Commentary Politics

‘Follow the Leader’ Examines Conservatism, White Boys, and Political Entitlement (Oh My!)

Erin Matson

While respectful and serious in the treatment of its subjects, Follow the Leader is a rollicking romp through patriarchy. It is entertaining, illuminating, and a springboard for conversations beneficial to those of us who would prefer to see more than only conservative white boys angling for the oval office.

Three conservative white boys, all class presidents, say they want to be president of the United States when they grow up. One is mentored by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, then a state senator. And a documentary filmmaker follows them.

That’s the basis of Follow the Leader, a new film by Jonathan Goodman Levitt. While respectful and serious in the treatment of its subjects, Follow the Leader is a rollicking romp through patriarchy. It is entertaining, illuminating, and a springboard for conversations beneficial to those of us who would prefer to see more than only conservative white men angling for the oval office.

The film opens on a Boys State political leadership program run by American Legion. A sea of relatively monochromatic faces makes it clear we’re not in for a diversity hour. (NB: There’s also a Girls State, run by the American Legion Auxiliary—yes, a segregated ladies’ auxiliary.)

Having read about this film before I watched it, I had been curious why anyone would choose to follow three white boys. When we see representations of young people in politics, particularly in the context of “representing the future,” we usually see a lot of diversity. This, compared to representations of actual politics, where we don’t see much diversity at all. Take, for example, Eric Cantor’s photographic vision of #FairnessforAll: eight white men.

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But actually, the film makes more points about diversity than the ritualistic inclusion of “diverse” stock photos ever could. “The idea that America is a land of equal opportunity is misjudged a lot today,” says one of the subjects, Nick, while taking photographs of his girlfriend—a literal representation of the feminist film concept of the “male gaze.”

D.J., another one of the boys, reflects throughout the film that in order to get into politics you need a huge ego, and that elections tend to field “the same old hacks” who just follow the leader they saw before them.

Which brings us to Ben, arguably the most fascinating subject in the film. As a high school student from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, his mentor is none other than then Virginia State Senator (and now Attorney General) Ken Cuccinelli, who makes some notable cameos. Below is a clip from the film in which Ben discusses his thoughts on the significance of “pro-life” voters, who have been an important constituency throughout Cuccinelli’s political career:

I discussed Ben’s “pro-life” convictions and more with the filmmaker, Jonathan Goodman Levitt. Specifically, I asked about an impression I got that Ben appeared more concerned with the restriction of abortion rights out of a sense of political calculation rather than sincere concern. He responded, “Ben sees it as politics first in a lot of ways. I can’t speak for him now, but certainly when he was 16, 17, 18, 19 years old, he sort of viewed politics as a chess match with winners and losers.” He added that he saw Ben as “aware” and “very pragmatic.”

The director also discussed with me a scene in which Ben later, as a college student, expresses solidarity with anti-choice demonstrators on his campus. “Ben was in support of people running that protest,” Goodman Levitt said, “but not for reasons having anything to do with reproductive health or abortion or life. It was more supporting them because these people are on our political side than having anything to do with the actual issue.” Further, he suggested that in his experience following all three boys, he was left with the impression that a younger generation of conservative men may oppose reproductive rights for women “almost by default,” which he suggests means that different political tactics could be used to engage them on these issues.

There is much to think about and talk about in Follow the Leader. This reviewer never thought she’d recommend a documentary with so little diversity, but sometimes the best starting point for change is to look at things as they are. We live in a world largely run by conservative white men. No wonder these boys, from such young ages, felt entitled to the presidency.

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