By Isabel Okinedo
This piece is in collaboration with Vanderbilt’s partnership with A24.
Do the names President Bill Clinton, Senator Cory Booker, and Vice President Dick Cheney ring a bell? How about Neil Armstrong? Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls or James Gandolfini from The Sopranos? Objectively, this group of men are accomplished in their own rights. But what do they have in common aside from their notoriety? They are all alumni of The American Legion’s Boys State.
Boys State, like the separate-but-equal Girls State, is a highly selective program for high school juniors, in which they spend a week immersing themselves in the machine of American politics. They are divided into two parties, Federalists and Nationalists, through which state officials are elected. The highest position is governor.
The Boys State documentary follows the experiences of a handful of boys—Steven Garza, Robert MacDougall, René Otero, and Ben Feinstein—and their trials at Texas Boys State in 2018. Many of the young men who attend Boys State boast the potential to become the future leaders of our nation. But what does that say about us as a nation when an exclusive, racially homologous organization can so adequately project our future representation? One of the most argued issues among them was abortion, yet not a single woman was present in the room as these seventeen-year-old boys debated whether or not a woman should be allowed to have full autonomy over her body. How striking it was to catch a glimpse of what must occur in the chambers of our nation’s Senate and House of Representatives. Early on, Garza quipped that we should have a People State instead of separate Boys and Girls States. The boy with whom he was speaking reacted with an incredulous, “What?”, to which Garza chuckled and revealed that he was only joking. Whether or not he was truly joking, in this moment Garza acted as a true politician would; he asked a leading question, learned the importance of his constituents’ views, and adapted his own position to further benefit himself and improve his likability. Fortunately for Garza, his attempt at being a true politician fared better than others.
Throughout the documentary, producers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss were able to expertly capture the characters of the featured boys and do the impossible: pull sincerity from the mouths of seventeen-year-olds. Take Nationalist Party member Robert MacDougall for example. Despite losing the primary election in his party to Steven Garza, he displayed a shocking level of candor in his confessional interviews, especially when compared to the carefully crafted façade that he presented to his party. MacDougall appeared extremely likeable and popular among the Nationalists, and built a political persona based on what he felt they would support. After Garza gave his speech and garnered support among the Party, MacDougall reflected that perhaps an approach in which he was more serious and focused on pivotal issues would have gotten him further in the long run, rather than being the boisterous candidate. He rallied his men with promises of greatness that rang hollow when his policy ideas fell short. Moreover, MacDougall decided to gauge the sentiment of his party and develop a platform based on what he felt they wanted rather than forming a platform based on his own views. In fact, he confessed that he was decidedly pro-choice, but he ran a pro-life campaign in an attempt to win over more voters. His fatal flaw was that he assumed the rowdy bunch would be more interested in strongman leadership than a candidate who remained sincere and true to their values.
Although his experience is evidence for the contrary, MacDougall was not wrong to assume that this approach would win him the primary election. In fact, he was likely only taking a page out of the book of our own President Donald Trump. Trump’s “drain the swamp” approach to his campaign in the 2016 election cycle had his supporters hailing him as the outsider candidate that would rid Washington of career politicians and serve as a man of the people. He was elected on this premise, and on his strongman persona.
There was a lack of craftiness and nuance (besides the obvious strategy of assuming the role of the provocative candidate) in both MacDougall and Trump that I found in Ben Feinstein—who served in the esteemed position of Party Chair for the Federalists. He made a strong impression on me immediately. As a child, he suffered from meningitis, which resulted in the loss of both of his legs, and the loss of complete function in one arm. In spite of these challenges, he has not allowed his disability to negatively define him. Early on, he mentioned that people likened him to Ben Shapiro, a right-wing political commentator. The comparison is extreme, but I would not call it entirely unfounded. In the past, Shapiro has denied that Black people suffer from systemic racism in today’s America. While Feinstein, the self-proclaimed politics junkie, did not make any claim as bold as this, he mentioned that he did not see himself as disabled, nor did he see himself as white — he merely saw himself as Ben. What he failed to realize, however, was that his whiteness was precisely what allowed him to identify as “just Ben”. He asserted that we should focus on our individual failings rather than race or gender or disability. In this country, whiteness is one of the greatest advantages that one can have. People of color, the disabled, and the LGBT+ community are only a few of many disadvantaged groups in the United States. I believe that Feinstein has neglected to consider intersectionality. Where his disability has surely created hindrances in his life, his whiteness and his gender ensure him a seat at the table. Feinstein has experienced challenges that many of us cannot imagine, yet I have to say that I found it unsurprising that he could not extrapolate his experience to that of other minority groups.
