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'Boys State' Helps Teens Learn How Politics Work — Perhaps A Little Too Well – NPR

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Steven Garza is the underdog in the mock-race for governor in the documentary Boys State. He counts Bernie Sanders among his political heroes.

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Since they were founded in the 1930s by the American Legion, the Boys State and Girls State programs have been giving high schoolers a practical education in how government works. Students in every state are chosen to take part in a week-long summer experiment in which they must form their own representative democracy. As we learn from the opening credits of the terrific new documentary Boys State, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Cory Booker are just a few of the program’s famous alums.

The film, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, focuses on the Texas Boys State event that took place in June 2018. We see the roughly 1,200 participants arriving in Austin, where they are randomly divided into two political parties: the Federalists and the Nationalists. Those names carry no agenda: It’s up to both parties to hammer out a platform, choose their leaders and then run against each other in a week-long election campaign.

McBaine and Moss throw us into this mock government exercise without much preamble or explanation of the rules of the game. Like politics itself, the action can be a little confusing; unlike politics, it’s never boring, mainly because the movie wisely focuses on a select few participants. Either the filmmakers were extremely lucky in their choice of subjects, or they shot so much footage that they were able to isolate the most compelling personalities. In any event, the four young men we spend the most time with all end up playing key roles in the experiment’s nerve-wracking outcome.

The most ambitious of the bunch of is Ben, the Federalists’ party chair, who’s willing to do anything to win votes, including smearing the Nationalists on social media. Ben is politically conservative — he has a Ronald Reagan action figure to prove it — and he despises what he sees as the liberal tendency to divide people along lines of race, gender and disability. Ben speaks from some personal perspective: He lost both his legs to meningitis when he was 3.

The chair of the Nationalists’ party hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum. A progressive Black teenager originally from Chicago, René knows he stands out in this mostly white, conservative Texas field. He also stands out on merit: He has a seasoned politician’s command of rhetoric and can deftly out-argue any opponent. But he’s also capable of calling for party unity, as he does in an early speech.

If René has the sharpest mind and tongue in Boys State, its heart and soul belong to Steven, a fellow Nationalist Party member. Steven becomes an underdog in the race for Governor, the highest elected office. Like René, Steven stands out: He’s the son of a Mexican immigrant and he counts Bernie Sanders among his political heroes. His humility on the campaign trail and his stirring honesty in front of a microphone prove irresistible to the crowd. Again and again, he invites his fellow party members to tell him what issues are most important to them, so that he can be a better, truer representative for their concerns.

We see these young men debating a lot of issues, especially gun control. There’s a lot of talk about protecting the Second Amendment, but there are also counterarguments from students, like Steven, who have clearly been shaken by the sheer number of school shootings. Another much-discussed issue is abortion, which leads to one of the film’s most revealing moments. A Nationalist gubernatorial candidate named Robert, who’s running on a strict pro-life platform, admits on camera that he’s secretly pro-choice. “Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in an attempt to win,” he says. “That’s politics.”

Indeed it is. And while the filmmakers are working from a mostly neutral fly-on-the-wall perspective, their attitude toward the Boys State program feels ambivalent at best. Deliberately or not, the experiment seems to bring out a lot of the flaws of America’s political system itself: personal attacks, dishonest tactics and conflicts that hinge more on popularity than substantive policy debate. It’s undeniably inspiring to see so many young men with bright, engaged minds, and the best of them, as we see from the end of the movie, have already gone on to impressive new accomplishments. But it’s also dispiriting that so many of them have already learned to view politics in the most cynical way possible — as a game to be won by any means necessary.

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How Joe Biden's Catholic Faith Shapes His Politics And Values – NPR

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If elected, Democratic nominee Joe Biden would become only the second Catholic president in American history. Here he prays at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., on Sept. 3.

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

When Joe Biden seeks to inspire or comfort, he turns to his faith. He speeches are woven with references to God, biblical language or the pope.

On Monday, the Democratic presidential nominee spoke to the faith-based anti-poverty group the Poor People’s Campaign, and described the United States under President Trump as a “nation in the wilderness.”

“All of you remind me of how Scripture describes a calling born out of the wilderness,” Biden told the virtual audience. “A calling to serve, not to be served. A calling toward justice, healing, hope — not hate. To speak the good news, and followed by some good deeds. It’s not just enough to speak the good news, but good deeds.”

