Have The Directors Of 'Boys State' Predicted The Future Of American Politics?

"That's politics ... I think," remarks Robert MacDougall, one of the subjects of Boys State, to the filmmakers off-screen. The line encapsulates the dual nature of the documentary, now streaming on Apple TV+, as both a potential microcosm for American political campaigning ... or just a discrete experience worth examining for its own merits.

Documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine's observed and narrativized feature examines the eponymous citizenship program, a week-long conference of mock governance and electioneering, during its 2018 iteration with Texas teenage boys. It's easy to get caught up in the film's irresistible characters: the realpolitik of René Otero, the shock and awe of Ben Feinstein, the relational authenticity of Steven Garza. Boys State is hardly self-contained in its value, however.

This film's relevance is not just as a yearbook documenting a past event but an embodiment of forces that shape the present and will continue to influence the future. Steven addresses a large crowd at Texas' Democratic National Convention audience in the film's epilogue, after all. This might be the first time we meet all these men, though it likely will not be the last. And the next time we encounter them, the stakes might not be as speculative as they are in the Boys State program.

The subjects of Boys State rank among the first wave of so-called Generation Z entering the arena of elected politics in earnest. With their short yet expansive window into a group of civically minded teens, Moss and McBaine have a unique perspective into how a rising cohort could transform America over the coming decades. While the directors avoid opining on the significance of what they filmed within the confines of the narrative, I spoke to them over Zoom to elaborate and extrapolate. Our conversation covered not only who Gen Z is but also how they might campaign in and govern the country. They remained modest about the implications of their work, yet it would not surprise me to look back at Boys State years down the line and see this as a film as prescient as it is insightful.

Overnight(ers) Success

Such lofty claims about the long-term prospects of Boys State are not purely speculative given that Moss has already achieved such a feat of clairvoyance once in his career. His documentary The Overnighters, co-produced with McBaine, premiered in 2014 yet sensed the tremors that would soon erupt into a political earthquake. The film tags along with Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor in North Dakota who makes waves by turning his church into a sanctuary for homeless workers who have flocked to his community in search of high-paying oil jobs. He appeals to his community's sense of Christian compassion to extend charity and grace to these migrants, hoping he can welcome them into the fold of the town rather than freezing them out.

If you've followed any story around American attitudes towards immigrants and refugees since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, you can likely imagine how The Overnighters turns out. Fear of the outsider and impatience with a changing communal fabric ultimately supersede Pastor Jay's pleas for people to believe in the better angels of their humanity. What Moss refers to as the town's "simmering discontent" eventually reaches a full boil ... and scalds Pastor Jay in the process. "As storytellers wrestling with the big questions of American life, we find our way to intimate stories that hopefully expose and explore these themes," explains Moss about how The Overnighters managed to capture the country's drift towards a politics dominated by fear and division that would soon register on a macro scale.

Moss views Boys State as the continuation of the conversation he began with The Overnighters, though it's not one he set out to consciously extend. "If there's a kind of throughline," he observed, "I think that's just because we're living in this current of America in which those themes, those currents are ever-present if you know where to look for them." The optimism and hope of Pastor Jay see expression through Boys State's Steven Garza, a consensus-builder styled in the mold of Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke. Meanwhile, Ben Feinstein, the de facto leader of Steven's oppositional party, represents the "willingness to exploit divisiveness" seen in the cynical calculations of Pastor Jay's antagonists.

From A to Generation Z

In case you need to update your vocabulary, "millennial" is no longer synonymous with "young person." The new standard-bearers of youth are Generation Z, born between roughly 1996 and 2012. (A common demarcation between millennial and Gen Z in America is whether they remember experiencing 9/11.)

This cohort does not remember a time when America was not fighting terrorism, nor do they remember a time before the Internet and online communication had not seeped into every facet of daily life. They are also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date, though you would never know it from looking at the participants in Boys State. The program over indexes on young white men, even in a state of heterogenous as Texas, so the film does not exactly put forth the most representative cross-section of this cohort. Nonetheless, Boys State does offer plenty of incisive takeaways on how Generation Z will affect our politics.

Chief among these? Don't expect their less white composition fool you into thinking this group will be monolithically, or even primarily, progressive. It's tempting to map polarities in age with extremity in ideology as younger voters skew overwhelmingly Democratic and older voters (at least pre-COVID) sided largely with Republicans. Youth-led movements to address climate change, such as the Sunrise Movement, and gun safety, like March for Our Lives, have hardened this into conventional wisdom that Boys State shatters.

