Populism in the Civil Sphere (2021)
Alexander, J. C. (2021). Populism in the Civil Sphere. Newark, United Kingdom: Polity Press.
(This symposium is based on an Author Meets Critic Session at the Social Science History Association meetings in November 2021, with contributions from Mabel Berezin, Robert Janson, Paul Lichterman and Ming-Cheng Lo. There is a response from Jeffrey Alexander after these commentaries.)
Comments for Alexander Populism in the Civil Sphere
Contemporary political discourse is noisy. Civil in the ordinary sense of the term is the last word that we would associate with its benign and less benign forms. By exploring populist politics in terms of civil sphere theory [CST], Jeffrey C. Alexander, Peter Kivisto and Giuseppe Sciortino loosen the boundaries of the now overcrowded area of populism studies.
I can only highlight in this short comment the issues that are most salient to me as I approach Populism in the Civil Sphere. I focus on first, the analytic context of the book; second, my understanding of the theoretical framework; and third, I try to think about some of the cases with the theory. The book is a collection of timely essays that elaborate how Alexander’s theory of the civil sphere plays out in different national contexts. A real strength of this collection is that the cases span the globe. It is truly comparative and goes beyond the usual either Eurocentric or American focus of contemporary populism studies. As a collection of essays, the volume is extraordinarily cohesive.
Populism in the Civil Sphere fits into the broad context of Alexander’s intellectual mission to bring culture and communication to the center of theories of democracy and democratic practice. Alexander’s civil sphere owes much to Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the public sphere. Yet, there are important differences between the two theorists. Alexander’s civil sphere is messier and allows for more discordance than its Habermasian predecessor. Its messiness allows for a certain plasticity that permits a range of political discourses from left to right to emerge. The historical moment influences whether the left or right discourses achieve public salience.
Challenges to democracy are manifest on a global level. Populism, and in some instances fascism, have become the descriptors of choice. Populist politics or what is being labelled populist politics in Europe and the United States have been constitutive of modern politics for a long time. Historian Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion (1995 ) locates the roots of American populism in 19th century America. Daniel Bell’s 1967 essay “The Dispossessed” describes the radical right in America in terms of the John Birch society. Bell was prescient as he saw many of the tendencies in American politics that analysts today are invoking as they confront the political ascendance of Donald Trump. In Europe, the history and trajectory of populist parties varies from national context to national context as some of the essays in this book demonstrate.
In 2016 after Brexit in the Spring and Trump’s election in the fall, populism took off as subject of interest to scholars and the media becoming a catch all term for malignant political tendencies in the United States and Europe. The political and analytic landscape where Populism in the Civil Sphere stakes a claim bears some scrutiny even in a brief comment. Kivisto and Sciortino cover some of this terrain in their excellent concluding essay.
Political scientists dominate populism studies. Cas Mudde’s describes populism a war of little people against political elites. Political political theorist Jan Werner Muller argued that populism was an inherent fault line of democracy. Both scholars are inevitably cited in virtually any article on populism. With few exceptions such as Rob Jensen (a contributor to this panel), sociologists have stayed away from theorizing or even working on populism. In contrast to political scientists, Jensen argues that situations evoke populist preferences not the other way around. Jensen’s approach bears a kinship relation to the approach that Alexander and his collaborators put forth in this volume. In addition, there is an emerging body of sociological research exemplified by such authors as Bart Bonikowski that takes on the social origins of those attracted to populism.
I have been writing about populism and fascism long before Donald Trump emerged—and I have argued that both terms present problems of nomenclature that generate more heat than light. To think about fascism is to think about history. In contrast, I argue that populism is a purely analytic category. Populism defies definition because it typically represents a shifting aggregate of popular preferences without a clear ideology that unites them. In today’s political milieu, populism operates as a residual category that unites a range of disparate persons and ideas from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders to Marine Le Pen.
If one begins from my position that populism is a weak analytic category then how might I engage with the arguments presented in Populism in the Civil Sphere? My first question when I approach a work such as this is: what would I want to know about populism that other theorists do not tell me. I want to be clear that I do think that Civil Sphere Theory is analytically useful. It does offer something fundamentally different from other available theories. It gives us as cultural and political sociologists tools to think about the current political moment that help us better understand the inchoate nature of this moment. I see convergence between it and my approach to populism.
The strength of CST theory lies in its dynamism. This means that it does not lead to a static definitional account of populism rather it provides just the opposite. CST borrows from public sphere theory and moves it in a new direction. CST looks at discourse and communication as a contested terrain. In this view, constant recalibration is constitutive of democracy as theory and practice. Democracy becomes a continually changing public conversation.
The analytic advantages in approaching populism through the lens of CST is that it allows for us to theorize the left and right variants of populism. A theory that can incorporate left and right and that takes voice into account moves the analysis of populism in new directions. Most scholars who write on populism elide or ignore the difference between its right and left variants. In today’s political context it is particularly important to look at the way that left and right feed into each other. For example, during the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US capital the extreme right protestors claimed to be defending the Constitution and democracy. This was clearly also the position of the political center. In CST theory, collective symbols are important because they can slide to either side of the political spectrum. The integrity of the US Constitution and its defense was claimed by all sides on January 6.
This fluidity of symbols leads to the concept of the Vital Center–the point where democratic civil repair becomes possible. What makes for civil repair? What makes for conflict? Where does the language of contestation and cohesion come from? This is the point in CST argument where culture comes in—thick culture—culture in both the anthropological or ethnographic sense and the material world of practice, performance and symbols. CST is a pragmatic approach owing as much to John Dewey as to Clifford Geertz.
The theory of the book is best illustrated in the chapters comparative case studies that span the globe. This is a contrast to most studies of populism that focus on European cases. My one quibble is that the book did not commission a chapter on France where the former National Front provides a long history of a national populist party that permits analysts to look at change over time.
The two cases that I know best in the book Werner Binder’s chapter on Germany and Henrik Enroth’s chapter on Sweden provide apt illustrations of the key points of CST. Germany and Sweden were considered outliers when speaking of current European right-wing politics. The memory of Nazism in Germany and the strength of Social Democracy in Sweden were supposed to have insulated both nation-states against the populist tendencies that began to manifest themselves in the mid-1990s in France, the Netherlands, Austria.