This wasn’t a one-off religious reference; this is how Biden routinely speaks.

The former vice president launched his candidacy by referring to his campaign as a “battle for the soul of the nation.” It was the central theme of his primary run, and remains a core tenet of his campaign. If elected, Biden would become only the second Catholic president in American history. It’s not a detail he highlights, but people who know him well say his Catholic faith is central to how he sees the world.

Biden, who carries a rosary in his pocket and attends Mass every Sunday, is known as a deeply devout person of faith, and his campaign sees electoral implications in that — in part because Biden has tried to frame this election as a clear moral contrast between Trump and himself.

Some Democrats would go so far as to say that Biden is running perhaps the most overtly devout Democratic presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

John McCarthy, Biden’s deputy political director, worked on faith outreach for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and acknowledges Biden’s campaign is different than others.

“Campaigns obviously stem from who a candidate is, and because this is such a true part of Joe Biden, this is something that is just in the core messaging of our campaign,” McCarthy said.

Part of that distinction is about values and policy, but the other part is cultural.

“Part of him being who he is, he has these kind of touchstones that so deeply resonate with the kind of cultural Catholicism in those kind of places like the Ohio and Pennsylvania of the world,” McCarthy said.

During Holy Week this past spring, the campaign released a video in which Biden spoke about faith seeing best in the dark, juxtaposed with images of the coronavirus pandemic. And when he delivered a eulogy for George Floyd and called for racial justice, he spoke of growing up with a Catholic social doctrine that taught him “faith without works is dead.”

“It’s not like we are just talking about faith to faith voters, but instead the vice president is being who he authentically is — which is a person of faith — and that is obviously coming across,” McCarthy said.

Allies say Biden’s faith informs his values and, in turn, his values shape his politics.

“Joe is someone for whom the ways in which he sees issues around racial justice, around the treatment of refugees and immigrants — all of that is connected to a view of other people — who he sees as neighbor, who he sees as being made in the image of God,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who’s known Biden for decades.

And so Biden’s stances on a range of social and environmental issues, Coons added, are not “casual political positions;” they’re informed by his upbringing and go back, he said, to “a deeply rooted sense of fairness that he learned from his parents and from the nuns and priests who educated and helped raise him.”

Sister Carol Keehan, who’s often credited as a key player in the passage of the Affordable Care Act when she was president of the Catholic Health Association, agreed.

“He’s very clear about justice,” she said. “When Joe Biden talks about faith, he talks very much about things like the Gospel of Matthew — ‘what you’ve done to the least of my brother, you’ve done to me.’ “

Friends and staffers say Biden focuses on faith, rather than religious doctrine; he prays with voters, rather than proselytizes.

And yet for some religious conservatives, all of that pales in comparison to the single issue of abortion. Earlier this week, the conservative group Catholic Vote released an ad referring to “Joe Biden’s radical stance on abortion.”

“Joe Biden would force American Catholics to pay for abortions, sacrificing his Catholic values to kneel before the leftist mob,” the narrator warns.

Over his years in public life, Biden has become more consistently liberal on the issue of abortion. Last year, he reversed his decades-old position on the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans federal dollars from funding abortion in most cases. Polling from the Pew Research Center finds that a majority of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

For his part, Trump has tried to portray Biden as a heathen. Last month the president attacked the Democratic nominee for being a man “against God.” And more broadly, Trump and his supporters have made religion a cultural issue, painting Democrats as the party against religious freedom.

The struggle for Trump in trying to define Biden as a godless man is that Biden is the rather rare Democratic politician whose faith has been in public view for decades.

And Sen. Coons thinks that’s an asset.

“I think one of the mistakes Democrats have made over decades is to be very private about the values that move them into public life,” he said. “If we — as many Democrats in elected office have for 20 years — hide that or don’t speak about it, millions of Americans are left wondering what drives you.”

With Biden, staff and allies say, it’s obvious what drives him.

Josh Dickson, national faith engagement director for the Biden campaign, says the former vice president “wears his values and his faith on his sleeve.”

And because faith is such a core part of Biden’s identity, some staff say it’s become a core part of the campaign.

But it’s also a tightrope for religious Democrats to walk. Fewer voters identify as Christian, as the share of people who identify with no religion has jumped in recent years, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. In 2019, almost 40% of Democratic-leaning voters were religiously unaffiliated.

