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Political polarization has gone from a polling data point to a punch line since the 2016 election. In this, the first major election since President Donald Trump came to power, the midterm elections are, to many experts, shaping up to be more than the names that appear on the ballots. At the heart of it, the midterms will likely be, at least in part, a way for voters to say: “This is the kind of America I want.”

CNN Opinion asked a diverse group of thinkers to weigh in. The views expressed here are their own.

I was raised in an intergenerational home, where family was the central force in our lives. For years, while my parents were studying and working, my grandfather took me to school in the morning and picked me up in the afternoon. I watched him do Tai Chi, we watched “Wheel of Fortune” together. It’s hard to imagine my childhood without him. As this administration ponders a new policy to separate even more children from their families at the border, I have been reminded what it felt like to be surrounded by the love of family as a child, and heartbroken for the children who are still alone.

The people who control our government have put a series of moral choices before us. How do we really value family and the well-being of children – all families and children? When this administration prosecuted a child separation policy at the border this year, we all found our personal visions for America juxtaposed against the horror we saw unfolding in the real world.

My vision for America is one where every child can be a child; they can play, learn and grow in a safe, healthy environment, while supported by family members who have dignified work and economic security. Where survivors are believed. Where family is sacred and women are empowered. On Election Day, millions of us will be heading to the polls to make our moral choice known. And we’ll be voting for candidates – including an unprecedented number of women of color – who have stepped forward to build a new future, one that holds a place of honor for each of us.

Ai-jen Poo is the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

This election is critical. It is as critical as the one in 1860, the one in 1932, and, yes, the one in 2016.

In each of those, the United States stood on the precipice – would it succumb to the spread of slavery out of the South; would it capitulate to the economic ravages of the Great Depression; and would it give in to the demons of racist fear and undermine American democracy? This midterm election has all the earmarks, again, of one of those moments in this nation’s history where it can choose to live in to its greatness or descend into mediocrity and ongoing strife.

This year, 2018, is so reminiscent of the historical moments I study, where Southern sheriffs, such as Willis McCall of Florida, gun down black people and remain in office for another 20 years; where politicians like Joe McCarthy, whose only goal is power and more power, run roughshod over the Constitution, citizens’ rights, due process and the lives of immigrants. Worse yet, simply because McCarthy served the needs of a GOP desperate to dismantle the New Deal, establishment politicians openly and willingly chose party over country until America’s foreign and domestic policies sustained untold damage.

Today, I see a nation, just like before, where those in power systematically suppress the vote of American citizens and do so with the full acquiescence of the Supreme Court. And, I think, is this what my father fought for during World War II? Is this the democracy that meant so much to him that he continued the battle in Korea? Is this what he spent more than two decades in the military to bring home? Because, this surely seems like everything that he fought against.

Therefore, in this midterm, I will honor my father, and all the African-Americans who came before him, because it’s clear: the fate of American democracy is on the ballot.

Carol Anderson is Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. She is the author of, most recently, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.”

I used to be libertarian. I used to be atheist. I used to want America to be more atheist libertarian.

All my voting, preaching, discussing and complaining reflected those desires. I’m still libertarian and atheist, and now I’m vegan to (pleather) boot, but none of that matters any more. I no longer care.

All I want out of America now is kindness. That’s all. The past few years have filled too many of our friends and neighbors with hate, and it breaks my heart. Some people started acting hateful, crazy and nasty so that they could win, and then people who disagreed with them acted the same way. They disagree in content but agree wholeheartedly in tone.

So many of us now agree with the message of hate, and play “ideology” as team sports. The message doesn’t matter when the medium is hate. My friends who work on TV, people I love personally, are using a tone and a meanness in their jobs that they never used before. Is hate where the money is? I don’t know if fighting fire with fire actually works (who am I, Denis Leary?), but I do know that fighting hate with hate never works.

It makes me cry. I’ve read about family members not invited to Thanksgiving because of political disagreements! The Clash sang “anger can be power” and I believed it. Maybe I still believe it, but maybe I don’t want power any more. Can’t we replace the word “evil” with the word “wrong?” Everyone is wrong sometimes and nobody is evil ever. The America I want is kind to people who are wrong.

