Playing Politics

Who wouldn’t like to play politics? Take a week off, get together with a thousand other people, and simulate an entire election season—how could that not be fun? That’s what high school students do every year at the American Legion’s Boys State and Girls State programs.

A new documentary, Boys State, follows several participants at last year’s Texas Boys State. It has been a surprise hit, gaining significant attention and winning the US Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Its success has been attributed, in part, to the fact that the film captures just how similar the boys’ fictional political world is to our real one.

Why would a high school simulation bear such a striking similarity to the governance of the most powerful nation in the world? There are many elements of the Boys State program that would seem to make it a poor replica: a set of politically engaged teenage boys is hardly a representative sample of the American citizenry; as high-schoolers, they have none of the pricey higher education possessed by our governing elite; the stakes are obviously much lower; participants are randomly assigned to two political parties, removing any kind of ideological unity or purpose; the list could go on.

I would suggest that the similarity may be explained by and highlight the importance of one shared characteristic: For Boys State and for our national politics, it’s all for show.

Early in the film, a participant calls attention to the obvious limitations of a program like Boys State by asking, “We’re running for offices . . . but what is it we’re doing after we’re elected?” The inevitable answer to that question is, well, nothing (at least for the executive branch of government, on which the documentary focuses almost exclusively).

Given that it is only a week long and composed of students who have never met one another and who have no actual power, Boys State can be forgiven for its tendency to devolve into empty showmanship. Our own government, on the other hand . . .

Boys State primarily follows four participants: two candidates for governor and the chairmen of the two parties—the Federalists and the Nationalists. The normal, pandering campaign tactics dominate. The candidates who emerge as front-runners are those distinguished for their ability to yell effectively, generate buzz, most accurately measure the wind, utilize shallow social media campaigns, and successfully generate outrage.

Unlike the participants, real elected officials, of course, do (occasionally) pass legislation and (regularly) make decisions with major implications for the lives of citizens. But it’s hard to argue that they don’t subordinate those decisions to the same performative showmanship on display in Boys State. Speeches in the halls of Congress or from the Rose Garden are almost indistinguishable from stump speeches these days. The passage of legislation depends almost entirely on electoral calculations. Social media allows—and requires—public officials to continue campaigning all throughout their terms in office. When Donald Trump opted to accept his party’s nomination on the White House lawn, thus symbolizing the subordination of public office to the partisan campaign, it was (like so many activities of the forty-fifth president) a symptom, rather than a cause, of institutional degradation.

Actually thinking about our communal life together impresses one with the moral weight that politics really has, along with the limits of what can reasonably be expected of any leader, party, or program.

The most striking characteristic on display in the film is the way in which several candidates create their persona out of thin air. Since participants are assigned to a party randomly, there is no obvious ideological path to success. As such, their positions “evolve” as needed. One candidate, when asked prior to the adoption of party platforms what he believed in, simply said his positions would reflect those of the party, whatever they wound up being. Another candidate—one of the main four—was remarkably blunt when speaking only to the camera: “My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all, so I chose to pick a new stance.”

In one sense, this might seem at odds with our real politics—aren’t our parties more ideologically polarized and rigid than ever? But just think of what the Democratic Party thought about same-sex marriage in 2008 versus 2012. Or what the Republican Party thought about free trade or America’s role in the Middle East in 2012 versus 2016. Or what either party thinks about the limits of executive power depending on who happens to occupy the White House at any given moment. For all the righteous posturing and purity tests, for most of them, the ideology is just another way to manipulate people—it’s all part of the show.

The performative nature of it all comes to a head just before votes are cast. Controversy erupts when candidates are given a block of time to address meetings of “districts” of participants (which seem to mirror counties). The Federalist gubernatorial candidate opts to use his time for a question-and-answer session, prompting the district chairman—who just happens to also be the Nationalist Party chairman—to use his district authority to declare that only speeches are allowed. The candidate, who did not prepare a speech, is outraged at the abuse of authority and successfully leverages the charge of impropriety to a win on election night. Both sides demonstrate their moral outrage—about the abuse of power, or the attempt to portray genuine leadership as abuse of power. But obviously nobody cares what the rule about speeches actually was. The rules and procedures that govern political life are exclusively seen in terms of their ability to promote or hinder my team’s success.

Of course, there will always be a tendency to view procedural or constitutional questions from the perspective that gives us what we want. But a healthy politics will require participants to address themselves to a shared standard or make arguments on such matters that at least feign objectivity. In this way, to use Burke’s image, we throw a “well-wrought veil” over the raw power that inevitably rears its head from time to time in political life. By doing so, we contain and control these impulses. But there is none of that at the climax of Boys State. No discussion of the actual rules at all; no thoughtful discussion of what procedures might objectively improve the “polity”: Nothing but power plays and performative outrage. And it seems very familiar.

Boys State is moderately entertaining, though not terribly insightful. Its moralizing is, thankfully, limited. When it does hint at certain conclusions, they are typically shallow and, predictably, targeted against conservatives: Viewers are clearly led to sympathize with the soft-spoken Bernie Sanders supporter who is ruthlessly exposed to this group of Texas boys as the organizer of an anti-gun “March for Our Lives” event. (Not much emphasis is placed on the fact that he initially sought to hide these views from the voters.) Near the end, the film stokes our optimism by pointing to political issues on which “common ground” emerged. As you can imagine, every example was of conservative positions giving way to liberal ones. 

The film also has some “cringe-worthy” moments, as you might expect when you’re watching 17-year-olds give political speeches. But the film does, by following these young men playing politics, drive home how much of a game it all is today.

As a rising high school senior, I participated in the Virginia Boys State program. I can’t say that I remember all that much about it—I believe I was a campaign advisor for a failed candidate for some down-ballot office, a result that no doubt accurately reflected my budding instincts for electoral politics. I also recall there being more genuinely educational elements than the film captures—seminars on party organization, political history, and the benefits of America’s constitutional order, for instance. The simulation itself was a fun experience and one that captured all the partisan-directed thumos that comes along with the game of electoral politics. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course—and it may actually help explain the film’s popularity (a spirited battle is entertaining, even if counterproductive!) But it captures only one element of political life, and one that can be particularly dangerous when it becomes the centerpiece.

Programs like Boys State can, by necessity, recreate only the game of politics. But that game must be premised on a deeper reality—namely that real politics is inescapably tied to the greatest earthly human goods and evils, and those vying for power can only truly justify their selection by showing themselves to be cognizant of and capable of wielding such awful power. The high school kids just can’t caputre this sublime context.

A year after attending Boys State, I took a freshman-level course in political philosophy. There, in the pages of Plato and Aristotle, I was forced to consider political life with a little more logos. Actually thinking about our communal life together impresses one with the moral weight that politics really has, along with the limits of what can reasonably be expected of any leader, party, or program. This has a tendency to dampen the unbridled enthusiasm for the partisan wargame.

Boys State might teach us the consequences of a politics devoid of this sublime awe. But we’re also well on our way to learning them the hard way.