The Room Where It Happens

When we talk about politics at American Legion Jersey Boys State, we’re usually referring to the political structure more than politics itself. Even though our structure mirrors the structure of politics in New Jersey and the nation at large, “cities” and “parties” are not something that we can casually drop into a conversation about Boys State. People know what our program is but they don’t always know how things work. We have to explain it.

However, we don’t often explain how things work and instead focus on how they’re built to work. And perhaps that’s not too strange. To many, the term “politics” has both a sleazy and aspirational connotation. We understand that politics is about building things that are gonna outlive us but what we know happens often makes us recoil in disgust. We are deeply cynical about politics. The joke goes, “if pro is the opposite of con, then what’s the opposite of ‘progress?’” We expect our leaders to be stagnant, disjointed, and corrupt instead of visionary servants seeking the greater good. Politics, in common parlance, makes us want to take a cold shower.

You don’t have to take a cold shower at Boys State. (Note: not true for statesmen. Shower. Even if it’s cold, shower.) Our political system is pretty awesome. We don’t mean to brag but it amazes and astonishes us each year. Why is it so good? Because our system isn’t built around maintaining power. It’s built around getting the job done.

The expiration date of ALJBS affects everything. Time—running out of it—looms over everyone. There’s only so much time to do everything (and you won’t get to everything). Also, whatever you do doesn’t last. On Friday, the session will end, we’ll all go home, and the 2016 chapter of ALJBS will close. You have six days to write yourself into the narrative. The rest is silence. One week only makes momentum for the program.

It also makes a level playing field. There are no incumbents at Boys State. Every seat is open, every opportunity up for grabs. Any young, scrappy, and hungry statesmen with an idea doesn’t have to fight a tyranny of politics-as-usual and incumbency bias. Anyone can easily run for office, blow us all away, and get elected.

When the mayors and assemblymen and senators get to office, they all are starting afresh. There’s no “junior delegate,” no preexisting clubs or cliques to get into. Everyone is working with each other for the first time. There’s no “work your way up.” Simply rise up and take your shot.

The barriers to starting something at ALJBS are a lot lower than they are in the United States political system. Our environment is set up to encourage the good kind of politics: working to promote liberty, fix society’s problems, and make wise long-term decisions for our constituents.

This is what our politics are built to do. Each city and county get a scenario of issues on the first and second days (respectively). By the end of the week, they all outline a plan to solve the issues, documented what everyone’s responsibilities are, created a budget, and pass laws and ordinances. The State Senate, Assembly, and Governor’s office will also pass legislation. In the three days that they meet, they’ll debate and pass dozens of bills.

How does this happen? With a lot of cooperation and patience. Winning is easy, governing is harder, and working together with people you’ve never met before to do things in a short amount of time is really, really hard. Especially when everyone around you seems smarter, more persuasive, and more self-assured. Sure, working together is easy—when everyone agrees with your reasons. When you’re the smartest in the room, back at home, you can take charge and push your ideas through fairly easily. That won’t work here. At Boys State, you have to learn the art of the compromise. To get things done, you have to learn how to work with people, creating victories for others as well as yourself. Sometimes that means conceding a lot of minor issues and patiently waiting for other folks to become convinced before you get the votes needed to pass your proposal.

All the time, though, it requires building relationships with others. And, to be quite honest, this should not happen as well as it does here. How does a random, diverse groups of individuals from across the state create great friendships and solve the issues on their plates, focusing on common traits? It astonishes us how our statesmen, year after year, demonstrate that they can work well with their fellow delegates regardless of race, orientation, socioeconomic status, fame, or sports affiliation. They build the relationships, then they do the work. They become friends with the people they represent. They become friends with the people they work with. They are able to move quickly because they personally know what needs to be done and why it matters to someone.

The hard reset of each session, the invented political parties, the scenarios, fake currency, uniform, and random grouping all establish that there are no sides besides the one to get the job done. No one needs to grab at power or appease special interests. (We don’t do PACs and never will.) There are no discussions of chess games, no “the governor is on our side, so we’re going to push our legislation through”, no intransigence. It’s a best-case scenario for politics, and it is beautiful to watch.

ALJBS politics will never be an exact clone to the real world. Thank goodness. Our political process stands in sharp relief against the chaos of the presidential campaign. I’m quite satisfied with taking a break from that and watching the proceedings here for a week. When we look around, we realize how lucky we are to be here right now.

We will never get the Boys State political system in real life. (Not without a revolution that does a hard reset on government, and let’s not do that now.) These weeks are the only glimpses we get. This is one of the few places where politics works the way it should. We aim to keep it that way.

If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you, and you’ll blow us all away.

That’s the aspiration politics is built for.