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5 ways the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will transform U.S. politics – CBC.ca

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It’s almost impossible to overstate the transformative effect on American politics ignited by the death of this one woman, at this one moment.

The far-ranging potential consequences from the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and liberal legal icon, will start immediately, beginning in the election campaign that determines whether Donald Trump gets a second presidential term.

And they could last for decades in the staggering array of issues to be litigated before the court — some of whose consequences reach far beyond America’s borders and could have global repercussions.

Here are five changes prompted by her death.

It pours fuel on an overheating election

It’s been distressingly common to hear this election described as a do-or-die moment for American democracy.

It was the theme of Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention. Meanwhile, figures inside the Trump administration, and close to the president, and on talk radio, have evoked scenarios of post-election violence. 

There are booksessays and newspaper articles in which political scientists sound alarm bells about the durability of the American republic.

Which is to say this election was already heated enough, with a president insisting he’s being cheated, legal fights over mail-in voting, deaths at protests and armed demonstrations.

The stakes have now risen.

Concern about her health has gripped progressive America for years. Here, in a photo seen earlier this month, it was part of a public-service announcement in Washington. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)

“I’m genuinely worried,” Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Joseph Ellis said in an interview Saturday. 

“The fate of the republic [has not been] genuinely at stake [since the Civil War].… I think we’re in a moment analogous to that now.”

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that America will face its most difficult months in a generation, and asked for prayers for the country. 

It means conservative court dominance, potentially for decades

The court recently had a 5-4 conservative tilt. It’s now 5-3, and will be 6-3 if Trump gets his nominee confirmed.

The Supreme Court has gained power throughout American history, starting in the 19th century, in its interpretive role over U.S. law. 

Now, as bitter partisanship makes it harder to pass bills in Congress than a few decades ago, parties frequently rely on courts to resolve political disputes.

One big case before the new, Ginsburg-less court involves a challenge to the law known as Obamacare — hearings are scheduled for Nov. 10 on the Affordable [Health] Care Act. 

Former president Barack Obama, seen here in 2010 celebrating the adoption of his signature health reform. The Affordable Care Act is about to be challenged in hearings before the court. It, and numerous other Democratic initiatives, face a more uncertain future. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Obama’s signature law, which extended health coverage to millions, appears in grave danger: the law survived one earlier challenge by a single vote.

Other cases this fall will touch on workplace benefits, and on the right of publicly funded religious institutions to exclude same-sex couples

This court could even decide the presidential election. 

In 2000, the high court ended a Florida recount and made George W. Bush president; the numerous fights this year over mail-in ballots could be far, far messier.

Longer-term battles are inevitable over abortion, and over myriad presidential executive actions. Take climate-change regulations and immigration rules.

Obama signed a flurry of such climate and immigration executive orders; future ones would inevitably be challenged in a more hostile court.

“It would be the strongest conservative majority we’ve seen,” former U.S. federal prosecutor Joseph Moreno told CBC News.

“[Now you have chief justice] John Roberts potentially sometimes voting with the minority. [But with a change now] you’d have a potentially secure block of conservative votes. 

“That would impact so many things in this country.”

Other big changes could be economic. In his book, Supreme Inequality, author Adam Cohen argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has, for most of American history, favoured the wealthy and powerful, with a rare exception being the 1960s court led by Earl Warren. 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion for women’s rights, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. 3:00

He said the court has recently been a major driver of American inequality — stripping away union powers, allowing corporate money into politics and undermining the integration and funding of schools in minority areas.

Page 1 of his book carries an anecdote about Bader Ginsburg: she wrote the dissent for the losing side in a case involving a Black man subjected to racist abuse at work.

It upends the election focus

The court fight threatens to overshadow the presidential election issue Democrats hoped to focus on: the pandemic, which has killed around 200,000 Americans. 

It will play out, day after day, as voters cast ballots. Voting has already started. Ballots are being mailed out, and in-person polling stations are open in some states.

The Supreme Court has been a winning issue for Trump before. In 2016, more than a quarter of Trump voters told pollsters it was the reason they voted for him.

Trump cemented his alliance with social conservatives by vowing to name only conservatives to the court, and he took the unusual step of releasing a list of candidates in advance.

He’s done it again: Trump released his new list of picks just over a week ago. He’s promised to announce his choice, likely a woman, within days.

Intriguingly, when asked Saturday about one candidate, Barbara Lagoa, Trump praised her and mentioned, unprompted, that she was “Hispanic” and “from Florida” — a critical voting group in a critical swing state. 