"There's no wish fulfillment here that Gen Z is going to kind of step up to moral leadership and solve our problems," Moss says of how his film debunks a popular liberal fantasy that younger voters portend doom for conservatism. Boys State shows that many tendencies in our current political landscape – racial dog whistles, men's obsession with women's reproductive health – will not simply die out with age. At least to start, many of these young people are taking cues from the adults on political rhetoric.

But, for Moss, the fact that Gen Z has a vocabulary and appetite for civics and activism at all represents a tremendous change even from their Millennial forebearers. "They are being politicized at a young age and [recognize] the existential threats they face in the form of gun violence and climate change," he observed. "They have been forced, compelled to become more active participants in democracy [...] and that's healthy. I think that's hopeful to me." The most novel contribution this generation brings to the table in the halls of government may be in their sense of urgency. They realize these coming crises will affect them personally, and they are able to draw a line between government action (or inaction) and their personal outcomes.

It's Their Party

Gen Z has seen the results of how government and political parties have failed and left them with massive problems to resolve. As a result, they are more likely to reject identification with institutions and partisan labels altogether; a 2018 poll found that just over half of voters 18-24 choose to affiliate with the two major parties. McBaine described the politics of the group as "à la carte" and mentioned "so many kids who self-identified as libertarians." Given the entrenched nature of America's two-party system and unlikelihood of a major third-party gaining national prominence, some party would need to make policy concessions to secure this generation's support in perpetuity.

Many of Gen Z's views and beliefs don't map neatly to existing partisan identities, making the prospect of either party realignment or ideological reprioritization even more likely. Moss pinpointed two key issues where he saw divergence, even in a group that might seem predisposed in one direction: "They actually agree on universal background checks, and this is a conservative group. Their attitudes towards LGBTQ rights could not be so easily demarcated." Whether Gen Z simply mirrors larger trends in America or is actually driving them remains unclear, but Moss remains positive either way. "That reflects progress to me," he declared.

That progress may be tough to see within Boys State because, according to McBaine, those ideological debates mostly took place in the legislature, which was not a destination for any of the film's main characters. But Moss also raised the prospect that the Boys State program, by reproducing America's intractable dueling parties, might not represent the best forum to hash out any generational differences that they cannot dissolve into the current system. "Are the structures and the systems in place that have delivered us to this moment of intractable difference and of social inequality, do they require a more radical politics?" he asked. "Boys State may not be the prism through which to assess that because they have to make some choices." Especially given the massive ongoing upheavals due to the pandemic, we may see a rising generation decide to overhaul elements of the political system rather than adapt to it.

The most striking dynamic in Boys State is not the teenagers choosing a political or partisan identity. Rather, it's to settle on what it means to be a man in the modern world. In many ways, they're making the choice alongside the rest of America as the country experiences the whiplash between the two most prominent presidents of Gen Z's lifetime: the bookish empathy Barack Obama and the bellicose bravado of Donald Trump. For these young men, the decision of what it means to be a man takes on an even larger significance because it is intertwined with their journey from adolescence into adulthood.

The Boys State program replicates America's two-party system, but not with the same "Republican" and "Democrat" party labels. It's up to the randomly assigned groups to determine what their party will stand for, and the results vary widely between iterations. (Per McBaine, "Some years, both parties have been extraordinarily conservative, and there's almost no difference between the two of them.") Given the focus on campaigning over governing, it's fitting that the program's elections tend to break down on lines of personality rather than policy. Moss expressed surprise to see the two parties engaged less in a battle of ideology and more of a dispute of masculinity:

"One thing that we were, I think, surprised by, or maybe we didn't expect to find in such a kind of fully felt way was the contest of different forms of masculine identity, one embodied by Steven, which is translated into his politics – an ideology of empathy, of compassion, of listening – and then one embodied by Ben of strength. I mean, Ben says at the end of the film it was 'combined arms warfare.' That's how he thinks of politics, as warfare. We're seeing this getting worked out with young men in this film: how to be a man, and what does that mean in your politics?"

If there's any clear conclusion from Boys State, it's that the political is still personal.

Vote for Me(me)

The upside of seeing a personality-driven contest in the film is that it allows for a candidate like Steven, who holds views on issues like gun safety that might otherwise skew farther to the left than the typical Boys State participant, to garner a wide base of support. The downside, though, is that personal attacks can quickly erode and dissolve connective tissue for that base. Ideas endure; candidates often do not.

