Commentary Magazine


The Return of Two-Party Politics

For a full generation the Republicans have suffered from an inferiority complex, reflecting a painful awareness that they lacked political sex appeal on economic issues. After each of the five Roosevelt-Truman victories, Republican leaders found that the voting returns of any city pretty much matched its income map. In silk-stocking neighborhoods the Republicans would do well, but the lower down the economic ladder one went, the thinner the Republican vote got.

Since the depression Republican political strategy has been dominated by one driving motive—a hunt for issues or candidates which would divert popular attention from this weakness on bread and work issues. This lack of economic confidence largely explains the eagerness with which so many Republicans have capitalized on the disillusionments of foreign policy. Until the GOP regains its economic nerve, it is doubtful that it can serve as a truly stable and constructive party.

Even Eisenhower’s landslide sweep of thirty-nine states did not erase the line of economic cleavage which Roosevelt drew. Eisenhower, it is true, cracked some of the strongest Roosevelt citadels. He won San Francisco, Bridgeport, and New Haven, which had not voted for a Republican President since Calvin Coolidge; also Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, Buffalo, and Rochester, which had been Democratic since 1932. In our twelve most populous cities, Eisenhower lifted the Republican share of the vote from 38 per cent in 1948 to 44 per cent.

But when one examines the Eisenhower vote in the major cities ward by ward, it still stratifies consistently along income lines. Gaining at all income levels, his vote over rode rather than wiped out the economic cleavage.

What happened was summed up by a Detroit worker. A lifelong Democrat, he was explaining why he favored Eisenhower. Mainly he was “sick of having politicians running the country” and wanted “this inflation stopped.” His ten-year-old son interrupted to ask, “Daddy, what is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?”

“That’s a good question, son,” the father replied. “The Republicans are for people with money and the Democrats are for us poor people.

The fact that this man was marking his ballot for Eisenhower had not wiped out his consciousness of a class conflict between the “common man” and “economic royalist” which Roosevelt had etched so sharply in the minds of millions of Americans. His sense of economic interest had simply been subordinated temporarily to other grievances.

In brief, that was the pattern of the whole of Eisenhower’s victory. Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover had both won a higher percentage of the popular vote, but Eisenhower was the first Republican President since the Civil War to draw substantial electoral support from every section of the nation, from grandchildren of both Union and Confederate veterans, from both farms and cities, suburbs and slums.

He won 31 of the 57 counties which had been Democratic since Al Smith’s candidacy and 278 of the 366 counties which had been Democratic since 1932. He carried counties like Brown and Union in Illinois, Brown and Dubois in Indiana, and Queen Annes in Maryland which had never voted for a Republican President before.

But if the historic significance of Eisenhower’s vote lay in just this fact that it was a truly national vote which surmounted the many bitter partisan cleavages of the past, it also posed one question for future elections to decide:

Could these old antagonisms be subdued for good? Or would the past rise to reassert itself?

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The first voting test—in 1954—was generally interpreted as a victory for the past. Actually, it marked the emergence of a “new look” in American voting which is likely to dominate our elections for some years to come.

Many Democrats, of course, returned to their old ballot markings. Some had voted for Eisenhower in conscious defiance of what they considered their economic interest because of the Korean war. Others had used the Eisenhower “crusade” as a means of purging their own party. As a lawyer in suburban Riverside, near Chicago, put it, “I’m not sorry I went for Eisenhower. The Democrats were in too long. But we’ve had the change and I still feel the Democrats are more the party of the little fellow.”

But the 1954 voting also tore loose old allegiances. A cheesemaker in Des Moines, a railway express worker in Boston, a television shop owner in Minneapolis, a clerk in Detroit, a used-car dealer in Columbus, a Negro factory worker in Newark—in nearly every city I sampled during the campaign some persons told me, “There was so much depression talk in 1952 I was afraid to vote for Eisenhower, but I’d go Republican in 1956.”

Others, like Joseph Schultz, a young Cincinnati salesman, had feared “a military man might get us into war.” In 1954 Schultz swung Republican, explaining, “I’m better off than ever. I like being out of war for a change.”