I’m like a dog, I don’t hear words anymore, I just hear tone. Anyone whose tone is kind will get my complete support. Libertarian, Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Green … anything else you got. I’ve always been left out of team sports. I don’t want to win enough. I’m not part of a team, I’m part of humanity. I want kindness. There’s no other team for me. Let’s love each other, and then discuss how to run our country together.

Penn Jillette, a writer, television host and frequent guest on a wide range of shows, is half of the Emmy Award-winning magic act duo Penn & Teller. His most recent book is “Presto.”

With so many Americans horrified by anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh and pipe bombs mailed by a deranged anti-Democrat, this moment hardly seems the right one to talk again about politics. Most of us would rather reflect and grieve over who we are becoming as a people. Vicious hatreds stalk our land.

But the sad truth is that this is a moment when we cannot afford to disengage from politics. One of the most important elections in modern history is barely a week away — one that could shape our course for years to come. We need to step up, not step back.

Trump voters must decide whether to stick with their man and indeed, whether they would like him to double down. There seems little doubt that if his party holds the House as well as the Senate, the President will feel emboldened and become even more assertive in his exercise of power. Strongmen around the world often crack down harder after racking up a second national victory.

Trump’s opponents are aghast that Trump even has a chance of keeping the House. How can he possibly hold back a big blue wave, they ask? Well, it is worth remembering that when Trump won in 2016, the final Gallup poll before the election found his approval rating at 36%; the latest Gallup poll in late October, found his approval at 44% – eight points higher. There are more hidden Trump voters out there than most non-Trumpians believe.

For Democrats, these midterm elections are even more pivotal. A loss of the House would be psychologically devastating. But if they win there and also recapture state houses, they can not only become a check on Trump but could also begin a much-needed rehabilitation of their party.

Ask yourself: can you say with confidence what the Democratic agenda is, and how they intend to wield power? Will they be the center-left party of, say, FDR or will they swing to the far left? What will they do to restore what most Americans long for – a politics of civility, cooperation and common purpose.

If the Democrats do recapture the House – and there are no guarantees – they would be wise not to see that outcome as a validating embrace by voters. It will be far more a repudiation of Trump and a hope-for-the-best with Democrats.

Smart Democrats know the party needs to do serious soul searching about its future. Clearly, it needs to start by studying the strengths and weaknesses of the Clinton and Obama years. Democrats have been too soft in defending both administrations from Trump attacks.

Strange as it may seem, Democrats would also be shrewd to study how conservatives have played the game over the years. The GOP has drifted so badly from its moorings that it has become almost unrecognizable. Even so, Republicans have often been smarter than Democrats in the pursuit and exercise of power. It is no accident that the GOP has controlled the House in 20 of the past 24 years — they worked hard to get there.

What lessons might Democrats study from GOP successes? Three stand out:

Start developing a clear, consensus-based long-term agenda: A half century ago, after the debacle of Barry Goldwater, conservatives seemed doomed to oblivion. They then pulled themselves together, built up a storehouse of ideas and, for the most part, have pursued them relentlessly since. What, pray tell, is the Democrats’ long-term agenda today?

Think strategically: Love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge that Senator Mitch McConnell has outplayed Democratic leaders at almost every turn because of his superiority as a strategist. Conservatives for decades have been working to gain control of all three branches, and now, McConnell has completed that task.

Be willing to play hardball: Ironically, it appears that the way to restore bipartisanship in Congress is for Democrats to be tougher – much tougher. Trump only respects strength and always exploits weakness. Ever the bully, he will try to run over Democrats unless they stand up firmly against him, fighting to have more of a voice in government.

In days ahead, debates will rage about who bears responsibility for the increasing violence in our politics and what can be done. Most of us have sharp views. But the best way — and perhaps the only way for now – will be at the ballot box just over the horizon.

David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents. He is a professor and co-director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. He is a CNN senior political analyst.

