Documentary

Why Is American Politics Unravelling? Boys State Film Looks for Answers

An interview with the directors behind the breakout political documentary about a Texas camp for aspiring leaders

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The new documentary Boys State opens with a quote from George Washington that warns of the damaging impact of parties in American politics. Political parties, he said "are likely…to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government."

It's an appropriate start to a film that uses the week-long civics camp for high-achieving Texas teenagers as a way to interrogate our national political climate.

"In the summer in 2017, we read that the boys in Texas had voted to secede from the union," explains filmmaker Jesse Moss, who co-directed the film with his wife Amanda McBaine. "That provocative act got some attention. It got our attention."

Boys State, a program run by the American Legion since 1935, places teens into two imagined political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists.  During the session, teens must create party platforms and nominate leaders. The culmination of the week—and the focus of the film—is the election of governor.

While the strict two-party structure of Boys State helps create some order, it also manages to highlight the flaws of a binary political system.  "This is a question that we've wrestled with," says Moss. "Does the party structure—Federalists versus Nationalists—kind of immediately introduce a sort of tribal competition. You see this literally, like chest beating. 'Beat the Federalists.' 'Beat the Nationalists.' Well, they don't stand for anything yet! What are you actually beating?"

"It's a mirror reflection of what actually happens in our country. There are two parties that rule the school," says McBaine. "The question here is can those two parties, in their tribal state, have civil discourse?"

The film won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance and was quickly snapped up by A24 and Apple for an unprecedented $12 million. It is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.

"Regardless of where you come from on the political spectrum, I think you're going to find an entry point in this film," says Moss.  "It's, I think, a complicated story and we have very diverse, complicated characters. I think in documentaries, we sometimes hunger for a kind of certain binary truth. And we all know that's really not reality."

Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg.
Boys State footage courtesy of A24 and Apple. 

NEXT: Greg Gutfeld's Self-Help Book for Haters of Self-Help (Who Love To Drunk-Tweet)

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  1. How could we ever come together on anything when the news media routinely lie and hide information to promote their political agenda?

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    3. Turn off FOX News and you’ve made half the personal journey.

      1. And while you’re at it, Tony, just about every other news outlet too. Get going.

  2. How can we ever come together on anything when government unions cheat us all out of so much of the public service that government is supposed to provide in exchange for our tax dollars?

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  3. This seems to be going in the wrong direction – “Government for its own sake.” The appeal of socialism is that you divide society roughly in half and then fight over control of the government to tyrannize the other side. But you have to maintain the strife between groups in order to justify big government. If there is reconciliation then you don’t need to oppress the other side.

    Ultimately the solution is for billionaires to establish low-cost resort colonies so people can retire and leave jobs for others to work and support themselves and thereby obviate big government and charity. The residents in return vote for small government, low tax libertarians. Government becomes irrelevant.

  4. Boys State is offered in every state. I attended in summer of 1993 in Idaho. My legion post sponsors kids every year.

    1. I attended in 01
      It was interesting

      1. It was at the GA Southern campus

  5. All the world is a school… a young man merely need avail himself of the lesson.

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  7. While the strict two-party structure of Boys State helps create some order, it also manages to highlight the flaws of a binary political system.

    As opposed to what? The European parliamentary system, with its splinter parties, backroom deals, and complete control by career politicians and bureaucrats?

    kind of immediately introduce a sort of tribal competition. “It’s a mirror reflection of what actually happens in our country.

    Bullshit. The plurality of Americans are independents. The majority of Americans hate parties and party politics. This is very much unlike what psychologists see in experiments with children and college students.

    The problem with the US political system is very simple: federal and state governments have amassed too much power.

    1. I don’t disagree that the state and fed have too much power… but to simply ignore the role of the two party system in that, I think, is a recipe for disappointment.

      I may not like my party…. but I’ll be damned if I let THOSE people win! So I vote for my tribe, even though I don’t like them…. even though, to your point, my party wants power to defend it and the country from THOSE people. So my guy, who wants LESS power than THOSE people wins… the result? It is still a guy who wants more power than none… so the norm moves. In four years, rinse and repeat. Bastiat pointed it out well… once the government assumes the power to take it quickly becomes a took that factions compete for control of so as to not have it used against themselves and to use it against their opponents in the (false) hope of forcing them into submission into your way of thinking.