The closeness of the 1954 voting led to much talk of how confusing the election seemed. By and large, though, the results were a remarkably accurate reflection of economic conditions as they varied in different parts of the country. Where the downturn from 1952 was sharp, as in Michigan and Minnesota, the Democrats swept in. Where the level of prosperity was high, the Republicans held their own or even picked up voters.

In the shuffle of ballots, one item of striking significance was widely overlooked—in a vote dominated by pocketbook considerations the Republicans had come close to running the Democrats a dead heat.

The booming prosperity since 1954 has strengthened further the Republican economic appeal. Among farmers the Republicans have been weakened appreciably by the decline in farm prices. But in urban and industrial areas the old “hard times” imprint that has been the chief Republican liability has been fading—just how fast is the question that probably will decide the 1956 election.

Younger voters, in particular, who did not live through the depression, are inclined to credit the GOP with their economic advancement of recent years. In one middle-class neighborhood in Detroit, a young man was loading his wife and two children into a car when I asked whom he voted for in 1952.

“Stevenson,” he replied. That was my first vote, but I’m going Republican now.

“We’ve just bought a new home,” he went on. “Besides, I’ve been promoted to the administrative side of my company. It’s shown me that there’s another side to the story of how a company is run besides what the workers see. I never appreciated that before.”

There has been enough shifting of this sort so that, in a talk before the National Editorial Writers Conference in the fall of 1955, I expressed the judgment that the odds favored a Republican victory in 1956. That did not mean the Republicans could win with any candidate, I explained, but if the boom continued they would be able to go to the country with the economic edge in their favor for the first time since “those Hoover times.”

Still, it is also my judgment that neither party is likely to win a truly decisive majority before 1960 and possibly not until 1964.

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Part of the Republican problem, of course, is the wide gap between Eisenhower’s personal popularity and how people feel about the Republican party. On one Cleveland street in 1954, three voters declared, “I’d vote for Eisenhower but I have no use for the Republican party.” One of these persons went so far as to say, “I’m for Eisenhower because he’s a pretty good Democrat.”

But my main reason for feeling that a decisive victory lies beyond either party’s reach has little to do with Eisenhower personally. My judgment is based on what seem the main forces behind the truly “big news” of the 1954 election—the dramatic reappearance of a real, nationwide two-party politics.

Only rarely has the United States had two evenly competing parties. The usual pattern has been for one clearly dominant party to hold office until its following divided, as with the Republicans until split by the Bull Moose Roosevelt. The advent of the New Deal did not alter this pattern but switched the role of the parties, with the Democrats becoming the majority sun in our political solar system and the Republicans the minority moon.

But the 1954 voting demonstrated that there no longer was a “normal,” decisive majority on which either party could count. In New Jersey and Connecticut only 3,000-odd ballots provided the margin of victory; in Oregon less than 2,500; in New York Averell Harriman won by 11,125. In all, fourteen Senatorial and gubernatorial contests were settled by less than two per cent of the vote. Outside the South a mere 34,000 votes was the difference between the Democratic and Republican totals for Congress.

To find a period in our history when the major parties were so jealously close, one would have to turn back beyond the voting span of all but a few venerable octogenarians. Between 1877 and 1896 the national political balance was so precariously poised that no party could win the Presidency twice in succession or hold control of both houses of Congress for two terms running.

“This country needs two parties” has long been a favorite slogan of reformers. Yet hardly any of us have had any living experience with such a political situation. So novel a development merits further scrutiny. Why should a genuine two-party politics reappear in the United States at this time? Does it promise to aid or obstruct us in meeting the tests of world leadership?

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Most observers assumed that the 1954 stand-off vote was brought about primarily by a resurgence of Democratic strength. But if the returns are examined county by county and ward by ward, one finds that through most of the country the Republicans actually held a good part of Eisenhower’s gains over 1948. At the same time, though, they failed to hold their strength in areas considered as religiously Republican.

Of the five states where the GOP Congressional vote fell 10 per cent or more from 1952—Kentucky, Wisconsin, Vermont, Maine, and North Dakota—three have regularly ranked among the top Republican states in the nation. Of thirty-two contested districts where the GOP candidates for Congress dropped at least ten percentage points from 1952, five never voted Democratic through the entire New Deal period, while another ten have been Republican since 1940.