No one is under the pretense that the real political arena has represented a healthy forum for policy discussions in a while, to be clear. McBaine pointed out that "dirty mudslinging, the angry mob, this is always true, right or left, and has been there for a long time." But there's a distinctly contemporary flair to the flavor of campaign run by Ben Feinstein, a particularly vicious form of negative partisanship rooted in dog-whistled personal attacks, working the refs and "owning the libs." (Though, in this case, it's the Nationalists.) A key method of disseminating their message comes in the form of weaponized memes.

The Federalists tacitly support an account devoted to impeaching their opposition leader René until it begins posting overtly racist content but quickly pivot to creating their own low production value memes. At least among what the documentary shows, the content focuses less on propagating Federalist values or policies and more on beating – no, dominating – the Nationalists. This style of messaging roots the identity of a group not in what they are for but who they are against. So long as the other side is painted as unpalatable, weak or just plain wrong, it reduces the burden of your own party to affirmatively prove why you are right.

This, of course, echoes larger trends of partisan tribalism on a national scale, but the "meme warfare" as practiced in Boys State points to a new frontier of political communication. As campaigns move even further into the digital realm, memes offer a way to launder attacks – or misinformation – in a rapidly diffusing manner that maintains anonymity and avoids accountability.  "I think social media does offer a particularly siloed delivery mechanism for [personal attacks], and that's problematic," McBaine opined of the negative campaigning they witnessed. "The quick consumption of them, also, is a problem. It does force people to kind of treat the conversation on a very whiplash level."

Moss referred to the way the teenagers used memes as a language in and of itself, one designed to reinforce tribal identity through recognizable codes and shut out others. "Even though we see social media messages on Facebook and Instagram and on Twitter," he noted, "there was a kind of level of the language that eluded us here, which was fascinating to be confronted by. I think we all recognize that that teenagers have a kind of hermetic way of speaking that us oldsters can't access."

But memes go beyond the classic pastime of creating backchannels to circumvent adult intrusion. Memes, at least in the way that they practiced by Ben and the Federalists, are an inherently exclusionary form of communication that stand in contrast to Steven's expansive, inclusive eloquence. The "coarseness of the rhetoric," as Moss described it, helps create and then reify "in" and "out" groups based on affinity and understanding of subtle undertones.

Maybe this is just a form of teenage immaturity they'll grow out of with age. Maybe there's an element of regional specificity given how the program fans the flames started by a particularly Texan spark of competitiveness. Maybe it will soon become a defining feature of American politics. This remains an open question at the end of Boys State, waiting for time to provide the answer.

The More Things Stay the Same, The More They Change

SPOILER ALERT: This section of the interview discusses the results of the documentary's climactic election.

If, for some reason, you were holding out hope for Boys State to conclude with the Frank Capra ending, prepare to be disappointed. Though Steven's consensus-oriented politics make a breakthrough, it's ultimately not enough to triumph over the Federalists' Ben Shapiro-styled gubernatorial candidate Eddy in the final vote count. In a sense, Steven scores a moral victory that contains seeds of hopefulness for an empathetic "big tent" politics to make gains in the future. How satisfying you find that may depend on how much of a win you consider a moral victory represents.

"I think any conclusion is fair, frankly," McBaine offered when discussing the film's ending. "I do think that the kind of stories we tell in documentary do not have a very defined takeaway. I do think where you land on the sort of hope/cynicism spectrum is going to dictate how you walk away from our film." Boys State provides a plethora of data points from which to make a case for what it all means both now and into the future – as this piece has done. In that way, it's an exemplary reflection of American politics itself. It's never wholly good nor bad, just perpetually fluid and open to many interpretations.

McBaine herself has found inspiration from the flickering optimism of the film's ending:

"I frankly see all the darkness that is out there. And we're fed a steady diet of it every day from the news. But I also was very moved by the powerful reminder of someone like Steven – not only in his sort of existing and his power and his talent – but also the fact that people, a very white and very conservative majority, really responded to that. And that kind of partnership to me was a reminder of something bigger than hope. It's not naive, because he's really does face it all. And he's still in this space of believing in what's possible. He sort of leans towards the light no matter what he faces, and that's a good reminder for me."

This tussle between competing forces resulting in no clear message or outcome is endemic not only to America but within the Boys State program itself. McBaine noted that, off-camera in Boys State, the biggest accomplishment within the legislature was passing universal background checks for gun purchases. That's no small feat in the state of Texas, a state which also has open carry laws on the books. And, in the previous year, the legislature voted to troll the program by seceding from the United States! "This kind of lurching backward, forward, sideways, sideways, that's how American history is," she postulated. "Nothing is really set."

Many things may change in America as a result of the social and generational changes detected by Boys State. But what's most likely is that this convulsive, propulsive engine of the national destiny continues chugging along its jagged path.