What both essays show is that readily available national rhetorics could be invoked in either a left or right direction. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AFD) began in 2013 as an anti-Europe party focused on economic protectionism. The AFD had a nationalist core but due to post-war legislation any references to the Nazi past were outlawed in public discourse. In 2015, Angela Merkel’s decision to allow Syrian refugees into Germany without much thought as to what to do with them became a catalyst for the AFD to shift from purely economic grievances to a more aggressive form of cultural nationalism. The AFD soared in the polls and reached as high as 16% until it dropped to 11% in the recent German elections. But the national numbers tell little. The international press touted the “defeat” of the AFD. Yet in the former East Germany where the memory of Communism runs deep and the prohibition against the Nazi past is weak, the AFD scored 30%–suggesting the pliability of discourse and the flexibility of political meaning.
Sweden is a similar instance of the mutability of established left/right discourse. In 2012 when the nationalist Sweden Democrats began to move the national political needle in a rightward direction there was a kind of national shock. An “even in Sweden” public narrative emerged in the international public sphere. But that overlooks the fact that Swedish Social Democracy was nationalist in inception. Sweden is the People’s House and there is no guarantee that the house is socialist. Sweden’s social welfare regime was aimed at ethnic Swedes. One has only to read prominent Social Democrat Alva Myrdal’s State and Nation. Written in the 1930s and translated into English in 1941, the translation conveniently eliminates the chapters on eugenics that focus on the sterilization of biologically inferior Swedes. This is not a far cry from Sweden’s controversial and laissez faire Covid policy.
The cases clearly illustrate the basic parameters of CST theory. A central question remains. CST theory aims at exploring how a vital democratic discourse and political space emerges. Its principal interest is civic repair in the face of extremist threat from left and right. While this is not a book on political practice per se, it does reflect recent social science work such as Daniel Ziblatt’s book on Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy whose main point is that centrist parties are more important to the development and sustaining of a democracy than parties of either the left or the right. This brings me to my core question. The idea of a Vital Center is crucial to democratic political space as I read CST theory. The concept for me evokes equilibrium theories that are both Durkheimian and Parsonian. My question would then be how does CST theory and the Vital Center enable us both in theory and in practice to be both centrally democratic and to give voice to excluded others. But I am picking here. In the end, Populism in the Civil Sphere is a “vital” analytic and theoretical contribution to our current political moment whatever you wish to call it.
SSHA “Author Meets Critics” Comments
Robert S. Jansen
(University of Michigan)
I came to this book considerably more familiar with the populism literature than with Civil Sphere Theory (henceforth, CST); and so, it was a genuine pleasure to take this opportunity to consider what the latter might stand to contribute to the former. While I will forego a general summary, I want to begin by flagging two common themes that are particularly relevant to my comments here today. First, all of the essays share a deep sensitivity to and engagement with questions of culture. This, in itself, is a major contribution to the populism literature. As Bernadette Jaworsky notes in her chapter on the 2018 Czech presidential election, most populism scholars operate with a very thin—some might even be tempted to say impoverished—understanding of culture (p.155). The present volume, in contrast, begins from a worked-out theory of the civil sphere that is grounded in an explicitly cultural sociology. The second throughline that I want to highlight from the outset is the fact that most of these essays see populism not as a departure from or a distortion of democracy, but as emerging out of, responding to, and ultimately revealing itself to be deeply intertwined with it. This idea—that populism is not anathema to democracy, but more like one of its many shadow sides—is by no means new; yet it stands in stark contrast with the prevailing tendency (especially in political science, but also at times in sociology) to treat populism as always necessarily and essentially anti-democratic. As will become apparent, I am not yet entirely convinced of this position. But I can say with confidence that anyone interested in reflecting in a fresh way on the relationship between populism and democracy would do well to read this book. In what follows, I will first identify a significant contribution that was not particularly emphasized in the introduction or conclusion; I will then lay out what is for me the most vexing point of mismatch between CST and the current populism literature.
The Social Consequences of Populism
The contribution that I want to elevate for appreciation is the fact that Civil Sphere Theory directs our attention to the social and cultural consequences of populism and provides us with valuable tools for understanding these. For decades (and for good reason), the populism literature has focused overwhelmingly on its causes. But this has often come at the cost of careful attention to what actually-acting populists do, and of failing to investigate systematically the consequences of these actions. By “consequences,” I mean more than just the formal policy agendas that any given populist might succeed at implementing while in office (which one might map relatively easily onto a left-right axis). I mean, instead, the sometimes less direct or obvious (although, in the contemporary political moment, distressingly apparent) social and cultural consequences of politicians relying heavily on populist rhetoric, performances, and mobilizing practices to achieve their aims—regardless of what these aims might be (That is, as I have argued elsewhere: if populism is a practical means that can be used to accomplish any number of substantive ends, it raises the question of whether the practice itself has patterned consequences that are independent of the ends toward which it is directed (Jansen 2017:213)). For example, how does the practice of populism itself (i.e., whatever its content) contribute to social polarization, the erosion of civic norms, and the destabilization of social (and not just political) institutions? Are there other social and cultural consequences to which the literature’s preoccupation with the causes and (insofar as it attends to the consequences at all) the political consequences of populism have blinded us? Overall, the authors here recognize that when populists take to the stage, they are not only doing political work, they are doing cultural work as well—and thus their actions have broader social consequences that we are only now beginning to recognize and unpack.