Puzzled at what stirred behind this shift, I went into three staunchly Republican counties—Geauga in Ohio, Isabella in Michigan, and Bedford in Pennsylvania—where the Democratic percentage jumped considerably above 1948. This meant that in each of these counties not only had the Democrats who voted for Eisenhower swung back, but they had been joined by normally Republican voters as well.

In all three counties, Eisenhower voters who had gone Democratic offered the same explanation. “The Republicans around here have been in too long. We wanted a change.”

“This county is ready for two-party politics,” declared John Gore, who edits the weekly Geauga Record. “We’re tired of being taken for granted any more. This county got on the Republican bandwagon during the Civil War and has never been off it since. The local machine thinks we have to vote for anyone they put up. It’s time we were given a real choice.”

This desire for an alternative party through which voters can make their interests felt has gained surprising force since the war’s end. In some cases it reflects the feeling that “the only way to prevent corruption is to change parties regularly.” Even in overwhelmingly Republican suburbs, as in Bergen County, New Jersey, Democratic mayors have been elected in revolts against the corruption of local Republican machines. Similarly, in Boston, one city employee confessed to me, “I used to think I had to vote the Democratic ticket even if the biggest horse thief was running. But by splitting my ticket I figure we get more honest men.”

With many more voters, though, the turn toward a two-party politics reflects the effects of the vast economic changes which have been transforming the country. Particularly since the end of World War II there has been a dramatic upgrading in the economic status of most Americans. The decentralization of industry is shooting shafts of industrial feeling into the hitherto rustic countryside. With the power of government growing ever more important, every economic group has become more sensitive to the need of making its own interests felt in Washington.

Thus far, at least, the net political effect of these and other changes appears to be a trend toward evening out the strength of both parties.

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The spectacular population shift to the suburbs, for example, has thrown up Republican bulwarks which come close to counterbalancing the Democratic strongholds in the cities. In 1952, in fact, for the first time the commuter country around New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee rolled up heavier majorities for the Republicans than these cities gave the Democrats.

Close to half of Eisenhower’s total plurality in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York State was furnished by the suburbs around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. In 1920, as can be seen below, these same suburbs furnished less than 10 per cent of the total Republican plurality in the three states.

Percent of Republican State Plurality Cast by Suburbs
  1920 1952
Philadelphia suburbs 8 52
N. Y. suburbs 8 44
Chicago suburbs 7 40

In the decisive industrial states, in other words, the rural-urban cleavage of the 1920’s is being replaced by a new struggle of the suburbs against the cities.

This change, in turn, reflects a growing tendency for all voting throughout the country to divide along economic class lines. The New Deal unloosed powerful trends which have been working to nationalize the basis of American politics. These trends have been quickened and extended by the Eisenhower Presidency.

But if considerations of economic class are becoming more, not less, important in American politics, it should be noted that this “class conflict” is more a “war of movement” within a mobile social structure than one of trench attrition between rigid, unchanging social halves.

The table which follows profiles the distinctive nature of class conflict in the United States. It shows that changes in the relative solidarity of the upper- and lower-income groups move together. In 1936 the workers in the cities were militant in their unison, while the better-income elements in the suburbs were divided almost evenly. By 1952 a complete about-face had taken place. The center of gravity of class solidarity had shifted to the suburbs and the cities were divided within themselves.

A Profile of Class Solidarity
  Per Cent Republican
  1936 1948 1952
New York      
  Vote in city 24 35 44
  Nearby suburbs 54 66 69
Philadelphia      
  Vote in city 37 48 41
  Nearby suburbs 52 64 63
Cleveland      
  Vote in city 30 35 40
  Nearby suburbs 54 62 63
Chicago      
  Vote in city 33 41 45
  Nearby suburbs 50 64 66
Los Angeles      
  Vote in city 28 42 52
  Nearby suburbs 36 51 59

Compared with 1948, Eisenhower gained more heavily in the cities than in the suburbs, indicating that many of the newer suburbanites the GOP won in 1952 would have voted Republican even if they had stayed in the cities. In fact, this table shows that the same forces which have solidified the well-to-do have simultaneously divided the workers. My talks with numerous voters in recent years leave little doubt that, economically, this change reflects mainly a growing sensitivity to inflation and, with it, a stiffened resistance against “government going too far.”

