This week we can choose between two very different verité-style political documentaries, but the correct play is to stream them both. Taken together, they explain both why our political system is so screwed up and how we got there. If HBO’s The Swamp depicts how politics-as-sport is subverting the process, A24 and Apple’s Boys State depicts how politics becomes sport in the first place.
The Swamp follows congressmen Matt Gaetz, Thomas Massie, Ro Khanna, Katie Hill and a few others in a series of rarely-seen collaborations between the liberal Progressive Caucus and the conservative Freedom Caucus, as they work together to try to claw back some of Congress’s real functions from special interests and the executive branch. Boys State follows the surprisingly intense ceremonial elections at the historic, American Legion mock government program for high school boys, designed to teach them the rudiments of forming governments (in this case following the program in the state of Texas)
If The Swamp offers the logistics on how and the extent to which the political system got so broken, Boys State gives us the Freudian analysis, the story of politics-as-Greek tragedy where we’re undone by our own hubris. Maybe, you think, our system is broken because we are.
In Boys State we watch as René Otero, a black transplant from Chicago, first wins his party chairmanship with a barn burner of a speech, survives an impeachment attempt, and then tries to guide his party’s candidate, Steven Garza, the intensely serious son of an undocumented worker, from stammering outcast to inspiring leader. The question left unsaid is what Boys State‘s leaders are inspiring their voters to actually do. Their positions are entirely ceremonial. Yet this only sharpens the film’s psychological exploration of those who would want to lead (or more accurately, attain the position of “leader”).
Otero and Garza’s foils come in the form Ben Feinstein, a double amputee turned budding Karl Rove who, as chairman of the competing party, weaponizes grievance politics and wedge issues in support of his own candidate, Eddy, a Romney-esque blank slate jock with fluffy hair whose biggest asset seems to be that he looks the part (Feinstein suggests, nauseatingly and despite much evidence to the contrary, that Eddy is reminiscent of a young Ben Shapiro). All the Boys State characters go on life-changing journeys of self-discovery that leave many of them (and us) in tears.
Boys State‘s emotional draw is equal parts catharsis and death of innocence. You identify with the kids discovering their true selves — some finding the courage in their convictions, others the justification for playing dirty. It’s like watching politics corrupt almost in real-time. Boys State — which counts among its alumni Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, Samuel Alito — teaches politics as sport, where pupils practice attaining power with no guidance or expectation of what they might do with that power. It’s an extraordinary film, heartening and heartbreaking. If The Swamp fed my brain, Boys State stomped on my heart.
In both movies, we see a consistent tendency to see other Americans as more conservative than they actually are. In Boys State, a program sponsored by the traditionally conservative American Legion in the traditionally conservative state of Texas, it’s not an outlandish assumption. I vaguely remember applying for an American Legion scholarship in my own small town. During the interview, the only question they asked was to present me with a newspaper article about flag burning and ask what I would do about it if I was in charge. Even though I had an inkling even then that it was probably the wrong answer given the room, I offered some response about how part of what the flag actually symbolized was the freedom to protest. They ended up giving the scholarship to my friend Randy, a nerdy son of Japanese-American farmers with crypto-fascist politics, who told them that if he was in charge the protesters would get the death penalty (Randy was also the Valedictorian, so the decision might not have been entirely political).
Yet when two of Boys State‘s protagonists, René Otero, the black orator from Chicago (with requisite allusions to Obama here) and Steven Garza, the Mexican-American from Houston, give speeches appealing to the room’s more progressive leanings, they both bring down the house. While it’s fair to point out that both their policy statements are safely centrist and pragmatic, it feels like we’re watching them discover a silent majority. Partly this may reflect the changing demographics of Texas, an increasingly diverse and urbanized state despite its traditional cowboy image (both Otero and Garza come from the cities).
Yet there’s also a watershed moment when Garza’s primary opponent, Robert MacDougall, a football player who looks like a young Matt Dillon, escaped from a Richard Linklater movie, reveals that he’s actually pro-choice and in favor of background checks for guns. So why had he said the opposite in his speech? Because, he wonders, what is politics if not the art of telling the crowd what they already think in order to attain power for yourself? (MacDougall’s extraordinary character arc seems him recognize that perhaps politics is about more).
Likewise, practically the entire premise of The Swamp is that some of the most “conservative” members of congress — Matt Gaetz, Thomas Massie, and Ken Buck — maybe aren’t as “conservative” as you think, at least in a few key ways. Normally we see them as irredeemable Trumpist MAGAchuds, and mostly they earn it, but the film follows their attempts at bipartisan efforts to win back war powers from the executive branch (despite Gaetz being one of Trump’s most slavish defenders) and Gaetz being the first Republican to publicly swear off PAC money. Gaetz also comes out in defense of Katie Hill during the California Democrat’s revenge porn scandal, even as the Democratic leadership seems to determined railroad Hill (presumably out of fear of conservative backlash).
Where do these assumptions come from? Why do we always seem to assume less tolerance and forgiveness in others than we assume from ourselves? The unfortunate lesson in both The Swamp‘s depiction of real national politics and in Boys State‘s adolescent simulation is that politics is largely about making noise. And conflict sells. When one of the teenage Machiavellis fans grievance politics and gins up a wedge issue almost out of thin air, we understand why there was so little coverage of the bipartisan initiatives central to The Swamp.
We want to see, or rather we can’t help but gawk at, the fight. That’s what sells ads, it’s what fuels donations, and what moves swing voters, even in fake elections for ceremonial positions for high schoolers. Yet if there’s a big takeaway from both films, it’s that the polarization we’re constantly fed is more strategy than reality. It’s a symptom of a game, not an objective reality. Together, they show how the political system designed to help us work together on the things on which we agree has been gamed to do the opposite.