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Making Politics Work Again

Making Politics Work Again

Two 2020 documentaries capture the toxic state of our present politics—and offer two alternative visions of where we go from here.

Sean Keeley

In the four long years that Donald Trump served as Commander-in-Chief, those looking for tidy explanations of the 45th President’s appeal had no shortage of places to turn. Was he symptom or cause of our dysfunction? A product of racist backlash or of economic anxiety? An aberration or a herald of realignment? The debates are as familiar as they are reductive, but they spawned a veritable cottage industry, one that remains lucrative even as the Trump presidency staggers off the stage.

Two recent entries in the genre of Trumpology, however, come not from the world of publishing but from cinema. And they may be among the most instructive because they barely mention Donald Trump at all.

Boys State, the recent documentary from filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, takes as its subject the Texas version of the titular convention, a kind of mock civics exercise sponsored by the American Legion in which high schoolers organize political parties and simulate the process of campaigning and legislating. City Hall, the latest from ninety-year-old director Frederick Wiseman, looks at the business of real local government, following Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as he implemented his municipal agenda from fall 2018 to winter 2019. Boys State is a swift-moving, accessible feature that premiered at Sundance and has already earned a large audience on Apple TV+; City Hall is a deep dive into city politics from a widely praised but little-seen master filmmaker. The first is set in deep-red Texas; the second, in deep-blue Massachusetts.

Yet viewed together, these films offer a compelling portrait of American politics at this strange juncture. Mutually reinforcing in many ways, they diverge in one crucial particular. Whereas Boys State implicitly sees Trump as a cause of our dysfunction, a toxic trendsetter whose demeaning politics are trickling down to Gen Z, City Hall sees him more as symptom—the sort of demagogue who can best be countered through the daily, unglamorous work of making government work again.

Barack Obama recently cited Boys State as one of his favorite movies of 2020, and for better or worse, it’s easy to see why. Like Obama’s recent memoir, which he says he wrote for “the next generation,” Boys State is concerned with the political formation of young Americans. Like that book, the film finds plenty of cause for cynicism even as it nods toward hope (sometimes unconvincingly). And like Obama’s own presidential campaigns, the film is both emotionally stirring and overly trusting in the potential of transformative personalities.

The film’s personalistic focus is telegraphed early on, when the opening credits offer a cursory history of the Boys State program and then showcase the famous figures who have participated over the years: Bill Clinton, Samuel Alito, Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh. The message is not subtle: today’s participants may be tomorrow’s leaders.

In particular, Boys State focuses on four young men, each assigned to the convention’s “Nationalist” or “Federalist” parties to compete in a mock election. Steven Garza is the de facto protagonist, a quietly charismatic Mexican-American whose past activism for Democratic causes is both his secret weapon and, later, a liability among his largely conservative peers. René Otero is the film’s other liberal, standing out both for his outspoken progressivism and for being one of the few black participants. Ben Feinstein is a self-professed “politics junkie” who espouses a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps work ethic; he is also, notably, a double amputee who decries identity politics. And Robert MacDougall serves as the obligatory Trumpian figure, a brash, good-looking jock who privately confides that he will say whatever it takes to be elected governor of Boys State.

If these characters sound too neatly drawn, too conspicuously modeled on real-life counterparts, that is part of the film’s conceit. Boys State means to show how polarized national politics has trickled down to the next generation, how young people adopt the behaviors they see in their elders, if they don’t leave the arena in disgust. Thus, Steven delivers his campaign speeches with Obama-like cadences, while Robert adopts Trump’s brazen style. Ben, meanwhile, acts like a hardheaded political operative, playing up for the camera like a Republican version of James Carville in The War Room.

There’s a winsome cleverness to the early scenes as we follow each young pol trying to hone his message. Early on, Ben rolls his eyes at a participant who vaguely professes to stand “for freedom,” but then adopts “Feinstein for Freedom” as his own slogan, later adding “Americanism” for good measure. Robert holds a Trumpian position on guns and abortion, but can’t quite come up with a catchy slogan: “Moral and Constitutional Government for the People” doesn’t roll off the tongue like “Make America Great Again.” Steven, meanwhile, focuses less on catchphrases than on canvassing, asking each member of the Nationalist Party what their priorities are. In the film’s evocation of famous political campaigns, he’s the equivalent of Cory Booker in Street Fight, walking the streets of Newark to build support for his first long-shot mayoral bid, or Beto O’Rourke, carefully triangulating his progressive positions for a Texas constituency far more conservative than he. (Both men lost those races, of course, if you want an idea of where this is heading.)

In many ways, Boys State’s emulation of past campaign documentaries explains both its appeal and its limitations. The filmmakers are admirably earnest about the boys’ politicking, treating their mock campaigns as seriously as they would those of real politicians, and milking genuine cinematic drama out of the simulated race for governor. Yet at the same time, the movie’s focus on charismatic personalities reveals its comparative disinterest in the actual business of policymaking and legislating.