Further, not only does this volume direct us to the question of the consequences of populism, but it supplies us with a theoretical framework that might point the way to some answers. As Celso Villegas explains in his chapter on Duterte’s populism, in the context of lamenting the “lack of depth and integration” of the existing populism literature: “what hamstrings populism studies is a lack of an integrative theoretical perspective” (p.45). Civil sphere theory promises to provide such a framework. To state, as plainly as possible, the implicit proposition that emerges from these essays: if you want to understand the social consequences of populism, you have to start from a theory of how the civil sphere works. Ateş Altinordu argues something along these lines in his chapter on Erdoğan’s populism:
A distinctive strength of civil sphere theory (CST) is its understanding of the culture and institutions of liberal democracy in relationship to each other: the regulatory (elections, courts, office) and communicative institutions (journalism, civil associations, public opinion polls) of the civil sphere ultimately refer to the same “code of civil society” that serves to symbolically articulate civil solidarity in the wider society. This complementary understanding of the culture and institutions of liberal democracy based on a shared normative logic allows a parsimonious analysis of the simultaneous threat that many populisms pose to the culture of civil solidarity and the organizational autonomy of democratic institutions (p.76).
In this quotation, Altinordu makes the case that CST can facilitate a clearer understanding of the threat that populism poses to democratic institutions and civil society. At the same time, other authors lean in to the provocative suggestion—as Marcus Morgan does in his chapter on “populism’s cultural and civil dynamics”—that populism can also (under the right conditions) be a force for civil repair. Indeed, given the various forms that populism can take, it may be that it is only “fatal to democracy” when it comes from the extremes of the political spectrum (as Jeffrey Alexander suggests in his introductory chapter, p.1). Regardless, it is the authors’ engagement with CST that enables them to venture into this largely unexplored territory of populism’s social consequences.
The Universe of Cases
My main reservation about the overall agenda that this book sets out, however, follows directly from this point of greatest enthusiasm. In short: if what CST offers populism scholars is a robust theory of the social, what are we to do about the many cases that have been studied under the rubric of “populism” that have lacked modern, institutionalized civil spheres? Another way of putting this would be to say that CST’s scope conditions seem to be considerably narrower than those of the currently fashionable populism theories. If so, this would leave many putatively populist cases twisting in the wind (Either that, or it would require that we understand these cases as being of a fundamentally different kind—a position that comes with its own risks).
In my reading, the authors remain somewhat divided on this critical point. In his chapter on the leftist populism of China’s Bo Xilai, Andrew Junker makes a valiant (and, in my view, quite compelling) attempt to adapt the insights of CST to a non-democratic society. But Junker appears to be in the minority on this point. As already suggested above, more than one chapter explicitly references Margaret Canovan’s argument that, “instead of being a symptom of ‘backwardness’ that might be outgrown, populism is a shadow cast by democracy itself” (Canovan 1999, p.3). This is evocative language. It also strongly implies the formulation, no democracy, no populism. And in their conclusion, Peter Kivisto and Giuseppe Sciortino seem to double down on this stance, making what I take to be an even stronger argument that populism is “a shadow cast by the civil itself” (p.291, my emphasis). It would certainly be possible to read such statements as implying that CST has something to offer populism scholars only insofar as they are studying contemporary Western democracies.
If this is indeed the consensus position, it limits the usefulness of this volume (and of CST more generally) to populism scholars (many of whom—especially those who view it as a “thin ideology”—take a quite expansive view of the phenomenon). It also grates a bit against my experience as a Latin Americanist. The study of Latin American populism attunes one to the fact that not only are populist rhetoric and mobilizing practices quite flexible in terms of who might use them (a point on which I take the contributors here to be largely in agreement), but they are also quite flexible in terms of the settings in which they might be successfully deployed (or, at least, in which they might be seriously attempted)—including countries where democracy is weak, poorly institutionalized, or even non-existent. So, while I am sympathetic to the insight that populism is the shadow side of democracy, I am also concerned that this view leads us to assume that it is exclusive to fully democratic societies (and, thus, that CST has nothing to offer those of us studying it under other social and political conditions).
I would tentatively propose an alternative understanding of the relationship between populism and democracy (which, I believe, resonates most with Junker’s position). What if it is not the soil of democracy per se that germinates the seeds of populism, but something more general—like any form of political authority that is at least nominally premised on popular legitimacy? I suggest that wherever a leader’s ability to hold and exercise power is (at least potentially) premised on, buoyed by, or constrained by a lack of popular support, populism is possible. Another way of putting this would be to suggest that just because populism might be a quite natural response to tensions emerging within the civil spheres of contemporary Western democracies, this does not mean that these are the only conditions under which we might expect savvy political actors to attempt it—or the only cases of populism upon which CST might be in a position to shed meaningful new light.
Canovan, Margaret. 1999. “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy. Political Studies 47(1):2-16.
Jansen, Robert S. 2017. Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The Study of Populism as a Challenging Case of Theory Meets Object
Comments on Populism in the Civil Sphere, eds. Alexander, Kivisto and Sciortino
(University of Southern California)
In ethnographic research, we talk a lot about constructing or “casing” our object of study. There are always choices to make about how we conceptualize what we are studying, and we want our theories and the actors’ meanings to articulate well together. Comparative-historical research invites similar efforts (Isaac Reed and Paul Lichterman, forthcoming. “Pragmatist comparative-historical sociology.” In The New
Pragmatist Sociology: Inquiry, Agency and Democracy, edited by Isaac Reed, Christopher Winship and Neil Gross.
New York: Columbia University Press). I see this volume as a fruitful case of theory meets object, and I think that is a good way to appreciate the double challenge that the co-authors have taken up.
First there is the challenge of the object itself. Populism is tricky. As Mabel Berezin pointed out recently, sociologists have been struggling for an analytically cogent approach to the topic (Mabel Berezin, 2019. “Fascism and Populism: Are they Useful Categories for Comparative Sociological Analysis?” Annual Review of Sociology 45: 345-361). Marcus Morgan’s essay does a nice review of the many definitions, or usages: Is populism a “discourse”? a performance? both, and more? The object is slippery and that would challenge any theory.
But populism might make special trouble for civil sphere theory (CST). That is because CST is what I will call a theory of the center. It is concerned with certain cultural codes, morally and emotionally laden performances that are “central” in a society—meaning widely recognized and prominently enacted, albeit valorized in varying ways for varying purposes. I take seriously the volume’s nod (p. 10) to a “vital center.” This allusion to Arthur Schlesinger’s book by that title is a useful metaphor for the theory’s standpoint. CST as I understand it wants to conceive what makes institutionalized, other-regarding communication among diverse citizens possible over time. The theory features the discursive substrates of central, civil institutions that elicit allegiance—whether warm, grudging, routine or instrumental–from members of a complex societal community. In this, CST joins a noble line of social thought that theorizes the center in very different ways, as we see in Tocqueville, Edward Shils or Talcott Parsons; with more space I would argue that Gramsci stands here too.
