President George Washington’s famous warning about the dangers of partisan politics, delivered in his 1796 farewell address, appears on a title card at the outset of the new documentary Boys State. Yet it’s a cynical pronouncement by one of the young political masterminds featured in the film that has far greater resonance.
Chosen, because of his leadership potential, to spend a week at a summer camp celebrating the American democratic process, this privileged teenager concludes, “A mission of unity, as good as it sounds, is not winning anyone elections. You have to use personal attacks, and you have to use divisive issues to differentiate yourself.”
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Thanks to moments like that, Boys State, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, got me mulling whether we ought to ban political party affiliations altogether from appearing on electoral ballots. Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, the film follows four charismatic Texas teenagers through moments of triumph and heartbreak, soaring rhetoric and cold calculations. It’s by turns inspiring and disheartening, like so much of politics.
Each summer since the 1930s, in nearly every U.S. state, high school juniors have been selected by local chapters of the American Legion to attend Boys State (or Girls State). There they form mock governments, complete with party platforms, electioneering, voting, and lawmaking. It’s a good bet that many who praised Boys State when it won the Grand Jury Prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival weren’t previously familiar with the program, but I’ve known of it ever since I was among the thousand-odd young men chosen to trek to Austin to play politics for one June week on the University of Texas campus.
Twenty-five years later, it’s the corny song that looms largest in my memory of the experience. I still know it by heart. We assembled to sing at least twice a day:
Boys from every part of Texas come together here
To sing the praise of Boys State, to be a citizen.
What a time we’re having, what a time we’ve had.
So sing the praise of Boys State
American Legion Boys State
Wonderful Boys State
That! We! Love!
Those last three words are to be shouted staccato, rather than sung. The rah-rah lyrics reflect my overriding sense of Boys State—namely that it’s one long pep rally for the status quo of our American political process.
There was also a decidedly conservative bent to the proceedings when I attended. At one point, for example, we were shown a short video about the evils of burning the United States flag as an act of protest. From the clip’s tone, you’d have thought flag-burning represented the single greatest threat to the republic. This bit of propaganda apparently worked, considering that both of our two political party platforms subsequently added planks calling for a constitutional amendment banning the desecration of the flag.
Not that I spoke out on the matter either way. I attended Boys State only because someone told me it would be an asset on college applications. I arrived without any ambitions for office—nothing at all like the young men whom McBaine and Moss closely followed in 2018. Steven Garza, from Houston, is the son of a formerly undocumented immigrant and admires Bernie Sanders and Napoleon in equal measure. There’s Ben Feinstein, from San Antonio, who idolizes Ronald Reagan and is the most brazenly conservative among the core cast. Austin’s Robert MacDougall carries himself with unassuming charm and looks like he just stepped off the set of Dazed and Confused. And René Otero is a recent transplant to Texas who wins over his party thanks to his electric public speaking skills. I won’t spoil what happens, but each of them figures heavily in the gubernatorial race that is the focus of the film’s narrative.
Numerous scenes of boys chanting, yelling, and swaying together to the Texas Boys State Song make it clear that ultrapatriotic cheerleading remains central to the program. It’s still overwhelmingly conservative too, as evidenced by the pro–Second Amendment litmus test that the candidates endure and the tumult that erupts when it’s publicly revealed that one of the boys had organized a March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. (However, the American Legion itself doesn’t push an agenda as openly as it did to my 1995 cohort with that anti-flag-burning PSA.)
The film’s elections appear far more intense—and much more fun—than mine as well. That’s partially a result of the availability of social media platforms and the omnipresence of mobile phones. Today’s Boys Staters have the ability to campaign at all hours and to appeal to voters en masse, using gimmicks like amusing memes. (About all we had to base our votes on was an interminable parade of speeches.) The addition of a press corps, which documents the daily happenings through video reports and even podcasts, likewise indicates how much more robust the program has become in the generation since I participated.
But one thing that’s remained the same, and which especially struck me as I watched the film, is the oddity of the political parties. Boys are randomly assigned as members of either the Federalists or the Nationalists (generic terms, not tied to any ideology). Each party works up its platform from scratch, and there are often few policy differences between those, because of the overwhelmingly white and conservative-leaning group of teens the program tends to select. Yet members of each party are encouraged to want to beat members of the other at the ballot box—and many take to doing so with gusto.
While logistically this might be the only practical arrangement for a weeklong program, it also translates parties into exactly the sort of knee-jerk identifiers that have calcified so much of our politics in recent years. For too many Americans, party identification is a matter of blind loyalty that won’t be set aside even in the face of an electoral standard-bearer who routinely violates norms and even shows disregard for what had been core tenets of a party’s philosophy. Too many of us have decided we’re forever on the red team or the blue team, come hell or high water, and so we turn off our brains and just check the box next to the party that suits us. Politics begins to feel like just another arena of sports fandom.
When parties have no meaning beyond what color badge you’re wearing—gold or blue at Boys State—aren’t we favoring tribalism over political conviction? As the documentary’s election plays out, the boys are implored time and again to vote for this candidate over that candidate simply because he is a Nationalist or a Federalist. I wondered if this system is the best way for the American Legion to teach political lessons.
The program eschews the real-life identifiers of Democrats and Republicans to sidestep the baggage of our national political discord, but in still-quite-red Texas the more liberal participants just end up greatly outnumbered in both parties. Worse yet, they seem reluctant to speak their true beliefs, as with one member of the cast who late in the documentary admits to espousing pro-life views at Boys State despite his pro-choice convictions. “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart,” he says. Shouldn’t we hate to reinforce such cynicism, even if what he’s saying is so often true?
A few weeks ago, I chatted on the phone with two members of the cast—Feinstein, who just transferred from the University of North Carolina to SMU, and Garza, who’s a UT-Austin student but plans to take his classes remotely from Houston because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked about all that the filmmakers necessarily had to leave out about the Boys State experience in winnowing down hundreds of hours of footage. Viewers of the documentary might get the impression that the governor’s race is the program’s overriding focus, but there are a host of other offices up for contention—lieutenant governor, attorney general, Supreme Court justices, state legislators, all the way down to mayors and party precinct chairs.
But we agreed that what the film misses most is the camaraderie born of hanging out with other Staters—late nights filled with the sort of boisterous and silly shenanigans you might expect when you throw a bunch of teenage boys together. Those are the memories that stick with Feinstein and Garza more than any of what’s in the doc. Both of them spoke highly of their Boys State experience and have since returned to the program as counselors. They also each envisioned ways that it might change in order to facilitate greater political discourse in the future. Feinstein would love to see parties left unassigned, with the Boys Staters free to pick their own coalitions or even to create third parties. Meanwhile, Garza suggests that caucuses centered on common interests be encouraged within the parties, to allow even those who don’t win leadership positions to have leverage in shaping platforms. “People who are more like-minded could use their influence as a bloc,” he says.
No doubt there are logistical hurdles and time constraints that make either of those proposals difficult, if not impossible. Still, it heartened me to talk to each of these thoughtful young college sophomores and hear how deeply they’d thought about making a program they love—and both excelled at—even better. Ultimately, it renewed my hope that their generation’s political engagement will seek and find ways to further strengthen our democracy and open the gates of political influence to those too often left out.