Floral tributes surround a poster with an image of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Saturday. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

There’s no guarantee this issue will help him. The intense upcoming debate on abortion is no slam-dunk for conservatives.

Some polling suggests a strong majority of Americans want to preserve, at least in part, the landmark abortion-rights decision Roe v. Wade.

It’s one of the first points mentioned in a fundraising letter to supporters from Democratic VP candidate Kamala Harris.

Both parties quickly began fundraising off the subject of her death. Here’s an email the Biden campaign sent supporters Saturday. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)

“Today, we fight for [Bader Ginsburg’s] legacy,” said Harris’ note.

Democratic donors certainly appeared energized: the party said it raised tens of millions of dollars in the hours after Bader Ginsburg’s death.

In an inimitably American political phenomenon, both parties were actively fundraising upon the judge’s death.

The Trump campaign released a similar message to supporters.

This sudden effect of this debate will likely resonate unevenly across the country, helping Republicans in some places but not others.

It’s illustrated in the different reactions from Republican senators involved in tough re-election fights.

Just compare their reactions to a map showing church attendance rates per state: Republicans running in more religious states dove headfirst into the fight, which will inevitably raise hot-button social issues. 

(CBC News)

North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who heads the justice committee in charge of the process, vowed to support a nomination immediately. 

By contrast, Colorado’s Cory Gardner dodged various questions on the topic and released a vague statement; Susan Collins of Maine said the presidential election winner should get to make the pick.

There’s some reason for optimism for Democratic nominee Joe Biden: surveys in three smaller swing states this week suggested he’s more trusted on court appointments than Trump.

It triggers a brawl on Capitol Hill

The power to pick judges rests with the president. The power to confirm them belongs to the Senate.

Right now Republicans control the Senate with 53 votes, to 47 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents.

Those numbers would not, until recently, have guaranteed confirmation: for generations, 60 votes were required for most major actions in the Senate, but because Congress is so frequently paralyzed, first Democrats, then Republicans, began chipping away at the so-called filibuster rule.

Now it takes a simple majority, of 50 or 51, to confirm a judge. And it will be close.

The first question is how quickly Republicans proceed. Trump tweeted his own suggestion that the party move fast: “We have this obligation, without delay!” 

Anti-abortion activists, seen here in the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., last January, are likely to have a more favourable court. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

His party has flexibility on timing a final vote. It can happen before or after the Nov. 3 election: the current Senate term lasts two months beyond the election, until Jan. 3, and the current presidential term lasts until Jan. 20.

It’s taken an average of just over two months to confirm justices since the 1970s. It used to be faster, in less-partisan eras, and it could be faster again with the new simple-majority rule.

Democrats are vowing to put up whatever fight they can — with legislative delay tactics, threats of revenge if they regain the chamber and efforts to embarrass Republican senators in tough re-election races.

Both parties quickly began fundraising off the subject of her death. Here’s a text the Trump campaign sent supporters Saturday. (Alex Panetta/CBC News)

Then there are the insults. 

Both parties are calling each other hypocrites: Republicans for reversing themselves on their 2016 declaration that presidents shouldn’t name a judge close to an election, and Democrats for reversing themselves in the other direction.

Yet Republicans likely hold the upper hand in this nomination battle. They controlled the Senate in 2016 and they control it now.   

It foreshadows a clash over institutions

The Republican Party has won the popular vote in a presidential election precisely once since 1988. Yet it has a stranglehold over the Supreme Court.

And Democrats are livid.

There are growing calls within the party to overhaul the country’s institutions to make them more representative of the country’s actual, increasingly diverse, demographics.

Obama spelled out some of this agenda in his eulogy for the late civil-rights hero John Lewis: he called for full votes in Congress for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, a new voting-rights law and an end to the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule.

Many progressives want to go even further — and expand the Supreme Court: meaning add new judges.

Biden has opposed the idea and said Democrats would come to regret it. 

But the idea is growing on the left. 

Nearly half the party’s presidential candidates said they were open to it. Sen. Bernie Sanders has raised the idea of rotating judges between upper and lower courts.

The Democrat who leads the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Saturday said that if Republicans proceed with this nomination, Democrats should immediately move to expand the court should they win the Senate.

Franklin Roosevelt famously failed in an effort to pack the court in the 1930s.