This all means that CST is a theory seemingly not made for a close-up look at the object at hand. Populism may emerge from tensions at the heart of civil society, as the volume’s introductory essay proposes, but populism shifts shape from political right to left. It ranges inside and outside the central sphere of civil, solidary communication, and occasionally leaps out of the realm many consider “political.” That is why I say this volume takes on a double challenge and I salute the editors and authors for engaging it.
How does a theory, any theory, deal with a slippery object? One strategy is to construct the object completely inside the conceptual language of the theory, evacuating its ambiguities. Constructing the object is a phrase that some of us might associate especially with Bourdieu’s critical-reflexive sociology. Relentless effort to translate the social world into field, habitus and capital is maybe the apotheosis of this strategy. I appreciate that the contributors did not go this route. That is probably one reason that the title of the volume is not ‘Civil breach and civil repair in global perspective.’ Instead, there remains an interesting, maybe generative, tension between theory and object. The contributors take different approaches to the object, and do not all agree on what “it” is, but in these essays “it” has some autonomous ontological status.
Andrew Junker’s essay on regional populist leader Bo Xilai in China takes the ontological autonomy of the object the furthest. It observes that whether or not China has a civil sphere is debatable. It does suggest we can find modernist aspirations to civil equality even in Communist Party mobilizations like the Cultural revolution. There is a knot of issues here far too large for one essay, but I appreciate that Junker is launching an important question by using a case from China to ask how much we should tie populist phenomena to the fundamental workings of the civil sphere or liberal democracy. The puzzle deserves more work.
One benefit of subjecting populism to a theory of the center is that we get some systematic, conceptual reasons for distinguishing between different species of the object. Some of those species lie inside the civil sphere. Some do not, and the difference really matters. Jeff Alexander’s introductory essay suggests that populists who remain in the center work the binary codes of the civil sphere to align themselves with the sacred democratic side, against the authoritarian side (which includes rationality/irrationality), just as other actors in the center do. This gives us principled theoretical and not just convenient political reasons to talk about how populism relates to inclusion and exclusion. In the US case, we get a sound sociological reason to say that current Republican Party strategies increasingly work outside the center, with an exclusionary understanding of “the people.” The actors are not aligning themselves with rationality against an irrational opposition. Rather they treat rationality itself as suspect, a mode of will-formation they would dismiss in favor of loyalty to a demagogue.
Another productive consequence of treating populism to a theory of the center is that we get some innovation in the theory. Practitioners of CST incorporate adjunct concepts into the CST constellation to handle this object. I read the chapters on Poland and Germany in this light. Luengo and Kolankowska’s essay on the institutionalization of right-wing extremism in Poland introduces the concept of a “pseudocivil sphere.” This may be another way to do something like what Junker’s essay was suggesting, which is to imagine there can be a dim echo of civil sphere binaries in an increasingly illiberal context. In the Polish case, though, the concept of pseudocivil sphere may be a place-marker for a whole societal type—one that combines cultural exclusivism with a ceremonial shell of civil binary discourse. It is not clear yet whether this conceptual move produces explanation beyond description. The essay says that, at some point, the leading rightwing party went from simply conservative populism to authoritarianism. Still, I am intrigued with the idea of a pseudocivil sphere and look forward to more development. The case of Germany brings the idea of collective memory very effectively into the conversation. I appreciate Werner Binder’s bid to identify conceptual tools that we can use to study the particular cultural forms animating and embedded in real civil societies, beyond the abstractions of sacred and profane. Given Germany’s 20th century experiences, collective memory is a good conceptual means to understanding cultural “frontlash” and “backlash” and the evolution of the rightwing AfD Party. When CST meets the object of populism, then, some very productive consequences result. We get useful distinctions within the object, while bringing the theory into a larger synthesis that could help it do the work it wants to do, on more cases.
There are trade-offs, too, along with some open questions. One response to these may be that we can await further comparative-historical work. I raise these open questions now because it is worth the time to ponder what CST’s level of analysis can contribute to addressing them that other levels may not.
First, what can CST contribute to explaining when and why populism within the bounds of civil discourse sometimes morphs into radical, anti-civil populism, or authoritarianism? Ates Altinordu’s chapter on Erdogan in Turkey makes good headway here, eliciting for me several “aha” experiences regarding populist state leaders. The essay explains the tilt to authoritarianism in terms of populists’ continuing need to sound populist once in power. It did occur to me that a less elaborate, strategic actor theory might come up with something rather similar, that the populist in power needs to maintain the allegiance of the political base by keeping them high on negative emotions toward out-groups. In that case we might easily conceive the operative force here in terms of old-fashioned political interest, without invoking a cultural logic. But the cultural logic does contribute to explaining why populism has become authoritarianism in Poland. That has to do with the deceptively simple difference between competing in an election and running the state. In an election campaign, populists can align themselves with the sacreds of democracy and cast their competitors as irrational or dangerously “fake,” not representatives of “the people.” But once the populist construct of “the people” holds the reigns of state power, that same cultural logic plays differently. Speaking from the position of state power, to call an actor “unfair” or “fake” is nearly by definition to call that actor an enemy and not just a competitor, because the state is not just another competitor in the arena but has exclusive executive authority. Its competitors are treasonous by definition. The logic makes sense. It also makes me wonder if we are ready to say that any populist party, right or left, that gains state power will turn authoritarian to some extent and find enemies to persecute. In the essay’s very telling terms, the leader will increase the “dose” of populism in their moves to demonize competitors and transform institutions. I ask when, if ever, might populist legislators or executives instead rearticulate the cultural logic that assigns the sacred side to “the people,” and assign it instead to “citizens” or some less culturally specific category—what some US observers expect or hope will happen when an incumbent of the Presidency “grows into the office.”