Admittedly, the structure of Boys State itself is part of the problem. Parties are randomly assigned to delegates at the start of the convention, forcing a two-party structure on the entire proceedings. Partisan identities flow from the personalities at the top, who shape the messaging for those below. It’s the kind of arrangement that inevitably privileges rhetorical grandstanding over edifying debate. While the film’s main protagonists earnestly go about their business, many of the rest of the 1,200 participants goof off, writing nonsense resolutions in the fake legislature—proposing Texas secession, for instance, or a bill that would exile all Prius owners to Oklahoma.

The filmmakers’ own choices, however, magnify the vision of politics-as-playacting. If a key problem of our time, as Yuval Levin has argued, is the tendency for politicians to treat institutions as platforms for personal advancement rather than molds imposing genuine duties, then Boys State unintentionally contributes to the trend. Each candidate is merely advancing his own brand. The filmmakers lament how young Americans take their political cues from their bloviating elders, creating a vicious cycle of imitative partisanship, but their only hope for ending that cycle is that more of the right people—like Steven—run for office. It’s a frustratingly narrow vision, redolent of the fiction that change is a matter of merely entrusting the right person with power. After both Obama’s “hope and change” idealism and Trump’s “I alone can fix it” narcissism, we ought to have learned better.

Ultimately, Boys State does not ask the audience to reconsider how we practice politics so much as it captures the dismal way we currently do. Two of the film’s key turning points, especially, offer a validation of political cynicism rather than an alternative to it.

The first comes when Robert, by all appearances a red-meat conservative, confesses in a private interview that he is actually pro-choice. “My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all,” he admits, “so I chose to pick a new stance. That’s politics.” It’s a candid moment that in context inescapably brings to mind Donald Trump’s politically motivated about-face on the issue. But the movie lets Robert have the last word on abortion, implying that his view is representative. If all pro-lifers are disingenuous hypocrites, the film implies, then one need not engage their views seriously—and indeed, for all its invocation of compromise, the film is none too subtle about which side of the aisle it falls on.

The second turning point comes toward the end, when Ben manages to eke out a win for his candidate through a self-described “shock and awe” campaign, complete with misleading oppo dumps, incendiary meme warfare, and demagogic cries about his candidate being “cancelled.” The message, again, is hardly subtle: conservatives win elections through dirty tricks. One can practically hear traces of the filmmakers’ leading questions when he explains his tactics after the fact. “A message of unity is not winning anyone elections,” he says frankly. “You need to use personal attacks.”

As an assessment of present political incentives, this may be true enough. But the episode is presented as a means of absolving the losing candidate of any responsibility for his own defeat, while pinning the blame for dirty tricks solely on one side. As the past four years have taught us, this kind of political denialism is far too common across the political spectrum—from #NotMyPresident in 2016 to #StoptheSteal in 2020—and is far easier than coming to terms with the actual reasons for a political defeat. It is a coping mechanism that shades into delegitimization.

In the end, then, Boys State wants to have it both ways: optimistically asking its audience to believe in the next generation, even as it cynically confirms their prior convictions about how toxic our political environment really is. Is it any wonder that René, the film’s embodiment of the frustrated activist, later explained that the whole experience turned him off of electoral politics?

For an antidote to such cynicism, look no further than Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall. Like Boys State, Wiseman’s documentary is an oblique response to the Trump era and an implicit counterpoint to the chaos unfolding in Washington. Unlike Boys State, City Hall is neither overly didactic nor slickly engineered for maximum narrative effect. Rather, the film unfolds over a leisurely four-and-a-half hours, embracing the tried-and-true naturalism that Wiseman has made his trademark over a half century of documentary filmmaking.

Like most of Wiseman’s films, which tend to bear minimalist titles like High School, Hospital, and Welfare, City Hall captures the daily functioning of an American institution. If politics in Boys State is a matter of eloquent speechmaking and clever campaigns, in City Hall, it’s a matter of trash collection, zoning hearings, and agency meetings held in nondescript conference rooms. And while the former subject matter is sexier, there is a nobility in the latter work that Wiseman reveals through the simple act of paying attention to it.

Unusually for Wiseman, the film does have a protagonist of sorts in the figure of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. First elected in 2013, Walsh is an earnest, likable, at times endearingly tongue-tied leader, with the blue-collar bona fides, Irish-Catholic background, and thick Boston accent one might expect of the Hub’s leader. In City Hall, he also seems a bridge between Democratic coalitions past and present. With the bearing and background of an old-school union man, Walsh nonetheless embraces the focus on racial, gender, and economic disparities beloved by the Democratic Party’s “woke” wing. The results are quietly revelatory, and even suggestive of how President Biden—with Walsh’s help in his new role as Secretary of Labor—might straddle the Democratic divide.

Consider, for instance, an early scene in which Walsh speaks at an event celebrating “Latinx” inclusion in city government. That controversial bit of activist-speak is visible on the poster advertising the event, but Walsh avoids the word, instead trying to connect with Hispanic employees via personal appeal. Bemoaning discrimination against Latinos today, Walsh draws a parallel with his own ethnic heritage and the anti-Irish persecution of Boston’s past. Arguably, this comparison is strained, and would constitute a faux pas for progressives who believe in an irreducible “lived experience”—but it works, because Walsh is the kind of disarming politician who can say it like he means it. Later, Walsh speaks at a veterans’ town hall, connecting his own recovery from alcoholism to returning veterans’ mental health challenges. Throughout the film, we see him connecting to his diverse constituency by drawing on anecdote and empathy, rather than intersectional jargon.