On November 6, Americans will vote in the most important election of their lifetimes. At stake is the direction of our nation. Will we move toward socialism under the Democrats or towards a restoration of the civil rights and civil liberties traditionally associated with our democratic republic?

I believe Americans want a continuation of a United States we recognize from our Constitution. Therefore, I am expecting a majority of people to cast their vote for Republican candidates. A vote for Republicans is a vote for progress and an affirmation of President Trump’s strong leadership.

In the face of nonstop negative media coverage, President Trump has quietly checked off the accomplishments he promised to the American people. In fact, Representative Jim Jordan told a group of people at a conference I attended a few weeks ago the President keeps a white board listing promises he made to us, complete with where he made them. His office lists 289 checked-off accomplishments, so far.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have jeopardized their midterm election prospects by embracing the left’s radical politics while waging war against the Trump administration’s successful record. The booming economy benefits everyone. Blacks and Hispanics are thriving, and the black approval rating for President Trump has reached a record level for a Republican president.

According to Gallup, public satisfaction with the nation’s direction is at a 12-year high. And yet, since President Trump’s 2016 election, many in our nation have clamored for impeachment – which would essentially be a leftist political coup, something we just do not see in a democratic republic in the developed world.

I believe Democrats have overplayed their hand. High powered leaders have encouraged confrontation and harassment of conservative leaders. Moreover, in the past two years, the American people have witnessed FBI corruption, the never-ending Mueller investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to win the 2016 election, the character assassination of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the chaos and destruction fomented by Antifa activists, and the increasingly un-American behavior of leading Democrats at every level of government. Democrats in Congress no longer defend due process and the presumption of innocence. Instead, we see the politics of division geared toward dividing and separating Americans into warring factions.

These actions are aided and abetted by a partisan media that spends its time demonizing our President while denying him his successes. Such actions are wrong for our nation and terrible for our children.

I believe thoughtful Americans can see through the charade. Thoughtful Americans want to live in a society they recognize, not in a leftist’s counterfeit remake of our nation.

Carol M. Swain is an award-winning political scientist and a former professor at Princeton and Vanderbilt Universities. Follow her on Facebook at Profcarolmswain and Twitter @carolmswain. Her most recent book is “Debating Immigration: Second Edition.”

Democracy doesn’t happen automatically. It demands our actions and participation. It challenges us, but it also empowers us. Because at the end of the day, it IS us.

Donald Trump’s name may not be on the ballot this mid-term election, but here is what is: Our Constitution. Our rights, protections, equality and justice. Even our lives. Women’s rights are, with Roe v. Wade’s protection of choice under threat. Immigrant children’s lives are at risk without people demanding that families belong together. Black lives are at risk without reform that insists that they matter. The lives of countless Americans are at risk without the ACA.

Voting is how we protect each other. Voting is how we make our voices heard. Voting is how we prove that our country is so much kinder and bigger and better than that man in the White House.

The good news is that in a democracy like ours, the real power isn’t with him. It’s with us. And I firmly believe that we have more hope and love on our side than they have xenophobia and greed. Trans lives are at risk if we don’t elect leaders who will ensure they won’t be erased.

So never doubt our place in our country and its future. Never doubt our ability to drive change. Replace any doubt with the courage to dare. Dare to make a difference. Dare to raise your voice. Dare to be a megaphone for others. Because democracy takes courage. It takes guts.

But most of all, it takes us.

Alyssa Milano is an actress, producer and activist.

Many politicians are characterizing the pending midterm elections as a fight to save our country. I am not moved by such rhetoric.

While it is true the first two years of the Trump administration have been a huge departure from what we’ve become accustomed to, I do not believe the country is divided now more than ever and there are Confederate monuments peppered around the country that supports my viewpoint.

I don’t believe we are in an unprecedented era of incivility unless you found President Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears to be shining example of humanity. No, things have not been “normal” under Trump. But that restlessness in the pit of your stomach isn’t there because the sky is falling. It’s there because social media has pushed the clouds away, the sun is shining, and you’re made uneasy by the clarity of who we really are and what we’ve always been.

