The documentary 'Boys State' is a dark distillation of American politics
What happens when you put teen boys in charge of governing themselves? In the documentary Boys State, we learn that the 2017 Texas Boys State mock legislature voted to secede from the Union. It was only imaginary, but that gives you a sense of where some kids’ minds are at.
Each summer, the American Legion, the nation’s largest organization for veterans, funds Boys State and Girls State, governmental cosplay camps to teach teenagers about civic duty. Started in 1935, the program now extends to 48 of the 50 states (Alaska and Hawaii send delegates elsewhere), and most places host separate programs for boys and girls. After a rigorous application process, the chosen teens descend on their state capitol to form a fake government. Randomly divided into opposing political parties, delegates must decide on a political platform and nominate candidates to run for office in a mock general election. The highest elected position is Governor.
The documentary, which premiered on Apple TV+ this month, drops viewers into the middle of the 2018 Boys State edition in Texas. Over the course of one week, 1,100 teenage boys descended on downtown Austin clad in matching white t-shirts and red lanyards. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss employ a cinema verite style chock-full of raucous displays of raw, performative masculinity. Bored 16-year-olds challenge each other to spontaneous push-up competitions. A group of boys huddles in a circle with their arms around one another, lurching back and forth, emitting guttural yells until they whip themselves into a raucous frenzy. At times, Boys State looks more like Lord of the Flies than Model UN.
Experiencing Boys State in the middle of dueling political conventions, as I did, felt eerily prescient. There’s a sense that most Boys State delegates lean conservative. During one of the first scenes in the film, which takes place on the bus to Austin, a boy clutching a Bible loudly defends Trump to his seatmates: “He’s my president. I have to support my president. I want him to succeed. ‘Cause if my president succeeds, my country succeeds, you know?” This is Texas, after all, so there’s also plenty of anti-abortion and Second Amendment talk. “I believe our society is stronger when everybody is disciplined yet dangerous,” a delegate declares during his campaign speech for fake public office. “Our masculinity shall not be infringed!” he cries, and cheers erupt from the crowd. Much like Kimberly Guilfoyle at the Republican National Convention, these conservative young men seem to think shouting is the best way to assert ideological dominance.
Boys State may be a film about teenagers pretending to form a government, but the program itself has deep connections to real-life politics. A number of famous legislators are Boys State alumni: Dick Cheney was part of the Wyoming delegation in 1958; George Clinton attended Boys State in Arkansas in 1963; Cory Booker was part of New Jersey’s class of 1986. Watching the documentary, it’s also easy to see the trickle-down effect that divisive party rhetoric has on young people. Lots of the young conservatives at Texas Boys State sound like they’re parroting the warped logic Tucker Carlson spouts nightly on Fox News.
Unlike real political parties, the teens are divvied up as Nationalists and Federalists without regard to ideology, making Boys State a bipartisan exercise. One of the main subjects of the film is Steven Garza, a progressive from Houston who got interested in politics thanks to Bernie Sanders and arrives at Texas Boys State wearing a Beto O’Rourke t-shirt. “Boys State’s a little bit too ‘genderfied,’” Garza casually remarks to a fellow delegate when they hop off the bus in Austin. His colleague is incredulous: “There’s Girls State,” he says, like that settles it. “Know what? We should just do it, like, People State,” Garza replies. “People State?!” the other kid spits. Garza de-escalates the conversation: “I’m just ‘memeing’ on you. Don’t worry,” he says.
Garza notes at the start of the documentary: “Texas is a perfect example of America. A melting pot of cultures and people. Boys State provides a chance to learn from each other and hear from the opposite side without screaming and yelling on a Facebook post.” He gets sorted into the Nationalist party along with another left-leaning kid, René Otero, a Texas transplant from Chicago who moved south specifically to immerse himself in ideological differences. But Otero acknowledges he’s thrown himself into the deep end: “I’ve never seen so many white people, ever,” he observes of the Texas Boys State delegation.
One of their right-leaning foils is Robert MacDougall, a cowboy boot-wearing West Point-bound teen who’s one of the loudest aforementioned raucous conservatives. He’s an early frontrunner in the Governor race, thanks to his boisterous personality and penchant for telling people whatever they want to hear. There’s a stunning moment in the documentary, during one of MacDougall’s confessional-style interviews, where he divulges that his personal beliefs don’t align with the rhetoric he’s been pushing.
The fourth main character in Boys State is San Antonio native Ben Feinstein, a political junkie and double amputee who idolizes the GOP. He abandons the race for Governor early on in favor of a job with real power: his party chairmanship. The glee Feinstein gets from lording over the Federalists is palpable. He conjures shades of Frank Underwood in House of Cards, scheming and spying his way to election success. When sharp-tongued Otero becomes his counterpart as the Nationalist party chair, Feinstein orchestrates a highly-effective social media smear campaign. “I think he’s a fantastic politician,” Otero observes of the shrewd teen. “But I don’t think a ‘fantastic politician’ is a compliment, either.”
Boys State is an entertaining film because it so effectively exposes the mechanisms and pitfalls of American democracy at a micro level. It’s also a glimpse into the potential future of politics. In 20 years or so, these same teens playing pretend politics will be deciding policy for real constituents. It’s something to think about as we approach what threatens to be the most contentious general election in modern memory.