In 1936, of course, there was nothing to distract the mass of workers from a single-minded devotion to the New Deal. Fresh in their memories tingled all the depression grievances. More than $500 million were still frozen in locked banks. Of the total national tax burden, only 5 per cent was borne by incomes under $5,000, which was where Roosevelt drew his greatest political strength.

By 1952 roughly a third of the tax burden was being borne by incomes under $5,000. This new tax consciousness was stimulated further by the sizable migration out of apartment houses, where taxes are hidden in the rent, to home-owning with its sundry local taxes. By 1952, as well, the volume of savings held by individuals and subject to depreciation by inflation had more than tripled, soaring from $60 to $216 billion.

In short, the main force generating the current trend toward conservatism will be found in the economic gains since the depression. These gains hold the secret to the puzzle of why neither the Democrats nor Republicans are able to achieve a decisive majority.

For to some millions of voters both parties symbolize a threat to these gains in different ways.

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Many commentators and scholars, of course, contend that “there isn’t any real difference” between our two parties. Certainly there have been times in the past when, as Matt Quay, the old Pennsylvania boss, observed, a Democrat seemed like “only a left-handed Republican.” But at least since the New Deal the voting public has not shared this belief that our parties provide little more choice than between Tweedledem and Tweedlerep.

Over the last decade I have asked thousands of voters in every part of the country, “Just what difference do you see between our two parties?” The striking thing that emerges is how uniform is the consensus on what the parties stand for.

On foreign policy the Democrats are considered the party of foreign intervention, even, as some persons feel, the party that is “always getting us into wars,” while the Republicans are regarded as the party of “isolationism” or less involvement abroad.

Economically, the Democrats are looked upon as “the party of the working man,” inflation, and government spending, while the Republicans symbolize “big business” and “people with money,” deflation, and less government spending.

Another difference commonly cited is that the Democrats are the favored political home for Catholics and other minority groups, while the Republican party, at least in the North, is still seen as largely a Protestant bulwark.

Each party’s following cuts across these battle lines, of course. Still, the strength these stereotypes exert can be seen in the readiness with which people align themselves according to these images almost without second thought. Asked why he had switched to being a Republican, one Minnesotan grinned and replied, “I’ll tell you the truth. I married a wife with some money.”

Again, one Milwaukee housewife remarked that she was shifting to Eisenhower because she was tired of arguing with her husband. “He’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat. Every four years I’ve had to listen to him tell me what’s wrong with the Democrats. I finally told him all right, have it your way. Let’s see what your Republicans will do.”

“Why do you and your husband differ so strongly in politics?” I asked.

“Oh, his father is in business so he thinks he has to be a Republican,” she retorted. “I come from a family where everyone had to work hard for a living. We’re all Democrats.”

The depth of emotion behind these attitudes largely explains why so many voters find it difficult to choose decisively between the parties. For if the Republicans remain the “party of bad times” to many voters, others feel “the Democrats can’t stay out of war.” Similarly, farmers or workers will remark, “The Democrats have always done more for people like us,” only to add, “But they don’t know when to stop spending.” Or the same man or woman will complain, “There’s too much money in Eisenhower’s cabinet,” and then observe, “But the Democrats lean too much to labor.”

Caught among these conflicting fears, a sizable part of the electorate has developed what might be described as a strong case of political insomnia, tossing from one party bed to another. Many voters have told me they shift their votes from one election to the next to “keep either party from getting too strong.” Other voters have swung between the parties as their fears of inflation and depression have risen and fallen.

At least since 1948 this inflation-depression equilibrium has constituted the balance of political power in the country. When the threat of another depression has seemed the chief threat to the gains of recent years, as in 1948, the dominant voting trend has favored the Democrats. By 1950, and even more so by 1952, the inflationary impact of the Korean war had swung the balance against “too much spending” and “too much government.” In 1954 the scales tipped back again, coming to rest in almost dead-weight evenness.

