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Glossary of Political Terminology

Actual Malice: A precedent established in the Supreme Court case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, The court ruled that to establish libel against a public official, knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth must be proven.

Advisory Referendum: A measure that appears on the ballot which in non-binding.  It is mostly used to engage popular opinion.

American Exceptionalism:  Belief that America is superior to all other nations.

Anarchy: Absence of any governing authority.

Arkansas Project: An effort funded by newspaper publisher Richard Mellon Scaife to find damaging information on Bill Clinton.

Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union: Written by the Continental Congress. This was the Constitution of the first thirteen colonies. This governing authority was written in 1776.  Because of criticism from Federalists believing that the federal government lacked necessary power, it was eventually supplanted with the U.S. Constitution.

Australian Ballot: System employed in the United States in which all ballots are marked in secret.

Authoritarianism: System of government in which the state has much power over the individual.

Bicameralism: Two separate legislative chambers.  At the federal level, the Congress is divided into the Senate and House of Representatives.  The legislative branch in every state except Nebraska is also comprised of two chambers.

Bill of Attainder: The punishment of an individual without a trial.  Article 1 Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution disallows this practice at the state and federal levels.

Blanket Primary: Primary in which the electorate can vote for members of different parties for different offices.  For example, a voter could select a Republican candidate for Governor and a Democrat for State Senator. The leading vote-getter for each party goes on to compete in the general election.

Blowback: A term coined by the CIA referring to the future negative unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy, including covert operations. Many point to the Iran Hostage Crises in 1979 as being blowback by the Iranians for the U.S. support of the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953.

Blue Dog Democrat: The modern term for a Conservative Democrat.  Most come from more conservative parts of the country, including the South and the West, where the national Democratic Party is often looked upon as too liberal.  The term was coined by U.S. Representative Peter Geren (D-TX 1989-1997) who said that Conservative Democrats were being choked blue by extreme Democrats and Republicans.  Most Blue Dog Democrats are particularly interested in balancing the federal budget.

Boll weevils: A term referring to Conservative Democrats from the mid to late twentieth-century.  A pre-curser to what is now known as a “Blue Dog Democrat.”

Boondoggle:  A project funded by the government with little redeeming value.

Budget Deficit: When annual government expenditures exceed annual government receipts.

Budget Surplus: When government receipts exceed government expenditures.

Bureaucracy: Commonly refers to the structure and regulation needed in a large organization such as a corporation or government entity to accomplish tasks.

Bush Doctrine: The U.S. will not distinguish between terrorists themselves and those who harbor the terrorists and will use force if necessary to “take out” regimes which represent a potential threat to the U.S.

Carter Doctrine: Offered in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. President Jimmy Carter asserted that the U.S. would intervene militarily if necessary anywhere in the Persian Gulf to defend U.S. national interests.

Ceteris Paribus: Other things being equal.

Checks and Balances: A system in which different branches of government have oversight over the others, so none becomes omnipotent.

Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives: The House’s chief record-keeper.  The Clerk is elected every two years.

Clinton Doctrine: The U.S. will intervene abroad to defend its values, including human rights.

Closed Primary: Primary election in which only members of one party are afforded the right to participate.

Cloture: Ending a filibuster.  It needs the approval of 60 U.S. Senators.

CNN Effect: The belief that the images Americans see on their TV sets has a direct affect on how they view the foreign policies of their government.  The term originates from the Somalia Crisis in the early-mid 1990’s, when viewers saw the malnourished Somalis on TV.  They then pressured their government to send troops to stop the suffering.  Later, when they saw Somali’s dragging U.S. casualties of a firefight through the streets, they demanded withdrawal.

Coattail Effect: The ability of a popular politician at the top of the ballot, such as a Governor or Senator, to bring voters to the polls who will also vote for other candidates of his/her political party further down the ballot.  These other candidates could include members of Congress, state legislatures, and municipal officials.

Command Economy: System where the government rather than market forces centrally plans economic activity.

Commander-in-Chief Clause: Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution says the President shall be: “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States and the militia of the several states.”

Common Victuallers License:  A license granted by a public entity allowing one to serve alcoholic beverages.

Communism: a system of government in which the entire population owns most property, and private property is extremely limited.  Ex:  North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.

Concurrent Resolution: A measure passed by both houses of the U.S. Congress that does not have the power of law and does not need the signature of the president.

Congress of the Confederation or the United States in Congress Assembled: The precursor to the United State Congress.  It was the governing body of the United States from March 1, 1781 to March 4, 1789.

