Boys State churns out members of Congress. These were their teenage dreams

It’s hard to tell where the role-playing ends and the next political era begins

A new documentary follows a group of high schoolers through a civics-heavy week at Texas Boys State in 2018. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
A new documentary follows a group of high schoolers through a civics-heavy week at Texas Boys State in 2018. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
Posted August 14, 2020 at 6:00am

Advice for teens can sound pretty hollow, especially when it comes from the mouths of politicians. 

Get ready, they like to say. You are the leaders of tomorrow. The future belongs to you. Soon enough you’ll be running for office yourself. 

When it comes to Boys State, they’re probably right. The program has influenced some of the most powerful men in the country, including current lawmakers as far apart in tone as Sens. John Thune, Cory Booker and Tom Cotton.

Close to my family’s heart” is how Cotton once described the program. “A real hands-on civic lesson,” said Sen. Bob Menendez. 

All told, at least 20 percent of senators now serving on Capitol Hill cut their political teeth at Boys State back when they were in high school. “You learn how to lead,” Tim Scott said of his time there. Lamar Alexander was so struck by the experience — half summer camp, half immersive roleplaying — that he keeps a framed memento from 1957 on the wall of his office in Washington.

Zoom out beyond the Hill, and you’ll find even more alumni, like a young Bill Clinton, a young Dick Cheney and a young Samuel Alito. These are the men who really did go on to run the nation, and this is the program that nurtured their wildest teenage dreams about how government should work. Founded by the American Legion 85 years ago as a capitalist answer to socialist youth groups, the program is still going strong. 

Whether that should inspire hope or alarm is the central question hanging over “Boys State,” a new documentary that follows a bunch of teens through one civics-drenched week in Texas. For a film about mock government, it’s surprisingly raucous. 

At first the stakes seem incredibly low. After all, these are adolescents running for fake elected offices at a glorified sleepaway camp, vying to become the next governor or mayor in a made-up system they’re creating. (No girls allowed.)

But what unfolds is a fascinating look at how young people learn the art of politicking. As the film opens, a teacher gives a lecture on the difference between Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984,” which turns out to be a red herring. The boys aren’t here to read dystopian novels. They’re here to lay claim to the real world, and that can be just as unnerving. 

“A message of unity, as good as it sounds, and as good as it ultimately is for our country, is not winning anyone any elections,” attendee Ben Feinstein says in one scene. “You have to use personal attacks and you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”

A budding cynic, he uses his campaign speech to do just that. He leans hard into division as he champions “Americanism,” a worldview that doesn’t have much wiggle room. Especially dangerous, in his telling, are the antiwar positions of the activist group Code Pink.

As these young politicians hone their talents, a realization sets in: This probably won’t be the last time we hear from the subjects of this film. From gathering signatures and crafting speeches, to making political ads in the form of Instagram memes, the boys do it all. (Girls can do it all, too, but they can’t do it here. Instead, they go to Girls State, a sister program not featured in the documentary.)

Listening to speech after speech, filled with red-meat cliches, we hear our own adult politics recited back to us, but it’s not quite that simple. When a gubernatorial candidate tries out some heated rhetoric, people compare him to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, which counts as high praise. It’s hard to tell where the roleplaying ends and the next political era begins.  

Questions pile up: What can the leaders of the future learn from these highly specific conditions? If a boy debates abortion at an all-boys camp, does it make a sound? And if the program revolves around a group of chosen high schoolers, destined to pack up and leave at the end of the week, just what is the point of writing a party platform with a position on immigration?

Feinstein, for one, says his views have evolved in the two years since the documentary was filmed. While he still has his beliefs, he’s learned to listen to others.

“The idealist in me was a lot stronger because I hadn’t had a lot of real world experiences,” he told me in an interview. “I’ve definitely stepped back from some of the things I said back then. I acknowledge that a lot of things are a lot more complicated than I thought.”

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, a wife and husband team, spent months vetting their subjects. While Boys State has programs in every U.S. state except Hawaii, they were drawn to the Texas program in particular after hearing that the boys who attended the previous year decided to make-believe secede from make-believe America.

“We thought well, OK, if the boys voted to secede in 2017, what the heck are they going to do in 2018?” McBaine told me.

From there, the directors had to choose their subjects from a group of more than 1,000 candidates. The team crisscrossed West Texas, filming and talking to people. “We knew we had shortlist criteria,” said McBaine, who wanted a range of socioeconomic and ideological backgrounds. “And we needed them all to be formidable enough in their beliefs and be politically savvy enough that we felt like they could do well once the program got started.”

Steven Garza attends Texas Boys State in 2018. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

There’s Steven, a charismatic son of Mexican immigrants, who idolizes Sen. Bernie Sanders and Napoleon Bonaparte.

There’s René, an African American boy who says he’s never been around that many white people before. (The Texas program skews rural and conservative, as the documentary shows.)

And there’s Robert, who just cashed in $18,000 worth of bitcoin and dreams of attending West Point.

Not all the kids are in it for political domination. Take me, for example, or at least the version of me that attended Boys State in the early 2000s. I ran for pretend sheriff, and I won, but that’s about as far as it went. Looking back, I don’t remember much about the program. For me, the goal was to get some good runs on the basketball court, eat three meals a day, and bond over Ludacris albums. Like I said, it was the early 2000s.

Contrast that with the fond and vivid memories of current senators like Chuck Grassley (“I learned the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship”), Mike Enzi (“Boys & Girls State are a family tradition in my house”), Roger Wicker (“I still stay in touch with the friends I made”) or Bill Cassidy (“Great week with a real good group of guys, and I was even lucky enough to be elected Commissioner of Public Works!”). 

#ThrowBackThursday to Louisiana’s Boys State - Great week with a real good group of guys, and I was even lucky enough to be elected Commissioner of Public Works!

Posted by Bill Cassidy on Thursday, January 23, 2020

Contrast that again with the reaction of a young Bernie Sanders, who didn’t attend the program in his youth but got a taste of it when he was running for governor in 1976. As he campaigned across Vermont, one of his stops was at Boys State, held that year on the campus of Norwich University. As the teens marched into the gym, martial-sounding music played, according to journalist Fred Bayles, who covered the event at the time for the Burlington Free Press and revisited it years later in an article for The Guardian.

“They have them marching already?” Sanders asked in disbelief, according to Bayles.

The democratic socialist proceeded to give a speech that railed against corporations and received economic wisdom. He got the crowd’s attention, and as he urged them to tear down the system, he gave them some advice.

“What people want you to be is good little boys,” he said, as reported by Bayles. “It’s time that you stop being good little boys.”

“Boys State” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting this week.