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Many observers attributed the change between the 1952 landslide and the 1954 stand-off to Eisenhower’s not being on the ticket in 1954. But the real difference between the two elections was not one of personalities.

In 1952 the public’s thinking was dominated by the bloody stalemate in Korea. On that issue the popular mood was to demand a decision—to get the war over with one way or another. In 1954, however, the dominant issue was economic. On that issue millions of voters did not fully trust either party.

What the decisive margin of voters wanted was clear enough. They wanted to stay squarely in the “middle,” avoiding depression and war, deflation and inflation, too much or too little government, too heavy a preponderance of influence for either business or labor.

This, of course, adds up to the same goal of “moderate government” which Eisenhower professed during the 1954 campaign. But where Eisenhower sought to convince the public that moderation could best be attained through the Republican party, the people preferred to seek it by using each party as a check upon the other.

Near McLeansboro, in southern Illinois, to give one example, Carroll Phillips, who combines preaching in a Baptist church with farming, felt Eisenhower was doing a “fine job” and deserved re-election. But when I asked about Eisenhower’s campaign arguments that a President should have a Congress of the same party, Phillips replied, “It’s better to have it split up so neither party has too much say.”

This widespread distrust of both parties, I suspect, explains why so many people have talked of Eisenhower as being “above both parties,” despite his strenuous activity on behalf of the GOP. It is not that the people are being fooled but that they want a President before whom they can deposit their mistrusts of both parties.

That this feeling does not reflect Eisenhower’s personal charm is indicated by the popularity of many other politicians who are “liberal” on some issues and “conservative” on others, like Senators Paul Douglas, Stuart Symington, and Irving Ives. Through such “hybrid” candidates the voters can pick the traits they like about both parties.

Since 1954 this desire for two evenly balanced parties has grown stronger in the farm belt. In the urban areas the conservative yearning to “hold on to what we have” can be expected to help the party in power as long as economic conditions are good. Still, booming prosperity does not seem to have overcome the desire to hedge one’s fears of the uncertain future by balancing one party against the other.

This mistrust of both parties helps explain why the realignment now under way differs so markedly from that which followed Roosevelt’s rise to power.

The reshuffling of party loyalties precipitated by the New Deal was a mass affair, with whole groups of voters swinging virtually en masse. Basically this was made possible by the fact that when Roosevelt came into office he quickly transformed what the Democratic party meant to people.

Negroes, for example, had remained loyal to the party of Abraham Lincoln in 1932, despite all their depression hardships. By 1936, however, they had swung with equal solidarity to the party which had introduced WPA and given every Negro a minimum standard below which his wages could not be cut, since he could then go on relief.

Similarly, the bulk of workers, who had never felt there was too much choice between the parties during the 1920’s, marched virtually as a bloc into what many termed the new “labor party.”

In contrast the Republican gains of recent years have come through a shifting of individuals, not groups. At every income level and among all social classes, one finds some families who have turned Republican, but there has not yet been any dramatic conversion of whole blocs of voters.

This slow tempo of realignment can be attributed to the curious paradox that both the voters and the country have changed so much more than have the symbols attached to the parties.

To sum up, the usual agitation for a “real two-party politics” has come from those who wanted to draw a sharp line of cleavage which would force all “conservatives” into one party and all “liberals” into the other. But the reappearance of a two-party politics at this perilous point in our history has virtually nothing in common with any such motive. Instead of seeking to sharpen the party cleavage, it is aimed at moderating both parties and using them to preserve the gains of the last two decades.

What has happened, in short, is that the moderate elements, by refusing to cast their lot with either party, have forced both the Democrats and Republicans to turn their backs on the extremists in their ranks and to fight for the middle ground where the balance of victory lies.

Nothing quite like this revolt of the moderates has ever taken place before, and it may be several years before its full and novel implications are fully understood. Usually in the past when large numbers of Americans became dissatisfied with both parties, they gave vent to their grievance through third parties. From 1876 until McKinley’s election the numerous third parties, from Greenbackers to Populists, prevented any President from gaining a full majority of the popular vote. In both 1876 and 1888 the winner actually got fewer votes than the loser.

