“Boys State” Panel Holds Up Mirror to Country’s Division

In the midst of an election season marked by historic rancor and voter disenfranchisement, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights offered a look behind the scenes of a political world sometimes forgotten these days—a high-energy, values-driven electoral process spearheaded by young people.

Boys State is a documentary about the Texas summer program that educates teenagers about state government and encourages civic responsibility. The October 5 screening—a date chosen to mark World Teachers’ Day—was followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers and two of the film’s main participants. Kerry Kennedy, president of RFK Human Rights, moderated.

“Growing up in the Kennedy family, my brothers and sisters and I learned at a very young age that politics and our family’s commitment to justice were deeply intertwined, that no one is ever too young to care about our country, and to take to heart their civic duties,” Kennedy said. She called the film touching and poignant, especially given the current election season: “It really does hold up a mirror to the divisions we face as a country.”

Each year since the mid-1930s, hundreds of students have headed to Boys State and Girls State, which is sponsored by the American Legion. Among its many graduates: President Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Sen. Bob Menendez, and musicians Bruce Springsteen and Garth Brooks.

On the panel were Steven Garza and Ben Feinstein, protagonists of the 2020 film and political opponents during the weeklong program’s mock gubernatorial election process. Garza, the liberal-leaning Nationalist Party’s candidate for governor, arrived as a self-described open-minded idealist, one of the few Hispanics among a majority-white group. Feinstein, a Reaganite who serves as the conservative Federalist Party’s gubernatorial campaign manager, uses some classic political subterfuge over the course of the week to undermine Garza, who loses the election.

“In retrospect, it’s like one of Newton’s laws of motion. What you put in motion stays in motion,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein acknowledged that the experience provided a bit of a moral awakening for him. “Creating a very energetic atmosphere is a fantastic thing for a campaign, but there is a point where winning needs to take a seat to common decency,” he said.

As GQ notes in its review of the “binge worthy” film: “Comparisons to Lord of the Flies are inevitable when over 1,000 Texas high school boys get together to try and form a government.”

Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, who are husband and wife, said they decided to focus on the Boys State program in part to understand the political division that exists across the country.

“When we learned about the Boys State and Girls State programs, we recognized this is a pretty rare space in American life, where people with differing views are getting together and talking,” Moss said. “We were also struck by the fact these are young people, they’re growing up with this existential threat…and they’re normalizing the political discourse they’re seeing in Washington every day.”

For many graduates, participating in the program is the first step toward a lifelong involvement in politics. Garza told the panel he is now active in Texas Get Out the Vote efforts and wants to engage other young people in the political process.

“The need to be able to explain that and let them know the stakes are high, that Congress is dominated by mostly older people, the decisions they’re making now, with the Supreme Court, are going to affect me and them for generations,” he said.