Updated: Dec 31, 2020
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The Reality of Boys State
It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. NPR called it “American politics distilled”. “Everything that is wrong with the current state of our democracy and the best hope for its future are acted out in microcosm,” praised the Boston Globe.
Now what does Boys State, the documentary directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, really get right and wrong about its namesake program?
To answer this question, and more, we sat down with Idaho Boys State alum and current University of Michigan freshman Tyler Davis.
However, in the fashion of the commentator Ben Shapiro (a lauded figure among many of the subjects of the documentary), we’ll do some facts before feelings:
Boys State, and its counterpart, Girls State, are selective weeklong programs in citizenship and democracy for high school juniors, sponsored by the American Legion.
Prominent graduates rank among the highest offices of the land, sky, and court: Justice Samuel Alito, astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, and six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan.
Dick Cheney went there.
The program was founded in 1935 by Illinois Legionnaires Hayes Kennedy, and Harold Card, as a democratic counterpart to the influence of rising “Young Pioneers Camps”.
Interestingly enough, the annals of Boys State history differ in describing the nature of these Young Pioneers Camps. The Ohio program website ascribes them to the “Fascist party”. The California program calls them “socialism-inspired”. And according to an interview conducted by the American Legion, they were “basically the Communists”.
The documentary takes us to the heated campus of the University of Texas, Austin, where Texas Boys State 2018 is taking place. Five hundred boys mill about, alternating between doing pushups on the lawn (naturally) and running campaigns for office in one of two parties: the Federalists and the Nationalists.
Of special interest is gubernatorial candidate Steven Garza, running on the side of the Nationalists, and his district chair, Rene Otero. They’re running against candidate Eddy Proietti Conti and district chair Ben Feinstein, on the side of the Federalists. Neither party has a predetermined platform, and we see debate ensuing over policy of all nature.
One bill proposed in the movie is to, "relocate all Prius drivers to the state of Oklahoma" — I thought that was very funny, maybe representative of the teenage demographic there. What were some of the bill ideas that you had? Along those same lines? “We definitely had a mix of bills, yeah. There was one bill that I remember: it was to remove all roads in the state of Idaho, except for one road that would go through the center. And then you'd get the next bill that would be prioritizing increased budget for education in rural counties. So you had a mix of the serious and the definitely not serious — that made each session really fun.”
Of course, this being electoral politics, much of the discussion is not at its core, about policy. Watching Boys State, one can’t help but appreciate the setting. In this facsimile of governance, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, power is only the notion of power. Yet all the same, politicians are pushed towards unseemly tactics, and become notions of themselves.
Take Robert MacDougal, a West-Point hopeful who runs against Steven Garza in the Nationalist primary for governor. He lies about his own pro-choice beliefs in order to pander to an ostensibly conservative gallery (he ultimately loses to Garza, despite Garza’s status as a liberal underdog).
“Sometimes you can't win on what you believe in your heart,” - Robert MacDougal
You probably remember what Robert said, in the movie: I’m playing this like a game. Did your session seem like a game? Were people being genuine? “It was a little different for our session because how it worked, at least in Idaho, was [...] you just don't bring up like massive terms like abortion or like gun control [...] and instead you focus on smaller ones like education, infrastructure, stuff like that. I think that, for one, allows for better discourse, but secondly it leads to, you know, a little more compromise there. But in terms of the idea of it being a game, I would say: I don't know. That's an interesting phrasing of it, because you can definitely use political strategy, which I think he was alluding to in the idea of yeah, to win sometimes you have to change the narrative you give out, but generally, at least in my experience with Boys State, everyone is really genuine because you're not going to win if you don't speak genuinely from the heart. Because people can sense that, whether you're kind of like putting on airs or you don't truly believe in it, because you lack that passion when you speak about a certain subject.”
Then there’s the impeachment attempt on Rene Otero, who is Black and liberal. He wins his district chairmanship by urging cooperation and civility, yet things turn ugly when rivals publish racist propaganda on an Instagram meme account dedicated towards taking him down.
Rene remains unfazed. But when the final gubernatorial election approaches, he’s subject to underhanded tactics again. Ben Feinstein, a Reagan fan, double amputee, and Rene’s crafty counterpart as chairman in the opposing Federalist party, starts to run accusations of party bias regarding Rene’s moderation of candidate speeches.
Were there any big conflicts within your session, similar to what happened between Rene and Ben? "[Laughter] Sorry, I was not on Ben's team for the majority of this." Oh yeah? What did you think about the bias thing? "In terms of a political move, like Rene said, it was genius. Do I agree with it? No. I'd call it an underhanded move, but it worked, so I mean, all power to him in that case. Going back to the idea of conflicts -- we didn't really have any major conflicts except for... there was actually at one point the Senate and the House had passed these two bills ... by a large majority and they both went to the governor, and the governor rejected them. And both the house and the Senate kind of went into uproar because the governor was asking for five additional parts of each bill, and we simply did not have the time to go back over and add these things to the bills that we both already passed by a large majority. So there's a little bit of like infighting in terms of -- there were motions in the House and the Senate to formally censure the governor and even impeach him at one point, and -- I just remember, I was speaker at the time, and according to the rules, we can impeach the governor. Is it recommended? No. But at the time, both bodies of the Congress that we had, were very angry. So, the House decided to vote to impeach the governor, and as Speaker I acted in terms of the will of the majority and keeping things on track, in balance; as per the rules essentially. And that's how I like to run things, by the book. And you know, they all voted for it, so it's like, alright, send the articles over to the Senate [...] I distinctly remember, as we sent the Articles out, a staff member came sprinting in holding the papers in his hand. He's like hey guys we can't do this. So yeah. But there wasn't any conflict like in the movie [Boys State] at least."