Congressional Delegate: A non-voting representative to the U.S. House of Representatives from American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the United States Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia.  They are elected to two-year terms.  A Congressional Delegate has all privileges afforded other members, such as speaking privileges, drafting legislation, and committee voting.  However, the Delegates are not afforded the right to vote on legislation.

Congressionalist: One who believes Congress should have wide-ranging power.

Constitutional Republic: A system of government where the citizenry elect officials who must govern in a way that comports with a governing Constitution.  The United States of America is an example.

Continuing Resolution: A Joint Resolution passed by Congress providing funding for government agencies at existing levels.  This is a temporary measure to provide funding prior to the Congress and President working out an agreement for the full funding for the fiscal year.

Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives: Longest serving member of the House in consecutive terms.  The Dean’s only official duty is to swear in the Speaker of the House.

Declaration of Independence: Manuscript written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 proclaiming independence of the U.S. from Great Britain.

Democratic Leadership Council (DLC): A non-profit corporation founded in 1985 to moderate the Democratic Party and expand its voter-base to include moderate voters.  Former Chairman Bill Clinton used many of the themes of the DLC in his presidential campaign in 1992.  Other former chairmen include then U.S. Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), then U.S. Senator John Breux (D-LA), and then U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA).

Democratic Peace Theory: Belief that liberal democracies do not go to war with each other because the majority of the population will never vote to go to war or elect people who would.  Accordingly, if all nations were liberal democracies, there would be no war. Many Neo-Conservatives have adopted this premise.

De-politicized Citizenry: A system where the population is not actively engaged in the political decisions of their times.

Deputy President pro tempore: Any former President or Vice President who returns to serve in the U.S. Senate is entitled to this position, which includes an increase in salary.

DINO: Democrat-In-Name-Only

Direct Democracy: System where citizens participate in drafting and voting on laws.  An example is a New England style town meeting.

Down Ballot: Candidates for offices, such as Congressman, state legislators, and municipal officials, whose office is not at the top of the ballot.  The top might include candidates for President, Governor, Mayor, etc.

Dual Federalism: Doctrine espoused by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney (1777-1864) which maintained that the state and federal governments should have separate but equal powers.

Earmark: Congressionally directed spending geared toward funding specific projects or programs such as constructing a new wing at a college, building a bicycle path, or preserving an historic landmark.

Enumerated powers: Eighteen specific powers delegated to the United States Congress from Article 1 Section 8 of the United States Constitution.

Executive Agreement: An accord between the President and a foreign head of government that needs a simple up or down vote by both houses of Congress to win approval.

Ex post facto Law: A law passed “after the fact.” Under the U.S. Constitution, no American can be penalized for violating a law before it becomes the law of the land.

Fascism: Authoritarian/nationalistic political ideology. Sometimes this is the amalgamation of religious and corporate interests.

Federalism: The delineation of powers between the federal and state governments.

Federalist Papers: Eighty-five articles written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison and published in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet.  They advocated for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Filibuster: In the U.S. Senate, members are permitted to speak indefinitely on a subject to avoid a vote.  Only with 60 votes can the Senate vote to invoke cloture, thus ending debate on voting.  Then U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC) holds the record for the longest filibuster.  He spent 24 hours and 18 minutes filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Free Rider: One who receives the benefits of government policy without incurring the costs.

Free Trade: Free flow of goods and services not subject to tariffs.

Gerrymandering: The manipulation of the redistricting process at the state level to benefit the majority party and/or all incumbents.  The term originated to describe Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s (1810-1812) successful attempt to maximize the numerical political advantage for his Democratic-Republican Party.

Great Society: An all-encompassing term for the social programs proposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Legislation was enacted in areas such as Health Care, Civil Rights, and Education Reform.

Gross Domestic Product: The market value of all goods and services produced in a country, usually annually.

Gross National Product: Measures of national income and output used to estimate the welfare of an economy through totaling the value of goods and services produced in an economy.

Half-Breeds: Moderate Republicans in the latter half of the nineteenth century who favored civil service reform.  Their standard bearer was Maine Senator James G. Blaine.

Ideologue: A person with a certain grand design or philosophical mindset of how the world should be.

Impeachment: Article Two Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states that “The President, Vice President, and all other civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  If a majority votes in the U.S. House of Representatives for impeachment, then the articles are sent to the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required for conviction.

Impoundment: The refusal of a sitting president to spend funds for something that the legislature has appropriated funds for.

Incrementalism: Achieving legislative goals step-by-step by passing a series of small legislation.

Incumbent: A current holder of an office.

Inflation: The rising prices of goods and services.

Infotainment: The amalgamation of news with entertainment.

