism, and, to a certain extent, politics, than for Trump’s populist version.
There’s a certain group that has been excluded, which is largely white working class. A part of that you can get back by having better redistributive politics. Other parts you won’t get back because they’re Islamophobic or racist. The only way to get them back is by becoming Islamophobic or racist, and that is not the role of liberal democratic parties.
There is growing inequality around the world — caused by globalisation and structural changes in the economy. Governments are traditionally very poor at dealing with this kind of labour market disruption. Isn’t populism partly a response to economic difficulties, as Judis argues? The US may not be in recession, but growing inequality means there are groups who may not have had a good job for 2-3 generations. Doesn’t that play a role?
It plays a role, but we’re talking, in the vast majority of cases, about a radical, right-wing populism. Left-wing populism is relatively minor. The economic anxiety is translated in a social-cultural way. It is translated, in American terms, racially. It is that racial translation that is essential because if it’s only about economic anxiety, then it would have been almost random whether you voted for Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Both took on moving jobs abroad, globalisation, etc. But very few voters went from Sanders over to Trump because of that racialized vision of economic anxiety.
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If you take away the economic anxiety, there’s a large portion of people who are not going to vote for these parties anymore. But others will still vote for them. There are a lot of people voting for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, or Marine Le Pen, or for Donald Trump, who are affluent. But they’re still terrified about the Muslims.
So with this book, it’s still on your list of recommended books, but you disagree with its conclusion, is that right?
It’s the easiest introduction to the topic. It does so through a bit of an oversimplified lens, but it still provides a lot of good information.
It’s looking at America and goes through European countries as well?
Yes. And left and right. It talks about the Netherlands and about France, as well as Spain and Greece. That’s particularly important because those are the two cases of left-wing populism that are successful. I think those cases are much better explained by the Great Recession than Front National and other far-right populist groups.
Let’s move on to the final book on your list which is What is Populism? (2016) by Jan-Werner Mueller. He believes populism is fundamentally anti-democratic, doesn’t he?
This book combines Judis and Canovan in the sense that it’s political philosophy but it’s much more accessible than Canovan. It does a great job discussing the tensions between populism and democracy, and emphasizing the role of populism in highlighting problems that exist within democracy. Mueller is particularly negative towards populism, which he sees almost exclusively as right-wing. He doesn’t think Podemos or Syriza or Occupy Wall Street were populist. Against pretty much everyone else, Mueller doesn’t think that the People’s Party of the late 19th century—which is the foundation of Kazin’s study—was populist.
Why does he think populism is anti-democratic?
For Jan-Werner, democracy is, by definition, liberal democratic. He argues that free and fair elections, free media, and an independent judiciary are fundamental aspects of any democracy. He argues that populism is against those independent spaces within a political system.
“Where Jan-Werner also does a great job is showing that this idea that many people have, which is very comforting, that populists cannot rule, is empirically untrue.”
I, personally, agree with his discussion of the tension between populism and democracy even though I have slightly different interpretations of both populism and of democracy. I think the tensions that he highlights are very much at the crux of the challenge that populism presents to what I call liberal democracy and what he calls democracy in general.
So it’s the plurality which is under threat with some of these populist movements, then?
He argues that democracy is based on pluralism, on the idea that there are different groups in society which all have a legitimate claim to power. I and some others would argue that that is specific to liberal democracy. Where Jan-Werner and I agree is that populism is fundamentally monist. It is fundamentally against pluralism and considers other actors as special interests that are non-legitimate. They’re traitors, they’re corrupt.
So, when a populist is running for office, it’s the politicians that he’s running against that are the immoral, corrupt elite. Then, when the populist is in power, he or she refuses to recognise any opposition as legitimate either.
Exactly. Where Jan-Werner also does a great job is showing that this idea that many people have, which is very comforting, that populists cannot rule, is empirically untrue. This idea is that because populism is essentially an anti-establishment position, as soon as a populist becomes the establishment, they’re destined to fall apart.
But we actually know various cases of populists in power that are successful. They invent a new elite. You see that with Victor Orbán, the prime minister in Hungary. He says, ‘I’m the legitimate voice of the people.’ But there are some shadowy elites here—former social democrats, for example—who are conniving to undermine the people (read Orbán), together with the European Union.
Why is he so negative about populism? Is it because of 20th century German history, and what populism can lead to?
I think it has more to do with his understanding of democracy. Because, for him, democracy is the same as liberal democracy, populism goes to the core. The other thing is that some of the groups that many liberals and progressives would perceive as at least having good intentions—if not necessarily actions—like Podemos and Syriza, Jan-Werner doesn’t see as populist. So he really has virtually no group that has done relatively positive things that are populist.
You mention Jean-Jacques Rousseau in your book. Do we need to understand his concept of the general will to understand populism properly?
Populists, in terms of their fundamental view of society, see this corrupt elite versus the pure people. But the type of politics they want is based on the general will of the people. The reason why this is important is that populists believe that, fundamentally, “the people” share values and interests. Consequently, you can have politics that are good for everyone. That is what they sell. That is, of course, much more attractive than politicians who are honest and say, ‘This particular measure benefits this group, or, at the very least, benefits this group more than another.’
Think about environmental policy. Assuming that we all believe in global warming, then we all profit from politics that go against it because otherwise we all die. But the consequences of those environmental policies will be less painful for some people than for others. Say energy becomes more expensive. In relative terms, poor people will be harder hit than billionaires —because that’s how the world works. It’s complex and there are no policies that are equally good for everyone. There are always some people, even if it’s a small group, that either don’t profit or profit much less.
That’s Rousseau’s general will argument?
Yes, although it’s much more complex than the aspect that is highlighted here. He argued that people are not just a collection of individuals, they’re actually also a kind of a unitary actor, and so they are one.
And who are the main political philosophers disagreeing with that?
There are many. Even Rousseau himself would disagree with certain parts. But most liberal and conservative thinkers, incuding John Rawls and Edmund Burke, would argue that the people are heterogeneous and that there are different interests and different values.
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Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and Professor II at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. He is also a columnist for Guardian US.
Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and Professor II at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. He is also a columnist for Guardian US.
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