Second, can CST tell us when left-populist constituencies become right-populist constituencies? Can it say in some depth how that happens? The question invites intricacies of interpretation as well as theorizing. I raise it because I was struck by the discussion in Kivisto and Sciortino’s concluding chapter about former US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. I wondered how CST would interpret people who were attentive to Sanders early in 2016 and then voted for Trump in the general November election.
Here is an instance where theory’s encounter with object may be complicated by the interpretive leeway inside the theoretical framework. Is Sanders a left populist? The authors say no, he’s a man of the established social democratic left. The chapter introduces its own adjunct concepts to make populism tractable to CST. It offers that populism is among other things a “low-manners” phenomenon, and that this evaluative phrase would not describe Sanders well. At least some observers would agree that he is a person of the responsible democratic left, as the chapter puts it—and is also a left populist in speech and gesture. He rails against the billionaires. He gives off plainly non-elite cultural signals. It would be hard to characterize Sanders as “low-manners,” but his signature winter parka couture apparently concedes little to ceremony. All of this is to say that for some research questions, we may find the encounter between a somewhat malleable theory of the cultural center and the shape-shifting, multipolar world of populism to be risky, if certainly worth the effort.
That leads to my last, open question: Can CST helpfully interpret populist-like collective action that does not stretch, repair or shrink a national civil sphere directly? Should CST aim to address that kind of object? Here I think of a kind of collective action that is extremely widespread in social movement activity, nonprofit advocacy and community service projects in the US. We may think of it as a performance, in which actors relate to each other as members loyally defending a social or political category. They talk and act together as people who expect to identify closely with each other. They do not simply coalesce temporarily around an issue. I call this form of civic action a community of identity (Paul Lichterman, 2021. How Civic Action Works: Fighting for Housing in Los Angeles. Princeton: Princeton University Press). Participants identify with each other against what they construct as invasive outside forces that threaten the autonomy and authenticity of the collective. We hear and see this form of action when people organize as “the community” fighting property developers or city planners who promote gentrification, for example. “The community” is rather like “the people” writ small. It sounds like a kind of left populism. It shapes the terms and outcomes too of advocacy campaigns across the US on a variety of urban issues. The influence on national, societal community as a whole may be indirect, or slowly cumulative. The claims of numerous communities of identity within one, national social movement may also ricochet in mass-mediated national debate, and over time these may help broaden or narrow the categories of person who fully enjoy solidarity in the civil sphere. In any event this kind of left populism has oriented a lot of civic action in the US over the past several decades. And I wonder what an encounter between that kind of populist object and CST would be like.
Generative work leaves us with new puzzles. Populism in the Civil Sphere is a valuable collection partly because the essays offer excellent, provocative questions. The volume shows too that there are profoundly important questions for scholars and citizens too that civil sphere theory already addresses.
Can the civil sphere contain populism?
Ming-Cheng M. Lo
(University of California-Davis)
American sociologists seem to have a “Bernie Sanders problem.” We are not quite sure if Bernie is a populist. If he is a populist, we are not sure if we can call him a good populist. If he is a good populist, we cannot quite agree on how to distinguish between “good” versus “bad” populisms.
Populism in the Civil Sphere presents a conversation that helps us think productively about our Bernie Sanders problem. The Conclusion, written by Kivisto and Sciortino, ends with an explicit verdict: Sanders is not a populist, because, despite his strong anti-establishment position and rhetoric, Sanders embraces pluralism and respects constitutional democracy. After all, Sanders did not instigate a riot on Capitol Hill in the name of the “people.”
Kivisto and Sciortino’s conceptualization of populism resonates with that of Mudde’s in his frequently referenced studies. Mudde defines populism as a “thin-centered ideology” that (1) focuses on the antagonism between the people and the elite; (2) assumes the existence of a homogeneous “will” of the people; and (3) elevates direct expression of the popular will above institutional checks-and-balances (Mudde 2004; Mudde and Kaltwasser 2013). The over-moralization of a presumably homogeneous “will of the people” suggests that populism is inherently anti-pluralist and suspicious of the democratic institutions that mediate direct expressions of the popular will.
However, not all scholars agree with this definition. Mudde and Kaltwasser observe that many researchers focus on the moral distinction between “the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite” as the key feature of populism, whereas in their argument, an equally important but frequently overlooked feature is the assumption of a homogeneous will of the people. Populism is “about the very idea that all individuals of a given community are able to unify their wills with the aim of proclaiming popular sovereignty as the only legitimate source of political power…. Oddly enough, this aspect is often overlooked in the scholarly literature” (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2013, p.151). Similar tensions exist in Populism in the Civil Sphere. Just as Kivisto and Sciortino’s Conclusion characterizes populism as fundamentally anti-pluralist, Morgan’s chapter accentuates the possibility of a potentially pluralist populism, which recognizes its vision of the “people’s will” as necessarily “a forever unfinished project” (p. 37). At the core of such scholarly contention lies a set of twin questions: Normatively, can populism ever be good for democracy? Analytically, what is the relationship between inclusiveness and democracy?
As we confront the rising threat of populism around the globe today, these twin questions are particularly important. To this end, Populism in the Civil Sphere presents several thoughtful points. First, the volume clarifies that, while there is broad consensus that rightwing populism tends to be exclusive, left-wing populism is generally inclusive. Second, because inclusive populism typically broadens civil solidarity, it is conceptualized as a path to progressive civil repairs. Third, once in power, populists, leftwing or rightwing, almost always turn their vision of “the people’s will” into a moral basis to repress their perceived “enemies of the people.” In these instances, even inclusive populism becomes anti-democratic. As Botello’s and Altinordu’s chapters show, after winning major elections, populist leaders in Mexico and Turkey, who had advocated for the poor, proceeded to repress the media and rewrite institutional regulations, resulting in anti-democratic rather than democratic transformations.
