Each year, inevitably, a statesman will ask why there's no third party at Boys State. There's a few ways to answer the question but I haven't run across one that satisfies them. They always turn away somewhat disappointed.
I understand what they're feeling, which is mostly a mixture of two things: dissatisfaction with the current political climate and the realization that the Boys State political system isn't totally realistic.
But honestly, why would you want a perfectly realistic political experience? Party platforms would be handed down instead of emerging through discussion throughout the week. With no experience, it would be near-impossible to break into the party leadership structure. There would be a spoils system, incessant political analysis, Manichean posturing, and gridlock.
Politics has never been a peaceful game, brilliant but scathing essay, George Orwell said that "political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Our statesmen aren't the only people dissatisfied with politics.
Most Americans feel the same way. Last week, Gallup announced that Americans' trust in Congress is at an all-time low—not just a low for Congress, but for all institutions. Only 10% of Americans trust their legislative officials, lower than commonly reviled institutions like banks (25%), big business (22%), and HMOs (19%). The other branches aren't much better: trust in the presidency stands at 36%, the supreme court two ticks lower. Americans have long distrusted their government but they are growing increasingly cynical about things.
In this environment, it's no wonder that a message of hope and change resonated with so many people five years ago. We are starved for it. To many, a vote for Obama was a vote for something different.
Those expectations make the recent IRS scandal devastating. Using a federal agency for political purposes is vile but something we might expect from our political machines. But for this president to become yet another in the 40-year streak of second-term presidents with scandals"this is truly saddening.
Events like this make me glad our political system here at ALJBS isn't totally realistic. It would be a long, dark week if it was. Instead, the ALJBS system demonstrates the reasons that democracy can be a viable, strong, even beautiful form of governance.
Today, each Boys State county elected their own state senators, assemblymen, and county officials. After the election, the state legislature met for the first time. It was only the introduction (official business begins tomorrow) but it was striking to observe the meeting. The legislators are a serious group and listened intently as party advisors reviewed the three types of resolutions, the eleven-step process for a bill becoming law, and other important concepts. They understand that their time is limited and will churn out a surprising number of well-written resolutions before the session is over.
Each of these legislators was elected in an open election by people who have lived alongside them, albeit briefly. There was no gerrymandering to tilt the odds in one candidate's favor. Each of them got their own ten signatures to get on the primary ballot, gave a speech, was selected as a candidate by their party, gave another speech, and was elected on official NJ voting machines.
The parties that select these delegates have almost identical numbers of people. So do each of the counties that they represent. Each delegate wears an identical white shirt and is given the same number of Boys State Bucks to use on their campaigns. Using real money or outside campaign materials is a Major Law Violation.
This is, as close as we can make it, a perfectly level playing field. There are no incumbents and no barriers to entry. Boys State is a 970-person social experiment to answer the question, "what happens if you take smart people, remove as many differences as you can, and give them a set of problems to solve?"
The answer is that they will solve those problems well. They will behave like you hope they will. They will debate respectfully. They will cast many ballots with an equal number of votes for both parties. They will surprise you with how thoughtfully they approach difficult issues and how maturely they express their strong opinions.
This is where you find hope.
For 51 weeks, we're overwhelmed with the brutal reality of politics. It's no surprise that even one of the strongest advocates of democracy can only call it the "worst form of government except all others that have been tried." The Daily Show and other political satirists haven't needed to do much past holding up a mirror. We know what surrounds us.
But this week, this one magical week at Boys State, we are surrounded by the best form of democracy. It's government of, by, and for people who care and think about what they are doing. See the problem, find a solution, and fix the problem. We set up the ideal situation and watch delightedly as the delegates prove that our hope does not have to be in vain.
The town next to mine has a series of streets named after Ivy League colleges and another named after our best presidents. They represent the hopes and dreams of the citizens who built them. This is what you can become. This is what we dream of you becoming.
We don't have streets to name here at Boys State but we do have a political system that provides a similar mark to aim at. This is how democracy can be run. This is how we dream of democracy being run. Is it naive? No. It's purposefully idealistic, and it's best moments show why we're still idealistic 68 years later.