We are not post-racial. We are not the shining city on the hill. We are a hodgepodge of human beings who continuously fall short of our promise. But the idea of American exceptionalism isn’t built on our perfection but our willingness to keep trying. That’s the kind of country we are, and my hope is we don’t get scared into believing otherwise. This election isn’t about saving ourselves. This and all elections should ultimately be about bettering ourselves.

If these midterms are about “saving our country” – as some elected officials claim – I would argue if we’re only motivated by fear, this nation is already lost. For history rarely looks back with kindness on policy decisions based on our fears.

Whether it’s segregation and Jim Crow, internment camps during World War II, McCarthyism, the nuclear arms race, don’t ask don’t tell, the Clinton crime bill…you would be hard-pressed to see a time in which the nation was scared into making the right decision.

Remember when President Obama was pressured into hiring an Ebola czar right before the 2014 midterm elections because politicians like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie had the nation believing we were all going to die? Then as soon as the elections were over, so was Ebola as a crisis. All that hysteria was ginned up not to save the country but for political points.

So while I understand why politicians on both sides are trying to scare us into voting this November, I would remind us that no matter how frightening the hashtag of the moment sounds, the country has survived worse – not because of our fears, but because of the hope that we could be a little bit better tomorrow than we are today.

LZ Granderson is a journalist and political analyst. He was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University, and is a co-host of ESPN’s SportsNation and ESPN LA 710’s Mornings with Keyshawn, Jorge and LZ. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @lzgranderson.

Every time I walk into a polling booth, I think about the first day I voted – September 11, 2001. An hour before the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, I had walked over to my local public school to cast the first vote of my lifetime. For 17 years prior, I had lived, worked and studied in the United States, but in December 2000, I became a citizen, making me eligible to vote at last – to participate fully in American democracy.

For immigrants like me in particular, voting is an empowering act. We look for familiar names, individuals whom we have met or with whom we have shared our concerns. We look for people like us, with whom we share gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation. We look to assert our identity and fulfill our aspirations by voting for someone who makes us believe in them, and in so doing helps us believe in ourselves. That’s the America I’ll be voting for in a few short days.

In my lifetime in America, no election has mattered to me more than this one. For two years, momentum has been building for more and more everyday Americans who have decided to run for office. Historic candidates like Stacey Abrams and January Contreras are running for statewide office in Georgia and Arizona. Record numbers of voters have already turned out in states like Georgia and Texas.

I know that everything I am – a woman, an immigrant, a person of color – is under attack. My humanity is being undermined with xenophobic rhetoric and punitive policies. Along with millions of Americans, I am taking my rage and my hope with me into the voting booth and pulling the metaphoric lever towards a more just and fair democracy. That’s the America I believe is possible

Sayu Bhojwani served as New York’s first commissioner of immigrant affairs and is the founder and president of New American Leaders, which is based in New York. She is the author of “People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door.”

I’m British but I regard America as a second home: whenever I land on US soil I take a big gulp of the sweet air of freedom. To me the country is a mix of ideal and reality. The ideal is a place where you can do and think whatever the hell you like, where you’re judged on your character and talent, not background. This is still a revolutionary concept to us Europeans.

The reality, of course, is that the US is a tapestry of rich and poor, divided in part by disagreement over what America is really all about. But I have faith in the country’s astonishing gift for reinvention (who would have expected that a black man could be elected president—followed by a reality TV host?), and I desperately want to see the country put aside personality and hate and rediscover its core values.

There are certain things government does well and some things it should be doing more of, but it can never be as big-hearted or ambitious or competent as the American people, who remain kind and gracious despite everything they’ve been through.

The midterms are shaping up to be a test of the moral values of both sides, and each is deserving of consideration and respect. There’s too much personal condemnation in this contest and not enough consideration of ideas.

Ted Cruz vs. Beto O’Rourke says it all. Cruz, a smart man, represents a conservatism that’s had to come to terms with Trump, and the senator has tried to remain true to the tenets of small government and his own profound religious values. O’Rourke offers clean government, a statement of revulsion at moral compromise and a repudiation of Trump.