Initiative: A vehicle for the citizens to propose legislation or constitutional amendments to be placed on the ballot for an up or down vote by the electorate.  Accordingly, the usual legislative process is circumvented.  Twenty-four states currently have some form of the initiative option.

Injunction: A Court order requiring a person or entity to do something or to refrain from doing a certain act or behavior.

Instant Runoff Voting: A voting system where voters rank all candidates. The candidate with the fewest first place votes is dropped and the voter’s second choice replaces the first choice of those who placed him/her first. This process is repeated until two candidates remain.

Invisible Hand: A term coined by the Scottish Economist Adam Smith to describe his belief that there is a natural regulator in a free-market-system.

Isolationism: Belief that a country should be averse to all relations with other nations, including commercial, cultural, and military isolation.

Joint Resolution: A measure requiring approval of both chambers of Congress before going to the president for his/her subsequent approval or disapproval.

Jungle Primary: A primary election where candidates run for office on the same ballot.  If no candidate musters a majority of the vote, there is a run-off between the two top finishers. This system is used in Louisiana.

Laissez-faire: A French word translated: “to allow to do, to leave alone.”  The term is used to mean that the government should not regulate the economy.

Lame duck: An incumbent elected official who has lost much of his/her influence because the official’s term is nearing an end and they are not seeking re-election.

Layer-Cake Federalism: A system where the federal and state governments have clearly delineated and specific functions.  Both governments perform that function with little intercourse.

LBJ Rule: In 1959, the Texas legislature approved legislation allowing a politician to run for two political offices simultaneously.  This benefited Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 as he sought both re-election to the U.S. Senate and the Presidency. After failing to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, he ran for Vice President that year.  He subsequently won both the Vice Presidency and re-election to the U.S. Senate. Other Texas officials, including U.S. Senators Lloyd Benson and Phil Gramm, and U.S. Representative Ron Paul, have used the law to seek higher office while running for re-election.

Legislative Referendum: The legislature refers a measure to the voters for their up or down vote.

Letters of Marque and Reprisal: Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution gives the President the power to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.” It allows the president to search, seize, or destroy specified assets or personal belongings of a foreign party that has committed some offense under the laws of nations.

Libertarianism: A belief that government should be a limited-purpose entity devoted to protect a person’s life, liberty, and property.

Line-Item Veto: Power of the executive to reject provisions in a piece of legislation without vetoing the legislation outright.  At the federal level, the Line-Item Veto Act of 1996 was nullified in Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U.S. 417 (1998).  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Act violated the Presentment Clause of the United States Constitution because it impermissibly gave the President of the United States the power to unilaterally amend or repeal parts of statutes that had been duly passed by the United States Congress. At the state level, Forty-three state Governors have this privilege.

Local Aid: Transfer of revenue from state to municipal governments to pay for local services.

Logrolling: When two members of a legislative body agree to support each other’s legislation on separate issues.

Majority and Minority Leader: In both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, these elected members serve as floor leader for their respective parties. When they are not there, a designee is selected. In the House, the Majority leader is second-in-command to the Speaker of the House.

Manifest Destiny: Originally referred to the belief that the U.S. was destined to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Today it has come to mean that the U.S. must increase its territory.

Mayflower Compact: A document signed by 41 Mayflower voyagers on November 11, 1620 establishing the government structure of Plymouth Colony.  The signers agreed to follow the contract and: “mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation.”

Micro Governing: Governing by focusing on specific small-bore issues.

Mixed Economy: An economic system that combines forces from multiple economic structures.

National Debt: The accumulative amount of annual deficits.

Neo-Conservatism: Former Cold War Liberal Democrats who became disillusioned with what they viewed as the Democratic Party’s dovish foreign policy. Many supported then U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s (D-WA) bids for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1972 and 1976. After his loss, many gradually migrated to the Republican fold and supported President Ronald Reagan.  Today, they are strong supporters of an activist foreign policy that promotes Democracy abroad.  American intellectual Irving Kristol (1920-2009) is considered by many to be the Patron Saint of this ideology.

New Democrat: A Democrat who generally strives to bring the Democratic Party to the center of the political spectrum.  The term New Democrat was popularized in 1992 when the Democratic Presidential Ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore came from this wing of the party.  Most New Democrats are business oriented and favor fiscal austerity and free trade as a vehicle for economic expansion, rather than the more liberal view that government should redistribute the nation’s wealth.

Nixon Doctrine: The U.S. will provide arms to allies, but will not do the actual fighting for them.

Nomination Papers: Papers that are required to be completed when an individual wants to run for public office.

