Follow the Leader: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Politics


This week marks a milestone I never thought I would see, as a new documentary that I had the good fortune to participate in is released nationwide on iTunes and PBS. Follow the Leader profiles three young men as they embark upon diverging paths in politics and go through a series of personal, professional and political transformations.

I met the director, Jonathan Goodman Levitt, at the Pennsylvania Boys State civics conference during my junior year of high school – exactly seven years ago this week. I first struck up conversation with him because I was fascinated with his camera (especially the fluffy microphone), and wanted to learn more. In high school, I co-produced a short documentary about a failed dam project in my hometown of Milford, Pennsylvania and developed a passion for documentary filmmaking.

But being a participant in a film was something I never imagined nor desired, and I was particularly skeptical about the idea that the film might focus on me. I wondered why Jonathan had chosen me to follow around for what eventually became a three-plus year chronicle of my transitions personally and politically, through the final year of high school and first two of college in Washington, D.C. So, as I often get asked at screenings, what was it all like?

First things first: Participating in a documentary is not like acting in a movie. That much I kind of already knew from the start and was glad about, because I never liked acting. But what I didn't know is that it is also nothing like being interviewed for the 6:00 News (even for a very long interview!). Just how different it was took some time for me to learn and was something I struggled with throughout the process.

For anyone who aspires to be involved in politics, being authentic on-camera, or with any other recording device for that matter, is tough. Gosh, you might do something stupid, or say something that sounds terrible or can be taken out of context. It was hard to open up and be natural. But Jonathan would always encourage authenticity because, he said, people respond better to human stories and honesty...he'd be showing my life in context – the good, the bad and the ugly. “OK, thanks for the CNN answer…now what do you really think?” he would say.

As I got to know Jonathan more, and frankly trusted him more, participating in the documentary was more like going through life with a new friend who just happened to bring a camera along to our adventures and occasionally shouted some questions. By the end I would forget that a microphone was clipped to me (which made for some awkward moments, some of which you can now see for yourself!).

While I was being filmed, my political views and view of politics itself evolved – from seeing politics fundamentally as a contest between two warring tribes, to seeing it foremost as a means of conciliation and problem solving. My political identity changed and developed during my own formative years as Follow the Leader was being made. In addition to filming me leaving my parents' home, Jonathan's camera captured me meeting many of the friends and mentors whose influence continue to shape my beliefs and values.

Most notably among my mentors seen in the film is Doug Bailey, the legendary political consultant and visionary who I went to work for after I met him in 2008 (with the camera rolling at the time). The past couple weeks have been very difficult for me personally because Doug recently passed away. Getting to see him on-screen now as the film unfolds is a constant reminder of his generosity, and of the countless days and nights we spent since that first job interview, during which he shared with me a lifetime of lessons.

By now, I've seen the film many times – from at home with my family right after it was finished, to the World Premieres at the Republication and Democratic National Conventions, to New York's Paley Center for Media on the night of the second Presidential Debate. I'm very pleased that the film is being used as a tool on an ongoing nationwide college and community tour for exactly the kind of work I deeply believe in – engaging young people about politics and facilitating transpartisan conversations around important political issues. When I watch, I see my very real, unfiltered life – not an interview on the news. I see a journey of political persuasion, personal relationships and professional development – all being shaped by time, experiences and my environment. I see how encountering new ideas, people and circumstances changed me – and led me to think differently.

Follow the Leader reminds all of us that being open-minded and open to change are qualities we ought to look for in our leaders, and that it's an act of courage to evolve one's views out of conviction (as opposed to out of expediency, which is often the case in Washington). If we expect our leaders' views to always stay the same, we – in the words of Thomas Jefferson – “might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy.” But don’t take my word for it – check out the film for yourself on iTunes or PBS stations, and help us engage citizens across the country in a national dialogue about leadership, Millennial politics and our shared future.