Will Texas remain a Republican state dominated by conservative white voters, or has Trump’s presidency drawn out of the shadows a younger, less white coalition? Under Trump, every election has an apocalyptic quality; the stakes are high.

Across the nation, both sides seem equally energized; the Kavanaugh nomination may have given the GOP a shot in the arm. The country is pretty evenly balanced, so I can’t even guess the outcome.

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics.”

People always tell me not to take politics “so personally,” but trust me when I say, the political is personal and personal is really political, now more than ever.

In next month’s midterm elections, women will not just be voting for their candidate but voting for the kind of America in which many of them want to raise their children. I know this because I feel the same way. In the shadow of Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony, watching Brett Kavanaugh get confirmed to the US Supreme Court in 2018 has lit a flame in me I could not even imagine I was capable of feeling.

I was born in Bangladesh and came to the United States to attend college. For the longest time, even after I became a US citizen, I didn’t really feel American. When I first came here, I might have wondered: If America allowed a man accused of sexual assault to become president and then that man nominated another man accused of sexual assault to the US Supreme Court, how does that affect me?

Now that I have two daughters who are American, everything has changed.

America is at a crossroads and the midterm elections will be a huge testament to how much we really value the things we have stood for, like democracy, free speech, and equality.

And unless we send a strong message that we value women’s rights and women’s lives, we can’t really stand for anything else.

The America I seek for my daughters embraces the diversity and experiences of immigrants, and says “no” to the kind of toxic masculinity we see every day in Trump’s America. Enough is enough.

Anushay Hossain is a writer and political commentator based in Washington. For more, visit AnushaysPoint.com.

The midterm elections are a referendum on the vision of America that Donald Trump, through deed and even more so through word, has advanced since he descended that infamous escalator in Trump Tower.

This vision pits the native born against the newly arrived. It prioritizes the white and Christian over the black or Muslim. And it envisages the United States as a nation whose interests perpetually require it to enter into conflict with other countries, including not only recent foes but also old allies, rather than the linchpin of a system of alliances designed to maintain peace and prosperity both at home and abroad.

The Democrats don’t have a unified counter-vision to offer. This is in part a result of the nature of midterm elections, in which the party holding the White House has a visible leader, but the opposition usually doesn’t. But it’s also a result of a principled objection to the kind of political imagination that animates authoritarian populists like Donald Trump: To their mind, there’s only one right vision of what America is, and anyone who disagrees with it is an enemy of the people. To the rest of us, the great variety of visions of what America means is part of the awe-inspiring multitude this country contains in itself.

Yascha Mounk is a lecturer at Harvard University, a senior fellow at New America and the host of “The Good Fight” podcast.

What we’ve seen in the build-up to the 2018 midterms is largely a repeat of what we saw in the elections in Virginia last year: a clash between progressive and regressive politics, reflected not only in the policies and rhetoric of the two major parties, but also in the people they chose to represent them.

In 2017, Virginia Democrats came within a hair’s breadth of retaking the House of Delegates, picking up 15 seats and, after a tiebreaker went in favor of the Republican, still sliced down the Republican majority from 66-34 to 51-49.

But just as important as the blue wave that swept the state were the people voters put into office: 11 of the 15 Democratic pick-ups went to women who were replacing Republican men. Among them were the first two Asian-American women in the House, the first two Hispanic women, the first openly lesbian woman and the first openly transgender woman. Chris Hurst, whose girlfriend was murdered on television by a gunman, took down the NRA-backed Republican candidate. A democratic-socialist defeated the Republican majority whip.

That is a very different vision of Virginia than the one voted into office in 2013.

Similar shakeups are almost certain to happen on November 6, given the record number of women candidates on the ballot and the surge in minority candidates.

Whether the results will reflect voters’ preference is a different story. The conflicting visions of America’s future cannot be reduced to election night outcomes, not when voter suppression efforts have become a staple of the Republican platform. Democratic policies and candidates may be more popular, but whether voters are allowed to choose their representatives – and thus, their futures – remains to be seen.

Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor in presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and the author of “Messengers of the Right.” She hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and the new podcast “A12.”

This midterm election cycle will be a referendum on the kind of democracy that we want to be. We have seen marches, demonstrations and protests all year long. Will people embrace November as an opportunity to get out and vote for candidates who will help translate their protest into reform?

What’s keeping me up at night is the fact that the voter suppression we face this midterm election cycle is intense and relentless. There are some noticeable patterns. First, in some states where people of color are running for statewide office, we are seeing barriers to registration, racist robocalls, and attempts to shutter polling sites.

Second, we have a Justice Department that is not enforcing the Voting Rights Act, leaving impacted communities with little or no recourse. Third, hate crimes are on the rise and this has produced collateral consequences in the voting arena, where we see candidates subject to racial appeals based on their background. And fourth, we are seeing some secretaries of state – the very ones tasked with ensuring fair elections, running for office and taking action that makes it harder for some voters.

As a civil rights lawyer, I fight this kind of voter suppression every day and work to instill confidence in voters that their voices will still be heard. It is my job to use the law and our bully pulpit to beat back the obstacles and barriers that especially African Americans and people of color face. I fight to ensure that voters feel motivated and empowered to participate in the process.

We are in an era where too often, we see policies that polarize communities and exacerbate divides along lines of race, gender, national origin and more. These policies can negatively affect how citizens engage with each other across the country. This election cycle provides an opportunity to change that.

As we move into the final stretch of this midterm election cycle, we need vigilance against 11th-hour shenanigans but we also need hope. I hope that we will see record rates of participation among groups who too often are marginalized, including people of color. I hope that we will see young, first-time voters defy expectations and that youth-driven movements like the March for Our Lives that have inspired so many are also able to propel people to the ballot box. I hope that this energy will silence the forces across the country who remain bent on diminishing our democracy.

Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which leads Election Protection – the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition. Voters can report complaints to Election Protection at 866-OUR-VOTE or by texting ‘Election Protection” to 97779.

There is no such thing as not voting. Not voting is voting – to hand your power over to those who don’t care about your interests and may even want to do you harm. This is the eternal truth of democracy. The question is whether enough people will remember it before Election Day.

My work at Citizen University takes me all around the country and connects me to Americans who are working to activate their civic power.

I was recently in Tennessee, where one of the most fiercely contested 2018 US Senate races is underway between Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn. The conventional wisdom holds that Tennessee is a red state. But as one grassroots organizer in Nashville told me, “We don’t know if Tennessee is a red state. We only know that it’s a non-voting state.”

Tennessee is last in the country in voter turnout. But what’s true of this state is also true of the United States. We are a non-voting nation. If general patterns hold, national turnout in this year’s midterms will hover around 40% of registered voters.

Forget about the three in five who won’t show up. And forget about the many others who are eligible to vote but won’t register. From the preferences of a minority of the electorate, pundits will draw sweeping conclusions about how one place is red and another place blue, about mandates and waves, about what kind of country we’ve become.

But all of that will be a fairy tale. Worse, it will be a myth with dangerous consequences. During midterm elections especially, we don’t know whether this is a red or blue country. We don’t know what the will of the people truly is. The pretense that those who win power reflect the will of the people – that our government has legitimacy – is becoming unsustainable. Especially when many Republican power brokers are actively suppressing the participation of young voters, poor voters, and voters of color.

Rebuilding that legitimacy will take more than voting, but it won’t ever happen without voting, either. If you’ve been told your vote won’t count, or if new bureaucratic obstacles have arisen to block your access to the ballot, take it as a sign of respect: someone fears you. Someone is worried you will be heard. Show them you are worthy of that respect. Cast a ballot for a more inclusive, more just, more truly democratic society — and earn that respect.

Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity program. He is the author of several books and is a former White House policy adviser and speechwriter.

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    This article has been updated to correct a reference to Gallup’s final approval rating for Donald Trump before the 2016 election – it was 36%, not 35%.