All of the views expressed in this post belong to the author and not to Political Union as an organization. Warning: spoilers ahead for Boys State, now streaming on Apple TV+.
When I first learned about A24’s critically acclaimed new film Boys State, and my three-second cameo in it, I was hesitant to watch. How could one of the most hectic and educational weeks of my life be condensed into a two hour documentary? It wasn’t until I agreed to write my thoughts down for NU Political Union’s blog that I watched and discovered what the film got right (and what it didn’t) about the future of American politics.
The thesis of the documentary is pretty straight forward. Political activist Steven Garza is a high school junior from Houston who is chosen to participate in Texas Boys State, a sprawling week-long mock government leadership program run by the American Legion every June. His mission? To be elected to the program’s most prestigious position of governor. To do this, Garza works with his party chair, René Otero, to fend off a deluge of attacks and smears from the opposition. Garza, with the rest of his party, is eventually defeated in the final election, leaving behind lifelong lessons about politics, maturity, and human nature.
So was this what actually happened? Kinda, but to fully understand Texas Boys State, one must step back a bit. Every year, over 1,100 high school juniors from virtually every part of the state are nominated by their local chapter of the American Legion to attend Boys State in Texas’ state capital of Austin. Common nominees include ROTC kids and military prospects, student council leaders, and Boy Scouts, a selection pool that ends up being mostly white with a decidedly conservative lean. These “statesmen” are randomly split into two political parties: Federalists and Nationalists. Because of this random split, the parties have, on average, the same political stances, the only difference being the color of the name badges carried around the statesmen’s necks.
At this point you might have caught on to the same logic I did when I stepped off the bus from Dallas and checked into my dorm at the University of Texas: that Boys State was never a battle of policy but rather a battle of rhetoric. The program itself is a week-long election cycle with little actual legislation, and as I flipped through the rule booklet I was handed in the cafeteria, I quietly prepared myself for a battle of charisma in which the key to elected office lay in rousing speeches, not debate rebuttals. I quickly immersed myself in the Lord of the Flies-esque political battle, collecting signatures, making pacts, and giving speeches. Less than a day after I first arrived in Austin, I was elected senator for my city. From my position away from campus, working in the Senate Chamber of the Texas capitol building, I observed the central focus of the documentary: the turbulent week-long race for governor.
Over the next couple of days, I watched as Steven Garza and René Otero of the Nationalist Party worked to identify a clear party platform. Garza and Otero, aware that their personal ideals and Garza’s involvement in March for Our Lives would alienate the conservative-leaning statesmen, gave broad and inspirational speeches at the party conferences that quickly made them party favorites. Yet, dissent was brewing within the party. Nationalist delegates from various cities started a movement (and accompanying Instagram account) to impeach Otero, and this internal division would fracture the party well into the week.
Meanwhile, my party, the Federalists, followed the same logic I had, quickly learning that the electoral system itself rewarded broad promises and harsh partisanship. Party chair Ben Feinstein, a failed gubernatorial candidate, quickly mobilized the party base with patriotic platitudes and negative rhetoric. A pro-Federalist Instagram account, “fed_on_meds,” painted Garza as an anti-gun rights activist who was incapable of uniting his party. Feinstein said it best in an interview in his own confessional halfway through the film: “A message of unity, as good as it sounds, is not winning anyone any elections.”
This sharp, ultra-partisan focus would pay off. Despite each party having ultimately the same platform, Federalists won the bulk of major state positions, including governor and lieutenant governor. The victory, however, came at an ethical cost. In just a week, I had watched as party meetings became increasingly erratic, as the yellow vs. blue mentality began to dominate the room. An “Impeach Rene” Instagram account began to circulate, sharing racist images and hate speech. Advisors and volunteers did their best to contain the fervor and sometimes hate that poured out from the party conventions. It didn’t even matter who the candidate for governor was, the race was practically won in those meetings.
This value-free, realpolitik approach to politics may seem coldly pragmatic, but it, along with the documentary, holds a harsh mirror of truth to our modern American politics. The hyper-partisan “us vs. them” mentality is all too present in our own upcoming election. A political party, to some, is no different than the home football team. Boys State, as well as its documentary, is just as much a product of our time as this year’s election cycle: a cautionary tale of compromising values for victory.
Yet, I don’t think that this is the lesson I or any of my fellow statesmen took away from Boys State. Producers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, in their focus on the fighting in the gubernatorial race, largely neglected what was happening just down the street in the capitol building. My experience in the senate chamber was largely one of bipartisanship, calm debate, and willing compromise. Other statesmen, crowded into the gallery above, were appreciative and even amazed at the difference in mood between the party conventions and the legislature. I learned a lot from that room, but most importantly I learned that the sweetness of compromise remains long after the tribal satisfaction of partisanship, a message that Americans hopefully learn in the upcoming election. Did our civil approach make us good politicians? Probably not, but René said it better than myself when talking about Feinstein: “I think he’s a fantastic politician, but I don’t think ‘fantastic politician’ is a complement either.”
Spencer Allan is a sophomore at Northwestern studying journalism and Head of Finance for NU Political Union.
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