Reflecting on his peer, René Otero said, “I think [Feinstein’s] a fantastic politician. But I don’t think a ‘fantastic politician’ is a compliment either.” I would agree with the sentiment of his statement. Feinstein’s ambition and determination might have been the thing that ultimately led the Federalist Party to a victory. But in Feinstein, I also saw an abundance of cunning strategies. You might ask, “Is a wise strategist not what makes a good leader? Shouldn’t we seek the advice of people who are cunning?” To the first question, I would argue no. In a leader, we should seek out an ideal. A standard that we can ascribe to, both morally and ethically. In Feinstein, I saw brilliant political methods and a commitment to winning above all—qualities that I believe would make for a fantastic political strategist. So, to the second question, I would answer in the affirmative: we should seek the advice of people who are cunning. But political strategists exist to assist politicians; there is a reason we do not elect chiefs of staff and chief strategists.
Among this largely homogenous group of young men, Otero emerged as a purposeful young man and was elected Party Chair for the Nationalists. Shortly thereafter, members of the Nationalist Party called for his impeachment, citing his incompetence in his role. Otero declared that the minority backing his impeachment just didn’t like Black people. The opposing party seized the opportunity to create further division among the Nationalists and supported the “impeach Rene” Instagram account that was made. However, soon after racist posts were added to the account, they attempted to distance themselves from the scandal that ensued.
Steven Garza was, in my opinion, the star of the show. The Mexican American teen was one of the two racial minorities featured prominently in the documentary. His unassuming manner immediately stood in stark contrast to many of the other young men in the film. Where they were rowdy, he was thoughtful. He made a point to ask his constituents what they stood for and spoke to them about his views before he accepted their signatures on his form to run for the governorship. Garza’s personal political views were under much scrutiny by members of his own party and of the opposing. Garza, who lead a protest for March for Our Lives, faced the obstacle of being on the liberal end of a group of young men who seemed staunchly pro-life and pro-gun. In fact, his opponents decided to weaponize his involvement with this organization, whose mission statement reads, “To harness the power of young people across the country to fight for sensible gun violence prevention policies that save lives.” To many conservatives, this translates directly to “abolish the Second Amendment and take away our guns.” Garza took the time to explain his views to his Party and went on to win the nomination by a large margin. However, he lost the general election to the Federalist Party nominee, Eddy.
Undoubtedly, there were moments in which I felt like I was watching a bloodless rendition of Lord of the Flies; the boys often resorted to cutthroat tactics in some parts of the film. But in sum, Boys State was more poignant than I imagined it would be. In this day and age of American politics, we don’t often see emotions other than anger and passion, and while there were plenty of both to go around, I also saw wonderful ambition, unquestionable determination, strong commitment, and brotherly love. I was grateful to take part in a Q&A session with members of the cast and the producers, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. When I first watched the film, I found that I was overwhelmed with questions. I wanted to ask the boys if their taste for politics was at all tainted by their experience at Texas Boys State. I wanted to ask to what degree they felt politicians truly represent and carry out the will of those that they are elected to serve. But I found that the most pressing question I had was for Robert MacDougall. To me, MacDougall reflected the essence of high school popularity, and early on he seemed very popular within his party. But still, he lost the primary election to Garza. His loss demonstrated that sincerity is of more value to voters than mere appearances.
To MacDougall, I asked: If you wind up pursuing a political career, do you think that remaining true to your core values in the future is in your best interest as a politician even though it might cost you a win? “The politicians I respect the most are those who can win elections while remaining true to their values and not being corrupted by money,” MacDougall replied. “While I think remaining true to your core values is an important and sadly lacking part of our politics, I also see the potential need to hide those values in order to win. During Boys State, I saw this hiding of some core values in the campaigns of both me and Steven. What separated us, however, was that Steven did not lie about his values, he just chose not to openly share them. Going forward, I hope t
o be able to be more like Steven when it comes to opinions and values of mine that may not be popular with the majority of those around me.” MacDougall’s takeaway from his experience at Boys State is something that I hope all of the boys learned: politics without authenticity is simply a room full of experienced charlatans hoping to outmaneuver one another.
BOYS STATE is an Apple Original Films and A24 Release. Now available on AppleTV+.