It’s not hard to see why directors Moss and McBaine focus on the gubernatorial race at Boys State Texas. It’s the perfect clash of identity in a state that will in 2020, for the first time since Reagan, be considered a “swing state” (Steven Garza enters the film wearing a Beto O’Rourke shirt). Steven’s campaign for governor lands in hot water when opponents rake through his social media and find photos of him leading a March for Our Lives protest. Both Steven (Mexican) and Eddie (Italian) speak to their experiences as sons of immigrants and their appreciation of the American Dream.
I was wondering if you could speak to any lessons you learned or your own perspective on the topic of polarization. “Whether it be from Boys State, or Boys Nation, and talking with my peers, or even my parents, I've come to the idea that polarization is definitely, in part, a result of moving away from not talking about the issues directly but rather the more personal attacks because the more we tie ourselves to our ideas, the more we kind of feel more that we are under attack if someone disagrees with that idea. That's why you see all these people fighting online on social media because we're essentially putting our lives out there and it's used as ammunition against us...” “... under my house I tried to emphasize the fact that we're talking about the issue here, not the person giving the bill across. Because targeting the person behind it, is not only one, very underhanded but two, detracts from the whole process of democracy in the first place, because we are all participants in it. It's our ideas that matter in the forum in order to actually run this place.” Then, do you think that people’s lived experiences are extricable from policy points? Were they at Boys State? “[...] Our experiences 100% shape our view of policy, and how we write it, and what we vote for etc. I mean, that's how our personalities and lives are shaped, is what we experience. [...] I come from a family, where my younger brother is special needs, my parents are both First Responders -- so I definitely have a weird mix of experiences that I took with me to [Boys State]. So I was passionate about certain issues, and I definitely moved forward with those as opposed to holding back some other policies, et. cetera. What you take outside of Boys State going in definitely affects what you do there.”
The final race for governor, between Steven and Eddie, is nail-bitingly intense — like an NBA championship, or going duck-hunting with Dick Cheney. How you may interpret the results, like the rest of the film, depends in large part on your own outlook on politics. Universally, though, it’s an emotional payoff — one that goes out with a bang.
Did you run for office yourself? "Yes, I did. I ran for, well first off I ran for my mayoral ship; I got that. And then I ran for Lieutenant Governor. I won my party primary, made it to the general, and then lost the general but then I ended up becoming Speaker of the House later on -- and that was really fun -- and [...] I can definitely, especially, you know at the end of the movie where everyone's really very emotional? I definitely remember feeling that way, at the end of the week. Cause it's a lot of emotion, not a lot of sleep, and a lot of stress piled together. So I totally understood where they were coming from there."
Boys State concludes with the announcement of the new governor. A teary phone call and a few scholarship awarding ceremonies later, we’re greeted by a scrolling outro detailing the lives of each character. Steven speaks at a local Democratic Convention. Robert motors off to West Point in a pickup truck. Ben goes skydiving and is accepted into UNC Chapel Hill. Rene becomes a national champion in extemporaneous speaking.
But according to Tyler, Boys State is missing at least one crucial part of the process.
“The entire legislative section of Boys State? Completely omitted. And that is like, the major focus of Boys State. I mean the film takes the more dramatic race of the governorship and focuses on that, but it also neglects to show you, for example, for us, the governor election ... after that we still had like three more days left of Boys State, and there we actually ran the state governments and I think they needed to have included that. Because, honestly that was my favourite part ever. We actually ran through all these legislative sessions, the Supreme Court ruled on different stuff, the governor had their own responsibilities. It was a really exciting experience. Aside from that major section, they also snipped out the smaller forums and classes led by some American Legion members [...] that actually talked about, again, the whole idea of Boys State, which is to encourage participation in democracy and civil discourse et cetera. They kind of cut that part out because for a central narrative of the movie, it veers off to the side a little bit...”
Rife with conflict and given the sheen of high production value, Boys State is an excellent story.
But even a story about the danger of stories is still a story. The narratives each character chooses to surround themself with are indubitably influenced by the lens of the filmmakers and the tensions of our political present.
And recognizing the whole, quiet, boring truth of Boys State — what it is achieving as a program above and beyond partisan conflict — is crucial for reconciling the worst of what we see in our enemies with the real beliefs of those in the communities around us. This task may be akin to recognizing what America as an ideal is. It may prove yet impossible.
Perhaps it is where Boys State, as a film, just barely misses the mark. Sorry, Dick Cheney.
Boys State is streaming on Apple TV+.
Victor Xia is a high school senior from Seattle. Find him on Twitter @victorfxia.