At the same time, City Hall is no hagiography. Though Wiseman conceived the film as a rebuke to Trumpism, it is also subtly attuned to tensions within the progressive coalition and the limits of even the most well-meaning policy to connect with those it seeks to help.

About halfway through the movie, Wiseman shows a Boston University conference where city representatives tout new initiatives to mitigate racial and economic disparities. Citing an infamous report that estimated the median net worth of Boston’s black households was $8, one representative holds forth on a host of new policies Mayor Walsh is implementing in response: mandatory ethnic quotas for construction site employees, new incentives for developers to meet higher labor standards, and an ambitious “ethnic strategy to wealth creation” that involves prioritizing marginalized communities. The scene is a litmus test: What progressive wonks would see as an inspiring agenda for change, conservatives would see as a nightmare of social engineering. Wiseman, in two subsequent scenes, is fair enough to show how any such policy will be challenged by on-the-ground realities.

The first of those scenes is a meeting where a slickly suited consultant makes a presentation on Boston’s plan to conduct disparity studies to see if minority-owned businesses face barriers in obtaining city contracts. Clicking through a flashy PowerPoint, he soon faces pushback from a Hispanic small-business owner, who questions the need to conduct such a study at all. After thirty years in the business, he says, he has no doubt that white businesses get more opportunities. Yet while conceding the problem, the man questions whether the city’s policies can meaningfully improve the situation. Whenever he is hired, he complains, it’s as a third-tier subcontractor to fill a minority quota, the kind of feel-good policy that signals progress but does little to improve actual outcomes. It’s a polite but pointed exchange, with an unmistakable class undercurrent: the credentialed consultant’s expertise faced with the blue-collar worker’s practical wisdom.

An even more telling scene comes near the end, as Wiseman wrings high civic drama out of a neighborhood hearing on a proposed cannabis dispensary. Here, too, we see policymakers’ priorities crashing against the needs of real communities, as a panel of developers answers pointed questions from Dorchester’s predominantly black residents. “How close are the cannabis shops gonna be to the school?” one older gentleman asks sharply. “How many people are you hiring, and where are you hiring them from?”

Most participants similarly question the wisdom of a project pushed by big-money interests from outside the neighborhood. Several insist that the business hire local black employees, an implicit challenge to the white and Asian owners. While invoking the language of intersectional politics, they subtly challenge progressive assumptions in other ways. Part of the problem is underpolicing of their community, one resident argues. They trust the local beat cops but insist that the police are short-staffed. They also worry that the extra business and potential crime surrounding a marijuana business can only mean trouble. The meeting disperses with a mutual promise for future consultations.

For some observers, this scene might look like a textbook example of NIMBYism, a demonstration of the unfortunate constraints that a veto-heavy democracy places on development. Not Wiseman, for whom such meetings are invested with Tocquevillian significance. He finds virtue in the everyday processes of democratic deliberation, in the ways ordinary citizens govern themselves and go about their daily lives. The buried message of City Hall is that the best-laid plans of technocrats must achieve real local legitimacy if they are to endure and actually benefit citizens.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Boys State is the film that captures the madness of the national climate, even as City Hall offers a vision of what a healthier politics might look like. Perhaps it is the local context of Wiseman’s film that offers a glimmer of hope. There seems nowadays almost an inverse relationship between the scope of an office and the seriousness with which its occupants carry it out. Thus, our highest officeholders recklessly stoke doubts and incite mobs, while state officials who act with integrity, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, are hung out to dry. City Hall captures the spirit of public service our officials ought to have; Boys State shows us the perils of a political environment in which every dispute is nationalized and personalized.

Yet these films, so clearly constructed to speak to the Trump era, also carry a warning for Democrats as the Biden Administration takes office. They counsel the need for a politics that is responsive to local needs and forged through genuine consultation and contestation, rather than by technocratic edict. To watch Mayor Walsh in City Hall is to see a politician who understands that appealing to expertise alone, without grassroots engagement, is a recipe for alienation. It’s a lesson that more than a few Democrats should learn. One can only imagine how Hillary Clinton’s campaign would have turned out if she had paid more attention to Rust Belt voter concerns than to Robby Mook’s data wizardry, or how Joe Biden might have counteracted the Hispanic swing to Trump if his campaign had spent more time on the ground in south Florida and Texas. And one can only hope that politicians like Walsh, now making the leap from local to national office, might heed that lesson in their newly elevated positions.

What these films counsel above all is a form of humility: a simple recognition that making democracy work is a matter of collective engagement and constant tending to political culture. The record turnout of last November’s election suggests optimism on the engagement count, while the fractious aftermath of the election suggests pessimism on the culture front. Let us hope, in 2021, that we might see some modest progress on both.

Boys State is available to stream on Apple TV+. City Hall can be streamed through PBS.

Sean Keeley, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he serves as assistant editor of the Journal of International Affairs.

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