But here is the remaining question: Even if there are many empirical cases of inclusive populism that ultimately became anti-democratic, is it theoretically possible to conceptualize a democratic populism? While it does not provide a definitive answer, the volume offers an important conceptual tool. Adopting the framework of civil sphere theory (CST), the volume shows that populism is both rooted in healthy tensions within the civil sphere yet differs from “politics as usual.” Most chapters emphasize that the antagonism between the people and the elite in and of itself is not anti-pluralist. Indeed, fierce competition between different interpretations of what is rational, just, and virtuous is seen as foundational to the very operation of the civil sphere. Instead, what pushes civil competitions to become uncivil populism is the repeated attempts to delegitimize one’s opponents, e.g., spreading misinformation about them, or to undermine communicative and regulatory institutions in civil society, e.g., launching baseless attacks on the media or electoral processes. Luengo and Kolankowska’s and Enroth’s chapters demonstrate how populists in Poland and Sweden engaged in such practices, which Tognoto in this volume aptly terms “civil mimicry.” Furthermore, CST highlights a temporal understanding of the pluralist potential of the civil sphere – real civil societies approach, but never fully achieve, its ideal of universal solidarity (Alexander 2006).
However, adamant they are about their vision, agents of the civil sphere can only remain true to their democratic aspiration if they allow their vision to be challenged and amended, implicitly or explicitly acknowledging their inevitable partiality. From this perspective, populists, who singularize the will of the people in the moment, can potentially be pluralist if they admit that their vision is in need of future revisions. Can populists maintain such discursive reflexivity and protect its necessary institutional space? In theory, Morgan believes yes. In practice, Kivisto and Sciortino’s observation is no.
As the volume crystalizes this tension between the theoretical and the empirical appraisals of populism, it gestures towards a key direction for future research. Empirically, it invites scholars to analyze how progressive populists concretely pursue the people’s will as a “forever unfinished project.” If such cases can be well documented and understood, it will reformulate our perspectives on how populism contributes to as well as compromises democracy. Accordingly, such insights can reshape our discussions about how to contain the dark side of populism from within.
Furthermore, expanding the book’s rich studies of how populism triumphed, future research should address how counter-populism prevails. Junker in this volume credits the downfall of Bo Xilai to the CCP’s willingness to use repression. We can ask: are there democratic mechanisms that can similarly rein in populism? Binder’s chapter suggests one answer. Focusing on how binary codes structure and are structured by trauma narratives, Binder shows that the memory culture of “never Auschwitz again!” dampened the resonance of rightwing rhetoric in the former West Germany. Elsewhere, commentators have discussed why Tsai Ing-wen, labeled by some as the “Angela Merkel of Asia,” defeated her opponent Han Kuo-Yu, widely known as “Taiwan’s Trump,” in Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. Many argue that Han successfully performed the commoner who understood real people’s problems. However, Tsai outperformed Han when she managed to transform her image from a boring technocrat to the “iron cat lady” who combined coolness, cuteness, and wisdom. From a CST perspective, the triumph of “the Angela Merkel of Asia” over “Taiwan’s Trump” can be interpreted as the voters expressing greater trust in democratic institutions than populist promises. More research is needed to identify the performative, emotional, and contextual factors accounting for similar counter-populist successes.
Finally, while several chapters treat electoral outcomes as a key indicator for the success of populism, others indicate that electoral outcomes do not fully capture the patterns of public resonance. Enroth and Tognato both emphasize the processes in which populists appropriate and invert civil codes and, in so doing, make their claims resonant with certain social groups without necessarily winning elections. Elsewhere, Karakaya (2019) argues that, even among supporters, the appeal of populist performances often varies and is always contingent. Indeed, the diverse cases in this volume reminds us that populism does not only, or always, appeal to “white men without college degrees.” Future research should further analyze these varied and contingent patterns of resonance, not the least because such knowledge would be indispensable to facilitate our attempts at breaking down the multiple “empathy walls” in the civil sphere (Hochschild 2016).
Elaborating on the powerful framework of CST and informed by a truly global selection of cases, Populism in the Civil Sphere has laid an important foundation upon which we can continue to wrestle with these timely questions about how to mobilize civil sphere structures, narratives, and performances to contain the dark side of populism.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2006. The Civil Sphere. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hochschild Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.
Karakaya, Yagmur. 2020. “The Conquest of Hearts: The Central Role of Ottoman Nostalgia within Contemporary Turkish Populism.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 8: 125-157.
Mudde, Cas. 2004. “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition 39(4):541-63.
Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2013. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition 48(2):147-74.
Populism and Democracy: A Reply
Jeffrey C. Alexander
It is a singular privilege to have distinguished colleagues, expert in shared intellectual endeavors, devote concerted time to evaluating one’s efforts. Deeply appreciating their appreciation of Populism in the Civil Sphere (PCS), I note how carefully they have responded to almost every one of its singular contributors, whom I am confident will share my satisfaction with Robert Jansen’s statement that “anyone interested in reflecting in a fresh way on the relationship between populism and democracy would do well to read this book.” As Mabel Berezin notes, Jansen’s own sociological approach to populism – he has authored a strikingly original book on the origins of Latin American populism in 1931 Peru (Jansen 2017) — “bears a kinship relation” to the one that my collaborators and I take in our book. We, too, offer a culturally focused alternative to reductive structural explanation and to the thinness of repertoire theory (cf., Berezin 1997), focusing, as Jansen did, less on the underlying causes of populism – so variously evoked as to be infinite – than on the processes that actually call it into being. I also note with appreciation that Ming-Cheng Lo and Berezin both praise the volume for highlighting populism from the left, when so often deepens social justice, becoming dangerous to democracy only on its extremes.
This brief note, however, is not an occasion to dwell on the positive. In what follows, I respond to criticisms my colleagues have made. After doing so, I will conclude with some remarks about the battle for democracy being waged against radical rightwing populism today.
The first red flag I would like to consider is Jansen’s concern that most chapters in PCS focus on populist challenges inside established democracies rather than in “countries where democracy is weak, poorly institutionalized, or even non-existent.” Jansen worries that, if civil sphere theory (CST) applies only to established democracies, then its “scope conditions” are “considerably narrower” than what is needed to understand contemporary populism.
