While politics has long been a blood sport, the current political climate in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Europe and beyond seems unusually volatile and unpredictable. At the convention of the Democratic Party—a “virtual” online event this summer—former U.S. President Barack Obama summarized why many are cynical about politics: “I understand why … a young person might look at politics right now … the meanness and the lies and crazy conspiracy theories and think, ‘What’s the point?’”
For insights into the U.S. political process, take a look at the documentary film Boys State, currently streamed through Apple TV+. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. documentary films at the 2020 Sundance Festival, Boys State tells the story of the 2018 Texas Boys State Convention, where a thousand 17-year-old boys gathered in Austin, Texas, for a weeklong modelling of the American political system. Sponsored by the American Legion, the Boys State Conventions began in 1935 and are held annually in every U.S. state except Hawaii. There is also a Girls State Convention and a national Boys Nation. Famous alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, and non-politicians such as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen.
The Boys (and Girls) State Conventions are an exercise in mock government. Participants are split into political parties—the “Nationalists” and the “Federalists”—and go through the processes that constitute the political system: electing party chairs, development of a platform, “primaries” to choose a slate of candidates and finally an election to offices, including the highest position of governor.
All of this takes place in the context of a youth gathering, a carnival-like atmosphere complete with marching bands. Very quickly the two parties establish a group consciousness and, before long, are battling each other in a contest not only of ideas but of personalities.
Most everything that happens in the current political climate occurs at Boys State: there are hot-button issues, procedural detours, impeachment proceedings, power struggles, meanness and lies and crazy conspiracy theories. Cleverly, directors Amanda McBane and Jesse Moss focus on three of the participants, giving viewers an inside view of their personal stories. You meet and get to know Steven Garza, one of the candidates for governor, and two of the party chairs, René Otero and Ben Feinstein.
A Texan of Mexican ancestry, Garza is a straightforward and honest guy; his oratory is compelling. Feinstein’s a good spin man; he’s a conservative who happens to be a double amputee. Otero is an African American, originally from Chicago, who confides that he’s “never seen so many white folks before!” Other boys profiled include Robert MacDougall, a charismatic candidate for governor who admits that while he is personally pro-choice, he takes hard-line anti-abortion stance in public. “I’m playing this like a game,” he says. “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart…. It’s a morally questionable thing to lie in politics. It gave me a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get in office.”
Lying to get into office, taking politically expedient positions to gain acceptance and undercutting adversaries has become the day-to-day stuff of politics in the 21st century. While Canadian viewers may well be shocked by how issues of guns and reproductive choice dominate the debates in Boys State, all viewers will see demonstrated through this simulation of the American political process how the obsession with winning elections overshadows deeper issues of leadership, integrity and honesty.
Only Stephen Garza seems to combine personal integrity with his ambitions; it is gratifying to see, as the film closes, that he has continued in his political aspirations since the conclusion of the Boys Town Convention. One hopes for leaders who are able to rise above the cut and thrust of politics to articulate a vision of a better world characterized by greater compassion.
For in democracies elections matter. People’s choices matter. Leadership matters. Increasingly though, media portray the political process more like a sport with winners and losers. When the substance of the debate is lost in the sad spectacle of a blood sport, we’re left only with meanness and lies. Democracy requires more. One hopes that political simulations, like those Boys State demonstrates, might give students an experience of thoughtful engagement rather than rewarding lying and cheating because—not to overstate it—the survival of human life on the planet is at stake.
Especially for people of faith, thoughtful participation in political processes is important because decisions about how the social order is structured, justice exercised, and the earth cared for are entrusted to elected officials in government. The values and character of those elected should matter deeply to people of faith because from their decisions flow so many aspects that affect our common life. Churches can take a non-partisan role in promoting active participation in the political process, raising issues that parishioners can ask political candidates, and encouraging children and young people to be informed and involved because in doing so, they are taking an important part in caring for God’s world.