Non-Interventionism: The doctrine that dictates that a country should avoid foreign entanglements with other nations while maintaining commercial and cultural intercourse. Thomas Jefferson said the U.S. should practice: “Peace, Commerce, and honest relations with all nations, entangled alliances with none.”

Nonpartisan election: An election where candidates do not run as a member of a political party.  Most municipal elections fall into this category.

Off-year election: Election held in the middle of a presidential term.

Oligarchy: Rule by the wealthy few.

Open Primary: Primary election in which members of all political parties are invited to participate.

Paleo-Conservative: Ideological descendants of a prominent philosophy in the Republican Party between WWI and WWII. They share a non-interventionist foreign policy, support for federalism, and oppose most government intervention in the economy. Many paleo-conservatives share a populist streak, opposing what they view as attempts by power elites and multi-national corporations to exert influence. In addition, many adherents to this ideology take a hard-line stance against affirmative action and illegal immigration. Examples include President Warren G. Harding (1921-1923), U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH 1939-1953), and political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.

Paleo-Liberal: An ideology that couples support for muscular foreign policy, including high defense spending, with an activist domestic policy, including a generous social safety net. This belief was conventional liberal thinking during the first half of the Cold War.  U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA 1953-1983) was a steadfast exponent of this ideology.

Partisan Election: Election in which candidates declare party affiliation.

Partisan: One who is a steadfast advocate of the interests of his/her political party or cause.

Patron: One who finances a political cause or politician.

Phone Mark: When a legislator does not get his/her earmark placed in legislation, a call is made to a government agency demanding funding. This is kept secret from the public, and is illegal in the U.S.

Plurality: Receiving more votes than any other candidate but not a majority.

Political Football: A topic which politicians debate, but without resolution.  Politicians use the issue for their political advantage.

Political Parlance: Jargon related to politics.

Politicized Citizenry: A system where the population is actively engaged in the political decisions of their times.

Popular Referendum: A measure that appears on the ballot as a result of a voter petition drive. It affords the electorate an up or down vote on legislation passed by a legislative body.

Pork barrel spending: Government funding designed to benefit a special interest rather than benefit the public interest.  It is often intended to benefit a constituent, a private company, or a campaign contributor of a politician.

POTUS: President of the United States.

President of the United States: The chief executive officer of the government who is both head of state and head of government. Presidential powers are derived from Article II of The U.S. Constitution.

President pro tempore emeritus: An honorific office awarded to any former President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate. While the office has no extra powers, its holder is awarded an increase in staff and salary.

President pro tempore of the Senate: Generally the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate holds this position.  This person is the second-highest-ranking official of the United States Senate and is officially the presiding officer.  Usually though, he or she delegates this duty to other members. Third in line of presidential succession, the office’s powers are derived from Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

President-Elect: A winner of a presidential election who has yet to assume the office.

Presidentialist: An advocate of a strong federal executive branch.

Protectionism: The restriction of goods and services from abroad in order to protect domestic industries.

Reagan Doctrine: The U.S. will provide aid to forces fighting against communism, with the grand design of rolling it back.

Reconciliation: Created as part of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, this process allows the Senate to consider any budget legislation without a filibuster.

Republicrat: A political pejorative used to define the common interests of the Republican and Democratic parties by those who think they are two sides of the same coin and have little differences.

Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico: Non-voting representative to the U.S, Congress from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The only representative elected to a four-year term. He or she has all privileges afforded other members, such as speaking privileges, drafting legislation, and committee voting, except voting on final approval of legislation.

Rider: A provision attached to unrelated legislation. Sometimes these are provisions that may be too controversial to pass on their own.

Rider’s Choice: Belief that the decision to wear a motorcycle helmet while riding a motorcycle should be decided by the biker, not the government.

RINO: Republican-In-Name-Only.

Rockefeller Republican: A moderate-liberal block of Republicans who generally favor the policies of fiscal austerity and social liberalism championed by Nelson Rockefeller who served as New York Governor from 1959-1974 and as Vice President of the United States from 1974-1977.

Root-Canal-Economics: The simultaneous raising of taxes and cutting government expenditures, usually to balance the budget.

Separation of Powers: Division of powers among the three branches of government.

Social Conservative: One who believes the government should enforce a moral code for its population. Most are opposed to abortion rights, gay marriage, and most support school prayer.

Socialism: A social and economic structure where property and resources are owned by the government rather than by individuals or private companies.

Speaker of the House: Serves as Presiding officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, he or she is second in line in presidential succession.  Responsibilities include: Calling the House to order, Administering the oath of office to House Members, Presiding over debate, recognizing Members to speak on the floor, and preserving order; or delegating that power to another Member of Congress, setting the legislative agenda, and leading the appointment process for the chairs of the various committees and subcommittees in the House (including conference committees which negotiate final versions of legislation).

