“I think he’s a fantastic politician. But I don’t think a fantastic politician is a compliment either.”
These sound like the weary words of a veteran political analyst, but they’re actually the reflections of a high school student after a “week-long experiment in self-governance.” Rene Otero was bemoaning the negative campaign tactics of a fellow student in Boys State, a summer civics and leadership program sponsored by the American Legion in states across the nation. A 2020 documentary, titled Boys State, documented one summer’s program in Texas. The film is fairly accurately summed up by this one striking moment: a student elected to the position of his party’s state chair witnesses the vitriol, racism, and deception of an entirely simulated election and recognizes that the skills that make you a successful politician also make you a bad person.
The featured students fall into some predictable categories: the young conservative Ben (“The problem today is people discounting that America is a great country.”), the outnumbered Texan progressive Steven (wearing a Beto T-shirt as he gets on the bus), the brash and popular Robert, who seems more interested in winning than in advancing any particular philosophy. The film covers their entire week—the highs and lows of primary elections, the drama of the party speeches, the cafeteria politicking—as well as interviews with the four main boys reflecting on their experience. It is surprisingly engaging, often funny (there is a statewide ban on pineapple pizza by the end of the week), and ultimately sobering.We swim in the waters of partisan conflict, and we can hardly recognize that underneath all the posturing, strategizing, and warfare tactics is supposed to be a real vision of human flourishing.
Early in the film, a boy asks one of the leaders, “What are we doing after we get elected?” The answer is: nothing. The entire week’s introduction to government and politics is centered on the primary and then general election. There is (often confusing, meandering, and ultimately purposeless) conversation about policy in the course of the elections, but it mostly boils down to the more progressive candidates defending themselves on abortion or gun control and one wild detour into Texas secession. There is conversation about legislation relocating all Prius owners to Oklahoma because “we hate them and we don’t want them here.”
The wildest part of the film is how quickly the boys become passionately committed to arbitrary party divisions. The “Federalists” and the “Nationalists” have no substance behind them. They create their own (sometimes nonsensical) platforms after joining the party and pledging their aggressive loyalty. Boys State does seem to create a realistic political atmosphere, but in all the wrong ways.
As Boys State portrays it, the program rewards charisma, aggression, and drive. The language of the program is victory and defeat: “We will win, we will win, we will win!” is the first declaration of the newly formed fictitious parties. One of the most striking moments in an early party meeting is a candidate speech that includes a passionate plea: “Our masculinity should not be infringed!” to massive cheers. Another speech proclaims they will “pressure the Federalists into a state of absolute submission.” There is too much military language and imagery to count. At one point my closed captioning just said “rhythmic grunting” to describe the mostly unintelligible party meeting. The candidate painted as the most politically educated upon entering the summer program jumps into his role as party chairman with this plan: “We’re going to do shock and awe. It’s politics. You play to win.”
It gets more infuriating, an emotion I cannot imagine the filmmakers did not intend to provoke.
One of the most aggressive candidates (who does not win his party’s nomination) later admits to his apathy about most of the issues he campaigned on. “As to the political views voiced in my speech—those are not my own. I’m playing this like a game. I’m playing to win.” He realizes that a pro-choice position is not popular among the largely conservative crowd and chooses to campaign as if he’s pro-life. “That’s politics, I think.”
He later reflects on how this experience gave him newfound “appreciation” for why politicians lie to get into office. “I’ve realized that sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart.”
Ben, the chairman for the other party, shares a similar sentiment: “A message of unity, as good as it sounds and as good as it is for our country, is not winning anyone any elections. You have to use personal attacks and you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”
Boys State is fascinating, disturbing, and uncomfortably enlightening about the state of American politics. A summer program intending to instill the value of civic participation not only drives one central participant to declare his disinterest in electoral politics before he even gets started, but quickly disintegrates into forms of mudslinging that are somehow both teenage and reminiscent of actual national politics (like racist Instagram posts and talk of “penis measuring”).
There is plenty to lament here. At least in the eyes of the filmmakers, the divisive, dirty players won. But humming underneath the message that good politicians never win is another message: the next generation isn’t the shining hope many of us want to believe in. In fact, they’re just like us.
Perhaps even more damning, Boys State reflects back to us the consequences of our own malnourished political imaginations.
At the heart of Boys State is a warning: the political vision, language, and practices of one generation are passed onto the next. The students featured in the film are stepping into roles that have been shaped for them, adopting language that they hear from their parents and teachers, picking up the same tired debates we’ve been having for decades. They are constrained by the same limitations their elders either created or nurtured: the loyalties they have to maintain, the divisions that cannot be crossed, the warlike mentality that insists that if “they” win, “we” lose.
We are too often and too easily constrained by the political habits and practices we have inherited by our elders. We swim in the waters of partisan conflict, and we can hardly recognize that underneath all the posturing, strategizing, and warfare tactics is supposed to be a real vision of human flourishing. We know the language of politics: fear, war, victory or defeat. We know the constraints of not merely our system but the norms, stories, and familiar tactics within it: winning confers moral rectitude, losing indicates weakness, each side needs to fight for its own gains and ward off any advances of the other side.
This imprisonment within partisan fighting makes perfect sense if you are not a Christian. The boys at Boys State make perfect sense, if this life and its liberties are the ultimate goods. But what an abomination, excuse the biblical language, when resurrection people fall prey to the same logic.
The logic and language we use is not our own; it will be passed down to later generations and take on a life of its own. We will not be able to contain its use to only the situations we intended. That was true of the evangelical leaders of the past, and it is true of us now. Boys State reminds us that our children—and I mean all of the children of the church, not just the ones that live in your house—are watching, learning, even playacting within the norms we set. They might listen to the sermons about the gospel or the lectures about the way Christians should engage politics, but more powerful than these are the examples they will imitate. We are so often rehearsing the same drama with different players. They will grow up knowing a script they never intended to memorize.
Young Christians like myself frequently (and I believe, rightfully) bemoan the political legacy we have inherited. Yet we are not as focused as perhaps we should be on the legacy we are creating. Many of the particular issues will pass, but the language and frameworks we use now will outlast us in ways we may not intend.
More than teaching the next generation about the mechanics of government or the most “biblical” way to vote in any given election, perhaps we the church would better serve the next generation by passing on a better political imagination. We could paint with vibrant colors a picture of human flourishing, highlight the various ways that Christians have resisted evil and upheld goodness throughout history and around the world, and insist that our witness is not constrained by pragmatism or power struggles. We could confess our own complicity in injustice, a powerful posture that might invite some more honest self-reflection in the future. We could shift our focus from the supposedly existential threats of this election and give our children the gift of a more colorful and creative imagination for Christian work in the political world.