These third-party insurgencies were sparked by a belief that the only real difference between the Democratic and Republican parties was that each was a custodian of different feelings toward the Civil War. Apart from that, many persons felt the parties were so alike that the truly crucial economic issues of the day could not be brought to conflict.

Today’s revolt against both parties is clearly a quite different affair. It comes after a bitter period of party strife during which the Democrats and Republicans differed sharply on both economic issues and foreign policy. If the 1876-96 period could be said to have been marked by a search for ideological issues which would draw the parties apart, the dominant trend today can be visualized as a struggle to shed old ideologies.

But this reappearance of two-party politics also brings a double danger.

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With both the Democrats and Republicans committed to preserving the gains of the last generation, our parties have become, as one voter pictured them, “like two fat men in a narrow hall.” They cannot squeeze past each other. Either they move in the same direction or remain stuck in unbudging deadlock.

One danger, in other words, is of stalemate rather than balance. The second risk is that both parties may indeed move in the same direction—but against the interests of our foreign policy and security in the world.

The closeness of the voting balance tends to enhance the bargaining power of every major voting interest. Each is in a position to threaten to upset the party in power by withholding or swinging its support. While these rival pressures offset each other to some extent, they tend to elevate the needs of domestic conciliation over the needs of waging the cold war abroad. For fear of upsetting the delicate political balance at home, both parties may shy from the military or economic actions which might be needed to meet new developments in the cold war.

Take the raging argument over how much of a defense expenditure we can afford. The contention that our economy “cannot stand” more is certainly not valid in any physical sense. Industrial production has been pushed a full tenth higher than during the peak of World War II, while our labor force has been expanded by several millions. Obviously, the resources and facilities are available for an even heavier defense effort than was undertaken in World War II. No proposed program of defense and foreign aid combined calls for more than a part of what was done during the war years.

The ceiling on how much of a cold war effort we can stand is political, not economic. It is set primarily by the American people’s sense of the urgency of the crisis before them and the amount of political will power that can be marshaled to see through the costs of what is undertaken.

It is at this sticking point of political will power that the delicate party balance exacts its price. With inflation made a constant threat by the domestic boom, it does not take much to upset the balance among various segments of the economy. Yet, as the 1954 elections revealed, voters have become so sensitive to their economic interests that even moderate changes in economic conditions can shift the party balance.

The internal resistances limiting the power we can exercise in foreign affairs have been strengthened by a curious illusion that has developed in recent years—that no one needs to pay for the cold war.

That, at least, is the implication of the attitude which has been adopted by all of the major economic interests. All have taken as the measure of their well-being the income left them after taxes are paid. Labor, for example, contends that a steady rise in its take-home pay is needed to keep mass purchasing power high; business has insisted that higher earnings and dividends are necessary to continue a high rate of investment in new plants.

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But if everyone is to be better off, net, after taxes are paid, who is to foot the bill for the cold war, which has been taking about a seventh of our national income?

One result, of course, is a struggle among the various segments of the economy to shift the cost of the cold war elsewhere.

Up to now these internal conflicts and distrusts have been tempered by the obviousness of the Soviet peril. If, however, the Soviets cut this service of alarm, it is likely to become more difficult to divert our economic resources to the needs of peace. This prospect becomes all the more ominous if the cold war shifts to areas where economic weapons may be as important as military strength.

Stiffened resistance to unbalancing the budget must be expected if the danger of war seems to recede. The pressures for reducing taxes are also likely to mount.

Nor, in view of the prevailing temper of “moderation,” can we even count on our politicians giving us the opportunity to take the harder choice of a more strenuous cold war effort. The same competition of the parties to become accepted as the vehicle of “middle-road conservatism” also puts a premium on domestic conciliation even at the expense of our security in the world, particularly if the threats to national security seem less immediate than the next election.

We cannot assume that what is good for each of us—the preservation of our individual gains—is necessarily good for the country as a whole. Situations may arise in which we shall be torn by a considerable conflict between preserving our gains at home and winning the cold war abroad. In the years ahead, it will be by our very gains of the last twenty-five years that our national character will be tested.

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