He was frustrated that conservative judges were blocking aspects of his New Deal, the Depression Era social-safety net and public-works program.

Cohen’s book says Roosevelt achieved something even if he failed to pack the court: after that, the judges stopped cancelling his policies.

Democrats’ leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, has left open the possibility of shifting to a simple majority vote on all bills if his party wins back the chamber.

On Saturday, in a conference call with party members, several outlets reported him saying that if Republicans replace Ginsburg now, “Nothing is off the table.”

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American politics is about to get a lot uglier – The Boston Globe

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To win political power will mean using it brazenly, extravagantly, and without comity or consensus.

A group of protesters rally in front of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s home on September 19 in Louisville, Kentucky. McConnell has said that if President Donald Trump nominates someone to take the place of Ginsburg following her death, the Senate would proceed with the nomination process despite the presidential election being less than six weeks away.Jon Cherry/Getty

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is devastating, and not simply because it is the passing of one of the most influential jurists in American history.

It is what comes next that should alarm us the most.

If we lived in a normal democracy in which all political parties abided by basic democratic norms and traditions, both presidential candidates would spend the next six weeks debating — among other issues — who they would appoint to the Supreme Court in 2021 should they win the presidential election.

But if we lived in that country, Merrick Garland would be a member of the highest court in the land.

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Instead, four years ago Republicans — led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — refused to give Garland a Senate hearing. As they argued at the time, nine months before a presidential election was too soon to appoint a Supreme Court replacement for Antonin Scalia. Fast forward to 2020 and McConnell announced within hours of Ginsburg’s death that there will be a Senate vote on Trump’s pick to replace her on the Court, even though voters in some states have already begun to cast ballots.

McConnell’s move is cynical, hypocritical, and completely in keeping with the nihilism that he has brought to bear on American politics. For McConnell, norms are for the weak. Might makes right and political power is a tool to be wielded in the pursuit of ones self-interested political goals, the consequences on the legitimacy of America’s democratic institutions be damned. We saw this when Republicans pushed through Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Court after credible allegations of sexual assault, and we will likely see it play out now. While it’s far from guaranteed that McConnell will persuade 49 of his other Senate Republicans to go along with his efforts to pack the Court, one would be foolish to bet against cynicism winning the day.

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If this happens, what will Democrats do in response? Should the polls hold up and they win the presidency and narrowly take control of the Senate, American politics will dramatically change. As Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer made clear Saturday morning, if McConnell moves forward, “…nothing is off the table.”

That means, almost certainly, an end to the Senate filibuster if Democrats win control in November. Democrats would probably move forward with statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which could mean four new Democratic senators. And Democrats may be emboldened to expand the Supreme Court to make up for what the party rightly perceives as the theft of two seats by McConnell and the GOP.

Democrats would have already pushed for many of these reforms before Ginsburg died. But if the GOP rams through yet another new justice, the gloves will come off — not because Senate Democrats will be furious, but because it will be the only way to hold back the bile of party activists.

This is the right thing for Democrats to do. When one party refuses to abide by democratic norms; when it acts as an agent of only its own political supporters and makes no effort to honor institutional principles; and when there is no accountability and there are no political repercussions for nefarious actions, the course forward is clear. Democrats must play the same political hardball Republicans have played for much of the past two decades.

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But we should not delude ourselves about the larger corrosive effect. For Democrats to imitate the actions of Republicans means a new era of cutthroat politics in which bipartisanship remains out the window and both political parties shove aside all of America’s political traditions. To win political power will mean using it brazenly, extravagantly, and without comity or consensus. It will complete the evolution of American government from its current state to one more representative of a parliamentary democracy in which once a party achieves power, it treats it as a mandate to put in place its political agenda lock, stock, and barrel. And when the other party achieves power, it will do the same. It’s not to say cooperation will be impossible or never happen, but rather that the system will evolve in such a way that it will not be necessary — and each party will put in place reforms to increase their power and weaken the other side. Republicans have been doing that for years. Now Democrats will likely follow their lead.

Perhaps this is the politics we need. Perhaps Americans need a starker reminder of the differences between the two parties. But the ugliness and divisiveness that will flow from this will only deepen the intense polarization that already defines American politics.

In an ideal world, Mitch McConnell would step back from the brink or enough members of the Senate Republican caucus would demand he do so. Don’t hold your breath on that happening. After all, if the last few years have taught us anything — we don’t live in that America.

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Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.

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