Bill Clinton. Samuel Alito. Dick Cheney. Rush Limbaugh. This uniquely craven group of political thinkers are among the first faces seen in the new Apple TV+ documentary ‘Boys State.’ (Apologies to Cory Booker, another former Boys State alumnus shown who seems like a genuine guy.) Perhaps it’s the first warning that the titular program doesn’t exist to give the youth of America a chance to explore representative democracy so much as it does to train a new generation in how to game the US political system. “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport” reads the film’s tagline, but what if it is?
‘Boys State’ follows a handful of 17 year olds as they navigate through the weeklong Texas program of the same name. Put on each year by The American Legion — alongside sister program: Girls State — Boys State tasks roughly 1000 politically zealous young men with establishing party platforms, winning elections and passing legislation. Ostensibly its a crash course in the fundamentals of democracy. In practice it’s a perfect reflection of everything wrong in American politics.
To its great credit, ‘Boys State’ places its focus on a diverse and interesting group of “staters,” not as easy as it sounds in a group of mostly white mostly conservative teens. These teens are each zealous ideologues whose views traverse the political spectrum.
First we meet Ben, a Reagan loving double amputee who proudly declares that he ‘doesn’t identify as white, but rather as American.” He is immediately followed on screen by Steven, an organizer of ‘March for Our Lives: Houston’ wearing a Beto O’Rourke t-shirt to the first day State. While these two young men bookend the ideology of the various subjects, ‘Boys State’ doesn’t take a side itself. Instead, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine train their camera on the process, one that is deeply flawed.
The United States loves to hold itself up as a pioneer of modern democracy and purveyors of the most perfect form of representative government in the world. There is indeed merit to that former claim, but as 'Boys State' shows, the form is far from perfect. Working within the confines of the American electoral rules, staters like Ben quickly learn that elections are not won on policy or in good faith. Instead, what unfolds is a deeply disheartening display of tribalism and political gamesmanship.
Government, in its purest form, should represent the people. It should be led by good hearted people who feel a deep sense of duty to their constituents. Unfortunately, Winning the right to lead requires a flexible moral compass. One of the kids, Rob, running to be the gubernatorial candidate of the -- very unfortunately named -- nationalist party put it best. After passionately railing against abortion to his caucus, Rob reveals in an interview that he is actually pro-choice. Eschewing his personal values for a shot at winning, Rob proudly proclaims "That's politics, I think. That's politics."
Rob ultimately loses that primary to Steven, his much more genuine (and liberal) opponent. But if anything, his defeat was due to an unwillingness to play the game of politics enough. In the general election, Steven's appeals to unity and heartfelt defense of his platform were successfully countered by his Federalist opponent’s campaign of memes, muckraking and personal grievance. Unable to present any cogent policy platform, Ben and his party simply turned to unfounded claims of bias and racist attacks that were far from unexpected. Their strategy closely mirrored that of Trump's surprise victory in 2016.
Watching this group of young men fall prey to the most insidious incentives of modern American democracy is aggravating. Hundreds of Texas’s most politically engaged boys felt comfortable spitting vitriolic rhetoric about a woman’s right to choose without a single word of input from a woman. They use their legislative time to propose policy on seceding, expelling Prius drivers from the state and preparing for alien invasion. Virtually nobody seems interested in actual governance.
While it would be easy to write off the events of'Boys State' as a 'Lord of the Flies' type descent by a group of naive kids, recent political history seems to indicate a problem that runs deeper. Just like Ben's quest to win at all costs, a group of extremely unserious Republicans walk the halls of congress with absolutely no plan for governance. Look at Matt Gaetz decision to mockingly wear a gas mask on the floor of the house, or any of the spiteful, ridiculous tweets Ted Cruz is sending out instead of addressing a pandemic that has already killed over 170,00 Americans. Their exclusive interest is in trolling the left and “owning the libs," in power for power's sake.
What the Federalists of 'Boys State' and Republicans running increasingly cynical races across this country understand is that politics is a game. In one interview Ben, with an amount of smugness only earned through victory, exclaims that "unity, as good as it is for our country, isn't winning any elections." And at age 17, having only truly experienced politics in the era of Trump, why would he think any differently?
I truly hope that this cynical view of politics is wrong, that there is still room for genuine leaders who want to do good for the country. I want to believe that good governance is important. But what 'Boys State' makes abundantly clear is that we aren't properly training the next generation. We're teaching young men how to win within the system rather than how to do right by the people the system is meant to serve. Programs like this should encourage open, good faith debate, teach cooperation and coalition building.
Despite all the dread ‘Boys State’ induces, it also offers glimmers of hope. Half of the randomly divided group nominated Steven, a progressive Latino kid, to be their candidate for governor. His passionately made case for a more inclusive brand of politics resonated with a very conservative set of voters. That same party nominated Rene, a liberal Black teen, party chair and rallied around him when he faced racist attacks from the Federalists and even some vocal members of his own delegation. Their victories resulted from an expression of hope and devotion to core values.
The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that politics is broken. Fixing things can only work if we stop seeing fellow humans as the enemy. Programs like Boys State are clearly doing more harm than good. Hopefully documentaries like 'Boys State' can open up eyes of Americans to just how much our institutions are infected. Our democracy is at a tipping point, its very survival depends on all of us taking it seriously.
’Boys State’ is a tough, but essential, watch at a moment in which American democracy seems to be on the brink. 9/10