On Friday, 98 high school seniors from 48 states converged on Marymount University in Arlington, Va., for the 67th session of The American Legion's Boys Nation. As "senators," their backgrounds, beliefs and values differ, but they quickly found common ground in a desire to learn the legislative process and use the experience to forge a bright future for the United States.
The senators began arriving to campus late Friday morning and trickled in throughout the afternoon and evening. Despite never having previously met, the masses of them wasted no time congregating, becoming acquainted and even calling each other friends by the end of the first day.
"They say this is an experience that shapes a lifetime," said Grant Johnson, a Nationalist senator from New Hampshire. "I think I'm going to get a lot of connections with a lot of people... What are the odds when I got here that the kid I made a really good friendship with is a guy who is from Alabama?"
Rather than take exception to their different political viewpoints, Johnson says the senators relished the opportunity to learn about different ideas and beliefs – even ones that directly contradict their own. The dialogue becomes a way of bonding for them, rather than a basis for contention, he says.
"Here at Boys Nation, you hear every perspective," he said. "You hear from everyone on any side of the political aisle. It's so cool to hear these different perspectives. Sometimes they can help inform you."
Aidan Byrnes, a Federalist from New Jersey, was quick to get to know Johnson and senators from other states. He echoed Johnson's sentiments.
"Boys State is in your own state, so people are more similar," Byrnes said. "The demographics are more similar there. But at Boys Nation you get so many walks of life and so many different points of view."
After the majority of the senators arrived, they separated into four different "sections" – the Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington sections.
Senators gathered according to section for an inaugural meeting in which they were addressed by leadership from the Boys Nation program. The address included remarks from American Legion Past National Commander Bob Turner, director of activities for Boys Nation. Other Boys Nation officials spoke to them about the offices they could run for and the responsibilities they would have if they chose to represent their section on a committee.
Jimmy Pritchett, a Nationalist senator from Alabama, decided to run for president. He said the best approach to being elected is to get to know his fellow senators personally, rather than campaigning to them. "It's best to introduce yourself to people and really get to know them, not approach them and say ‘Hey, I want your vote,'" Pritchett said.
The route to presidency of Boys Nation isn't based on towing a party line, he says. Rather, it's about focusing on the common goal of finding ways to improve the nation.
"We're all here because we love our country and we want to be future leaders," Pritchett said. "We all have that common goal in mind. We have different beliefs, different backgrounds and different ideas where this country should go. But we all want our country to succeed."
To Pritchett, the week-long Boys Nation is a microcosm for our nation's government and political culture. Focusing less on party loyalty and more on what's most beneficial for our country is the key to a successful outcome.
"For us to be that best country and show it like we have in the past, we have to get back to that common goal of wanting to see our country to succeed," he said. "We're way too left wing and right wing these days. The party system isn't something that you can do away with, but you have to get back to that common goal. And that's something that can be done."