      1. I don’t disagree that the state and fed have too much power… but to simply ignore the role of the two party system in that, I think, is a recipe for disappointment.

        Let’s say a legislature has to make decisions on 1000 issues. On each issue, some people come down Yay, the rest Nay. What you want is to split the votes on those 1000 issues so that people, on average, are equally disappointed. The winner take all system in the US accomplishes that quite well, and it naturally leads to two equally disappointed parties.

        It’s a good system, far better than the multi-party systems of Europe. But when you increase the number of issues to 10000 or 100000, people will be more and more disappointed with the outcome. The increasing disappointment is not a failure of the two party system, it’s a failure of keeping government limited. And failure to limit the size of government doesn’t result from the two party system; other systems have done much worse.

        1. Part of the problem now is that, while we always had first past the post, single member districts, for the longest time we had low barriers to entry for new parties.

          Sure, they’d likely fail. Partly because of the structure of the election system, but also because the political parties responded to the possibility of defecting members by actually trying to please their bases. So, while not everybody was really happy with their choices, most people were.

          But then in the 70’s some real 3rd party challenges started showing up, and the major parties got scared. And erected barriers to entry, discriminatory rules that entrenched the existing top two parties beyond realistic prospect of being displaced. (For example, taking the Presidential debates away from the League of Women voters, and giving them to a bipartisan commission.)

          Now the major parties don’t have to worry about many of their members defecting to a third party. So they don’t have to make their bases happy. They just have to convince their bases they’re not as bad as the opposing major party.

          The result is that they’re in a downward spiral.

          Add to that that increasing power of government raising the stakes for each election sky high, and a significant faction on the the left deciding that they’ve ammassed enough power and influence to skip elections and just take power by revolution.

          1. Now the major parties don’t have to worry about many of their members defecting to a third party.

            Any system in which parties have to worry about that in inherently unstable. The stable political systems are those in which two parties compete for the voters between them and split issues down the middle.

            and a significant faction on the the left deciding that they’ve ammassed enough power and influence to skip elections and just take power by revolution.

            Extremist parties and factions gain power much more easily in multi-party systems or when third party runs are a significant threat. It is the US two-party system that has held socialists and fascists at bay much more successfully than elsewhere.

            What has made the US political system less stable is primary elections. Party bosses would split issues down the middle between them and nominate moderates. But the primary system causes partisans to elect more and more radical candidates.

            But no system of government is going to preserve liberty for a nation where the government controls more than half of the economy.

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  9. “Why Is American Politics Unravelling?”

    Maybe the left has yet to accept that they lost?

    1. I don’t think they did… in fact, it is the right that can’t seem to concede that they lost the moment they decided to play the game. Historically the US has moved left on a fairly stable trend. Why do you think that would ever change, long term, with the election of someone from the GOP? Or even a “conservative”? If you stand in the middle of “left” and “right” you see them as being vastly different and you compare them to each other looking for those differences. Most people do this and decide one is much worse than the other. But if you look at American “left” and “right” from the perspective of libertarianism… there isn’t THAT much difference between them on the philosophical and fundamental questions… like “does the government need more power?” (Left: Yes to make people equal, Right: Yes to make people safe). The difference between the two sides is not one of principle, but only degree.

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  11. DEMOCRACY (i.e. “mob rules”) is the FAILURE.

    Be it by ‘socialism/communism’ (productive less tyrannical government stealing(enslaving)/giving(entitling)) or ‘fascism’ purity of race/religion. Democracy is GANGSTER/TRIBAL affiliation dictation rules. It’s not fair, it’s not freedom, it’s not positive, it will never create peace or wealth.

    The USA is a Republic with a U.S. Constitution.. That is the ‘What we believe in’ that is the ‘key’ to our success and individual freedom. Ignoring that ( replacing it with mob-rules ) IS what has turned us into a gangster war-zone.

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