In response, I would like to note, first, that one of the PCS’s distinctive ambitions, as Jansen’s and other commentators have observed, is to demonstrate the rootedness of populism inside civil spheres rather than, per most previous accounts, as an anti-democratic threat from without. Second, there is actually a significant emphasis in PCS on weakly institutionalized democracies. Chapters are devoted to the Philippines, Turkey, Mexico, and also to populism in China, where democracy does not exist, a chapter that Jansen discusses but regards as anomalous. My third response looks beyond PCS to the broader research program that has developed since the first “installment” of civil sphere theory in 2006 (Alexander 2006). In the years since, there has, fact, been a concerted effort to conceptualize the civil spheres of less democratic and even anti-democratic societies. A leader of this ongoing effort has been the French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, who has suggested that, while “a full-fledged civil sphere does not actually exist in every society,” the “capacity to build one is inherent at least to every modernizing society, and can be actualized” (Khosrokhavar 2015: 153). Just as Khosrokhavar (2012, 2015, 2020) has devoted considerable attention to conceptualizing civil-emancipatory and civil-repressive movements in the authoritarian societies of Muslim north Africa, a shared ambition animated contributors to The Civil Sphere in Latin America (Alexander and Tognato 2018) and The Civil Sphere in East Asia (Alexander, Palmer, Park, and Ku 2020), where theoretically innovative and deeply researched chapters were devoted Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, China, and Taiwan.
The second issue to which I respond, or in this case amend, is Berezin’s discussion of the relationship between CST and Habermas’ public sphere theory. While the German philosopher’s effort to theorize democracy has, indeed, inspired me from the beginning of my intellectual career, I have also, from those early days, taken strong issue with his understanding of culture and communication (Alexander 1985). Habermas insists that the pragmatic exigencies of making oneself understood to others creates universal truth conditions that provide the cultural underpinnings of democracy. Drawing from the language theories of Saussure and Austin, I have argued for a more aesthetic approach, showing that democratic discourse necessarily draws from extra-individual cultural codes whose system of othering “binarisms” is largely invisible to the speakers who evoke them. While Habermas and other theorists in the republican tradition, like Arendt, idealize publics and their discourse, my cultural-sociological approach is more skeptical, seeing references to rationality, autonomy, and transparency as performative claims than as objective or cognitive realities. Even in discursive terms, moreover, such claims to sacred republican virtues are always accompanied by contrasts with antithetical polluted qualities, such as irrationality, dependence, and dishonesty. These internal contradictions of civil discourse have, from the first democracy in ancient Greece, provided putatively legitimate justification for excluding “others” from the civil public sphere.
These considerations segue nicely into those I would like to raise in my third response. If pollution and exclusion are, indeed, at the very heart of how civil sphere theory had conceptualized the discourse of civil society, then Paul Lichterman’s identification of CST as a “theory of the center” appears tendentious and Berezin’s description of CST as an “equilibrium” theory that fails “to give voice to excluded others” seems very wide of the mark. The axial point of CST is neither central powers nor social harmony. To the contrary, its relentless focus is on the distance between the utopian promises of civil spheres and the far from ideal deficits of “real civil societies.” This distance is created by the systemic contradictions that haunt actually existing civil spheres (Alexander 2006: 193-209). When the utopia ideals of civil spheres are instantiated in space and time, they become compromised by the primordial qualities of founders and crystallized by communicative and regulative institutions that are compelled to engage in continuous efforts to interpret and resolve boundary tensions between civil spheres and the non, often anti-civil spheres that surround them.
The contradictions that compromise the ethical ambitions of civil spheres trigger social movements that challenge the legitimacy of established elites and core groups, creating possibilities for civil repair yet, at the same time, backlash movements against them. Real civil spheres are buffeted between “frontlash” forces that struggle to expand social solidarity and backlash movements that aim to narrow and further primordialize it (Alexander 2019a). I devoted many chapters in The Civil Sphere to contentious social upheavals unleashed by struggles for Black civil rights and women’s equality and to explaining how backlash against the civil repair of antisemitism exacerbated bigotry, renewed anti-Jewish exclusions, and eventually triggered genocide (Alexander 2006: 213-548). An entire volume of original essays, Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere, brought CST to bear on “modes of political action usually condemned, not only by government, but also by organizations from churches and charities to voluntary associations and social movements, as well as in the press” (Stack and Alexander 2020: 1), its findings suggesting that “CST offers clues to help understand why actors engage in radical acts and what happens when they do” (Stack and Alexander 2020: 3).
Drawing from the strong program in cultural sociology, CST emphasizes the relative autonomy of cultural codes and narratives, challenging the functionalist premise that sociologists should consider culture narrowly, limiting their focus to the “values” whose institutionalization putatively ensures social harmony. From the perspective of CST, it is quite the other way around. Every effort to institutionalize the civil sphere’s utopian promises underscores the distance between what is and what can be, triggering movements for civil repair like Black Lives Matters (Ostertag 2020) and #MeToo (Alexander 2019b: 73-110).
Ming-Cheng Low is right when she observes that “fierce competition between different interpretations of what is rational, just, and virtuous is seen as foundational to the very operation of the civil sphere.” During The Civil Sphere’s years of gestation, I often considered making the subtitle “A Sociological Theory of Justice,” for I view CST as a cultural-sociological complement to John Rawls’ philosophical work, A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls argues that a “veil of ignorance” blinds democratic citizens to the moral obligations of “the original position,” a thought experiment that requires citizens to devise equity rules for distributing social goods without knowing what their own social position would be. CST demonstrates that only insofar as citizens experience a civil form of solidarity will the veil of ignorance can be torn away, such that the moral consequences of the original position trigger civil repair. CST is a theory of justice not harmony.