Speaker pro tempore: Presides over the U.S. House of Representatives in the absence of the Speaker of the House.

Special Election: An election held to fill a vacancy between elections.

Spoils man: A politician who supports the appointment of public officials based on partisan political considerations.

Stalwart: Republicans in the latter half of the nineteenth century who opposed civil service reform. They supported the candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant for the Republican nomination in 1880 when he sought a third term for the presidency.

Stare decisis: Latin for: “to stand by things decided.” This term refers to the judicial theory that previous court decisions should be precedent and not changed.

State of Nature: The “natural condition of mankind” before governments are instituted.  Seventeenth Century French philosopher Thomas Hobbes maintained that all human beings are in a state of war and their lives are: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  English philosopher John Locke believed that reason which teaches “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” is the governor in this state.

Statute: A law usually written by a legislative branch of a government.

Supply-Side Economics: An economic doctrine popularized by President Ronald Reagan and his Economic Policy Advisor, Arthur Laffer.  It asserts that when marginal tax rates are decreased, economic activity increases, resulting in an increase of government revenue.

Supreme Court of the United States: The highest court in the country.  Its powers are derived from Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Members are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. To receive confirmation they need a majority vote. The Court is composed of eight Associate Justices and one Chief Justice. The Court serves as arbiter of the U.S. Constitution.

Tariffs: Taxes on trade.

Third Party: A political party not associated with the two major ones.  Examples include the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Prohibition Party.

Ticket Splitting: When a voter chooses candidates of different parties for different offices.  For example, the voter may choose a Democrat for President and a Republican for the U.S. Senate.

Timocracy: A system of government where government participation is limited to property owners.  It can also refer to a government where rulers receive their position based on the place of honor they hold in a society.

Town Meeting: A form of direct democracy in which all registered voters in a municipality are invited to attend and vote on town laws and budgets.

Transaction Costs:  The cost of doing business. An example would be the commission paid to a broker to purchase bonds.

Transfer Payment: Money from a government to an individual without the obligation of the individual to pay it back.

Unfunded Liability:  A liability incurred this year that does not have to be paid until sometime in the future.

Unfunded Mandate: Regulations imposed on state and municipal governments without reimbursement from the federal government.

Unicameralism: A legislative branch composed of one chamber. Nebraska is the only state that has this system.

United States Congress: The legislative branch of the United States Government.  Its powers are derived from Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution.  It is composed of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.  Congressmen represent a district of a state, while senators represent the entire state.  Each state has two senators and at least one representative.  The representatives are apportioned based on population of the state.  The smallest state in population is Wyoming, which has only 1 representative.  By contrast, California, the largest state, has fifty-three representatives.

Utopia: A perfect society. The term comes from the title of a book written by English Statesman Sir Thomas More.

Vice President of the United States: The occupant of this office is the President and presiding officer of the U.S. Senate.  Most of the time this power is delegated to the President pro tempore and to other senators from the majority party.  In addition, the Vice President has the power to cast the deciding vote should the Senate vote be tied.  Finally, the Vice President certifies the official count of the Electoral College during Presidential elections.

Virginia Declaration of Rights: Adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776, it was written by Virginia Statesman George Mason. The document affirms the Right to: “life, Liberty, and Property” and delineates restrictions on government power. Its influence is seen in the Declaration of Independence and in the U.S. Constitution.

War Powers Clause: Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to: “Declare War.”

Whip: A member of the congressional leadership. Both the majority and the minority party in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate have one. Their paramount responsibility is to count the votes of members within their own caucus while trying to encourage members to toe the party line.

Wilmot Proviso: In 1846, President James K. Polk requested a $2 million appropriation to purchase land from Mexico.  U.S. Representative David Wilmot (D-PA) proposed a rider to the legislation to prevent slavery in the new acquisition. It passed the House but was tabled in the Senate.  The rider finally passed in 1862.  By that time, Wilmot was no longer in Congress.

Writ of Certiorari: Request of the court to review a case.

Writ of Mandamus: A court order usually requiring a person or corporation to take some specific action.

U.S. Constitution: The governing authority of the United States.  The document was adopted on September 17, 1787 by the Constitutional Convention and Ratified on June 21, 1788.  Thirty-nine Delegates signed it.

Yellow Dog Democrat: A loyal Democrat.  Originally referred to an Alabama Democrat in 1928 who voted for the party’s Presidential nominee Al Smith, despite their misgivings.


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