How American Politics Reached This Fraught Moment: 12 Documentaries to Watch Ahead of the Midterms

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Voters wait in line to cast ballots outside a polling location in Wyoming, US, on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (David Williams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Voters wait in line to cast ballots outside a polling location in Wyoming, US, on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (David Williams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

November 4, 2022

As the 2022 U.S. midterm elections approach amid continuing false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, federal agencies have warned of a heightened risk of attacks on political figures or election officials, and polling suggests that a growing segment of Americans expects political violence to increase.

Those concerns gained renewed attention after an October 28 attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. The speaker had previously been an intended target on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to certify Joe Biden’s presidential election.

How did U.S. politics reach this fraught and polarized moment, in which a majority of Americans from both main political parties say democracy is “in danger of collapse,” but for divergent reasons?

FRONTLINE has been reporting on the evolution of American politics and threats to democracy for years. From how conspiracy theories made their way to the center of American political life, to the resurgence of white supremacist ideology, to how choices made by U.S. political leaders have undermined American democracy and stoked violence, these 12 documentaries — all embedded below — are a crucial chronicle of key decisions and turning points in recent American political history.


Lies, Politics and Democracy

From Michael Kirk and his team, this two-hour documentary from September 2022 investigates how American political leaders fed the public lies about the 2020 presidential election and embraced rhetoric that led to political violence.


Pelosi’s Power

A 90-minute examination of how the first woman speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has wielded power across three decades — and how she became a polarizing figure and a leading right-wing target. This March 2022 documentary is from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team.


Michael Flynn’s Holy War

An October 2022 collaborative documentary with the Associated Press, this investigation reveals how the retired three-star general emerged as a leader in a far-right movement that seeks to put its brand of Christianity at the center of American civic life and institutions and is attracting election deniers, conspiracists and extremists from around the country. From a team led by filmmaker Rick Rowley and AP reporter Michelle R. Smith.


American Insurrection

An investigation of how the threat of far-right extremist groups has evolved from the deadly 2017 white supremacist Charlottesville rally, to the assault on the U.S. Capitol, to 2022. From a team led by Rick Rowley and A.C. Thompson, the documentary, updated in January 2022, is a collaboration with ProPublica and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program, with support from the WNET Group’s Exploring Hate initiative. 


United States of Conspiracy

How trafficking in conspiracy theories went from the fringes of U.S. politics into the White House — aided by an alliance among former President Trump, his longtime advisor Roger Stone and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. From Michael Kirk and his team, the documentary was updated in January 2022.


Plot to Overturn the Election

An investigation of how the myth about widespread election fraud made its way to the center of American politics. From FRONTLINE and ProPublica, this March 2022 documentary by Samuel Black and A.C. Thompson traces how a handful of people had an outsized impact on the current U.S. crisis of democratic legitimacy.


Trump’s American Carnage

Made in the weeks following the attack on the Capitol, this documentary from Michael Kirk and his team examines the road to Jan. 6 and how, from his first days as president to his last, Trump stoked division, violence and insurrection.


Supreme Revenge

Updated in November 2020, this documentary from Michael Kirk and his team examines how the Supreme Court’s conservative majority came to be, how confirmations transformed into bitter, partisan conflicts, and the key role Mitch McConnell played when he was Senate majority leader.


America After 9/11

How the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks ushered in an era of rising fear, mistrust, conspiracy theories, racism and division in America. This September 2021 documentary from Michael Kirk and his team traces a line from 9/11 and its aftermath through two wars and the breakdown of trust in institutions to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.


American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil

Premiering in November 2020, this post-election special from a team led by Mike Shum and Blair Woodbury explores the lives, fears and hopes of Americans in the chaotic months leading up to the historic 2020 presidential contest – following people around the country as they dealt with COVID-19 in their communities, responded to George Floyd’s killing and experienced a polarizing election and its aftermath.


Whose Vote Counts 

With Columbia Journalism Investigations and reporters from the USA Today Network, this October 2020 documentary from Jelani Cobb, June Cross and Tom Jennings traces how unfounded claims of extensive voter fraud entered the political mainstream in the U.S. and examines allegations of voter disenfranchisement.


America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump

This four-hour January 2020 documentary series from Michael Kirk and his team investigates how the country’s increasingly bitter, divided and toxic politics came to be, and examines what America’s polarization could mean for its future.


These and hundreds of additional FRONTLINE documentaries on domestic and international issues are available to stream on our website, in the PBS Video App and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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