The last response I make is to Lichterman’s suggestion that CST move from macro to micro, from concentrating almost exclusively on struggles over justice at the national level to city and regional protest movements that preoccupy a large part of local political life. “Can CST helpfully interpret populist-like collective actions,” he asks, “that does not stretch, repair, or shrink a national civil sphere directly,” such as forms of “civic action” the emerge when “people organize as ‘the community’ fighting property developers or city planners who promote gentrification”? Observing that “‘the community’ is rather like ‘the people’ writ small,” Lichterman suggests, quite rightly, that community struggles are about civil repair, that “such left populism [has] orient[ed] a lot of ordinary citizen action in the US over the past 40 years” and often “ricochet[s] in mass-mediated national debate” and that, “over time,” such struggles have helped “broaden or narrow the categories of person who fully enjoy solidarity in the civil sphere.” I find these remarks by Lichterman dead on, and plead “guilty as charged.” The debilitating division between micro and macro has prevented CST from engaging with the field of community studies, the distinctively American sociological effort to conceptualize grass roots social reform. Lichterman wonders “what an encounter between that kind of [local] populist object and CST would be like.” I do too. Paul, let’s organize a conference/book project on Civil Spheres at the Grass Roots and study this together!
In conclusion, I turn to how this collection – organized with my long-time CST soulmates Peter Kivisto and Giuseppe Sciortino – can help illuminate, not only how populism sometimes wins out, but how, as Ming-Cheng Lo puts it, “counter-populism [often] prevails” (original italics). When scholars conceptualize populism as anomalous anti-democratic deviation, they black-box democracy, separating the analysis of backlash movements from understandings of structures that allow civil repair. But “if you want to understand the social consequences of populism,” Jansen remarks, then “you have to start from a theory of how the civil sphere works.” If the contributions to PCS demonstrate how contradictions in civil spheres trigger populism, they also show how understanding civil spheres can help explain, in Lo’s words, how “democratic mechanisms” may “reign … populism” in.
Not only populists but anti-populists can perform the role of the “people’s hero.” Lo points out how Tsai Ing-wen defeated her populist opponent in Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election by “successfully perform[ing] the commoner who understood real people’s problems.” Just so, in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Joe Biden played a convincing “everyman” against the rich man’s populist savageries of Donald Trump.
Lo also points out that CST conceptualizes not only civil discourse, which crystallizes meanings, but civil institutions, which transform such public opinion into forms of persuasive and coercive power via communicative institutions like journalism and regulative institutions like law, elections, and office. To the degree that civil institutions retain their independence – so long as they remain rooted in a relatively differentiated civil sphere – they act as powerful brushes that filter the insidiously far-fetched claims of populist demagoguery (Luengo and Garcia-Marin 2020). Amidst liberal hysteria about Fox News and right wing “network propaganda” (Benkler et al 2018), it is often forgotten how, throughout Trump’s seemingly endless years in office, elite professional journalists in the national media, from the New York Times and the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal, continuously polluted the president as a liar and a bigot, creating one highly publicized investigative scoop after another into his nefarious activities. After the November 2020 election, the same core media institutions coolly and accurately debunked frantic Trumpian conspiracies to nullify the vote, reporting that laid the foundations for the massive upswelling of public indignation that exploded after the insurgencyt on January 6th. Performing a national “vital center” into being, these communicative actions by professional journalism sustained the possibility of civil solidarity (Luengo and Ihlebaek 2020). So did actions of civil sphere “agents” directing regulatory institutions. Local voting officials, like secretaries of state, fulfilled the duties of their civil offices rather than following their partisan interests, ensuring fair and unimpeded voting, conducting fair recounts, and steadfastly resisting the threats and bribes of right-wing populists, from the President on down. Meanwhile, state and federal courts broadly resisted the President’s anti-democratic onslaught, rejecting dozens of incendiary lawsuits that deployed fabricated evidence to claim election fraud (Bowden and Teague 2022).
Populism is not something that threatens democracy from outside. It is generated from strains and contradictions at the core of every real existing civil sphere. But if these threats are endemic, so also are the communicative and regulative institutions that can crystallize outraged public opinion and resist right-wing populism’s anti-democratic advance.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 1985. “Habermas’ New Critical Theory: Its Promise and Problems.” American Journal of Sociology 91 (2): 400-425.
________. 2006. The Civil Sphere. New York: Oxford.
________. 2019a. “Frontlash/Backlash: The Crisis of Solidarity and the Threat to Civil Institutions.” Contemporary Sociology 48 (1): 5-11.
________. 2019b. What Makes a Social Crisis? The Societalization of Social Problems. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. and Carlo Tognato, eds. 2018. The Civil Sphere in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Alexander, Jeffrey C., David A. Palmer, Sunwoong Park, and Agnes Shuk-mei Ku, eds. 2020. The Civil Sphere in East Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Alexander, Jeffrey C., Trevor Stack, and Farhad Khosrokhavar, eds. 2020. Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Berezin, Mabel. 1997 Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Bowden, Mark and Matthew Teague. 2022. The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Jansen, Robert S. 2017. Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Khosrokhavar, Farhad. 2012. The Arab Revolutions That Shook the World. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
––––––––. 2015. “The Civil Sphere and the Arab Spring: On the Universality of Civil Society,” pp. 142-171 in Peter Kivisto and Giuseppe Sciortino, eds., Solidarity, Justice, and Incorporation: Thinking through The Civil Sphere. New York: Oxford University Press.
________. 2020. “The Civil Sphere and Its Variants in Light of the Arab Revolutions and Jihadism in Europe,” pp. 92-122 in J.C. Alexander, T. Stack, and F. Khosrokhavar, eds., Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Luengo, Maria and David Garcia-Marin. 2020. “The Performance of Truth: Politicians, Fact-Checking Journalism, and the Struggle to Tackle COVID-19 Misinformation.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 8: 405-427.
Luengo, Maria and Karoline A. Ihleboek. 2020. “Restaging a Vital Center within Radicalized Civil Societies: The Media, Performativity, and the Charlie Hebdo Attack,” pp. 123-144 in J. C. Alexander, T. Stack, and F. Khosrokhavar, eds., Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ostertag, Stephen F. 2020. Antiracism Movements and the US Civil Sphere: The Case of Black Lives Matter,” pp. 70-91 in J. C. Alexander, T. Stack, and F. Khosrokhavar, eds., Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.
John Rawls. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stack, Trevor and J.C. Alexander. 2020. “Introduction: On radicalism and the Civil Order,” pp. 1-10 in J. C. Alexander, T. Stack, and F. Khosrokhavar, eds., Breaching the Civil Order: Radicalism and the Civil Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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