Every year, the American Legion hosts a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas and has them build a representative government from the ground up. Every state but Hawaii does the same or similar, but this particular documentary is hanging around Austin, Texas, to witness their particular experience. High schools nominate which students will be sent, ostensibly some from all different political backgrounds, dividing them up into ‘cities’ which will then elect mock municipal officials, and representatives of state legislature, even state officials all the way up to governor. It sounds rather noble, definitely educational, like a mock-UN for local politics. But in practice, it’s actually pretty ugly. The kids aren’t learning to be civic-minded good citizens, they’re learning to lie, cheat – and worse.
Obviously politics is a dirty game, but I think it might be nice to at least teach kids the right way, the better way, the idealistic way before we give up on them entirely in adulthood and actually let them vote…or run! But no, these kids are petty and ruthless. They’ve come to win at any cost, and there’s no pretense in running clean campaigns. While organizing political parties, their fundamentals are decided upon by what tracks well, not by anyone’s actual beliefs. They’ve already learned about identity politics, and they’ll comb each other’s social media, looking for any weakness they can leak and exploit. They make empty promises, pass harmful bills, and shamelessly pander for votes.
It’s clear that as far as American politics goes, the corruption is baked right in. It’s being taught and endorsed by the American Legion! While I of course abhor the Boys State program for what it’s allowing, I applaud the documentary for exposing it for what it is. It’s important to understand just how ingrained these dirty politics have become. By the age of 17, it is clear to these kids that a life and career in politics is not about values or beliefs or doing what’s right or helping people or serving one’s country. It’s about winning, at any cost, and being willing to make any compromise in order to cross that finish line in front of one’s opponent. If adult politicians are varying degrees of good at concealing that naked fact, these kids are not. Some of us (by which I mean myself) often make the mistake of believing that things will be better when the old guard dies out, but this film makes it clear that this is a dangerous expectation – not only have the bad habits already been passed down, these kids are honing them. Soon there will be no pretense at all in the game, simply undisguised greed and self-interest.