« I she thinks he’s a fantastic politician. But I don’t think a great politician is a compliment either. »
They sound like the tired words of a veteran political analyst, but they’re actually the musings of a high school student after a « week-long self-government experiment. » Rene Otero complained about the negative campaign tactics of a fellow student State of the boysan American Legion-sponsored summer civics and leadership program in states across the nation. A 2020 documentary, titled State of the boys, documented the schedule of a summer in Texas. The film summed up quite accurately by this astonishing moment: a student elected to his party’s state president witnesses the vitriol, racism, and deceit of an entirely bogus election, and acknowledges that the skills that make you a politician success also make you a bad person.
The students in the foreground fall into a few predictable categories: the young conservative Ben (« The problem today is that people ignore that America is a big country »), the progressive outnumbered Texan Steven (wearing a Beto shirt as he climbs on the bus), the cheeky and popular Robert, who seems more interested in winning than advancing a particular philosophy. The film covers the entire week – the ups and downs of the primary election, the drama of party speeches, the politics of the cafeteria – as well as interviews with the four main kids reflecting on their experience. It’s surprisingly engaging, often entertaining (there’s a statewide ban on pineapple pizza by the end of the week), and ultimately sobering.
We swim in the waters of partisan conflict and can hardly recognize that underlying all attitudes, strategies and tactics of warfare there should be a true vision of human flourishing.
ANDAt the beginning of the film, a boy asks one of the leaders, « What are we going to do after we get elected? » The answer is: nothing. The full week’s introduction to government and politics is centered around the primaries and then the general election. There is (often muddled, torturous, and ultimately aimless) conversation about politics throughout the election, but it mostly boils down to more progressive candidates defending themselves on abortion or gun control and a wild detour in Texas secession . There is debate over legislation that moves 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 passionately engage in 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 swearing their aggressive loyalty. Boys State seems to create a realistic political atmosphere, but in all the wrong ways.
AS State of the boys portrays him, the program rewards charisma, aggressiveness and grit. The language of the program is victory and defeat: « We will win, we will win, we will win! » it is the first declaration of the newly established fictitious parties. One of the most striking moments at an early party meeting is a candidate speech that includes an impassioned plea: « Our masculinity should not be violated! » to massive applause. Another speech proclaims that they « will push the federalists into a state of absolute submission. » There is too much military language and imagery to count. At one point my subs just said « rhythmic grunts » to describe the mostly incomprehensible party gathering. The candidate portrayed as the most politically educated entering the summer program jumps into his role as party chairman with this plan: “We will do shock and awe. It’s politics. You play to win. »
It becomes more infuriating, an emotion I can’t imagine the filmmakers didn’t intend to provoke.
OROne of the more aggressive candidates (who doesn’t win his party’s nomination) later admits his apathy on most of the issues he campaigned on. “As for the political views expressed in my speech, those are not mine. I’m playing it as a game. I’m playing to win. » He realizes that a pro-choice stance is not popular with the largely conservative crowd and chooses to campaign as if he were pro-life. « That’s politics, I think. »
He later reflects on how this experience has given him a newfound « appreciation » for why politicians lie to get into office. « I’ve realized that sometimes you can’t win over what you believe in your heart. »
Ben, the chairman of the other party, shares a similar sentiment: “A message of unity, however good it may sound and however good it is for our country, won’t win anyone elections. You have to use personal attacks and you have to find divisive issues to totally differentiate yourself.
State of the boys it’s fascinating, disturbing, and uncomfortably illuminating about the state of American politics. A summer program that intends to instill the value of civic participation doesn’t just prompt a central participant to make a statement disinterest into electoral politics before it even gets started, but quickly disintegrates into confusing forms that are somehow both adolescent and reminiscent of current national politics (like racist Instagram posts and « penis measurement » speeches).
There’s a lot to complain about here. At least in the eyes of the filmmakers, the divisive and dirty players have won. But humming under the message that good politicians never win is another message: The next generation is not the shining hope many of us want to believe in. In fact, they are just like us.
Perhaps even more damaging, Boys State reflects on us the consequences of our malnourished political imaginations.
At the heart of State of the boys it is a warning: the political vision, language and practices of one generation are passed on to the next. The students featured in the film are stepping into roles that have been modeled for them, adopting the language they hear from their parents and teachers, picking up on the same tired debates we’ve had for decades. They are bound by the same limitations their elders created or nurtured: the loyalties they must maintain, the divisions that cannot be overcome, the bellicose mentality that insists that if « they » win, « we » lose.
We are too often and too easily bound by the political habits and practices we have inherited from our elders. We swim in the waters of partisan conflict and can hardly recognize that underlying all attitudes, strategies and tactics of warfare there should be a true vision of human flourishing. We know the language of politics: fear, war, victory or defeat. We know the constraints not only of our system, but also of the familiar norms, histories and tactics within it: winning confers moral rectitude, losing indicates weakness, each side must fight for its own gains and ward off any advances by the other side.
This confinement in the partisan struggle makes perfect sense if you are not a Christian. Boys State makes perfect sense, if this life and its freedoms are the most basic possessions. But what an abomination, pardon the biblical language, when people of the resurrection fall prey to the same logic.
The logic and language we use are not our own; it will be passed down to subsequent generations and take on a life of its own. We will not be able to limit its use to only the situations we intended. This was true for evangelical leaders of the past, and it is true for us now. State of the boys it reminds us that our children — and I mean all children of the church, not just those who live in your home — are watching, learning, even performing within the norms we’ve set. They may hear sermons on the gospel or lectures on how Christians should engage in politics, but more powerful than these are the examples they will imitate. We so often rehearse the same drama with different actors. They will grow up knowing a script they never intended to memorize.
YYoung Christians like me often (and I think rightly so) complain about 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 structures we use now will survive us in ways we may not want to.
More than teaching the next generation the mechanics of government or the more « biblical » way to vote in a given election, perhaps we the church would better serve the next generation by imparting a better political imagination. We could vibrantly paint a picture of human flourishing, highlight the various ways Christians have resisted evil and upheld goodness throughout history and around the world, and insist that our testimony is not bound by pragmatism or power struggles. We might confess our own complicity in injustice, a powerful position that may invite more honest self-reflection in the future. We could shift our focus away from the supposed existential threats of this election and give our children the gift of more colorful and creative imaginations for Christian work in the political world.