XQ’s interview with Boys State filmmakers on political identity, everyday ethics, and civic engagement in high school.
Boys State, a film by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, transports us to a place of unsullied Americana—complete with marching bands, denim jeans, and American flags. The film follows the Texas chapter of the American Legion’s Boys State program—a one-of-its-kind civic education simulation that asks adolescents to create a mock state government. It is a political drama as old as America. A story of idealistic underdogs and win-at-all-costs villains, even if the political actors have rosy cheeks and boyish innocence.
As teenage Texan boys are let loose to explore the mechanics of American politics, McBaine and Moss explore exactly how much these kids have absorbed the current polarized political discourse. In scenes of boys admitting to lying about their own politics and parroting ideology from TV pundits—it becomes clear that the kids, in fact, are not alright.
In a candid discussion with the Boys State filmmakers, we discuss the educational offerings of a more immersive civic education, the formation of political identity, and the need for moral education for teenagers today. Most importantly, our discussion not only lays out the problems of contemporary American politics, but it also points to a solution.
As American schools become increasingly economically, racially, and politically segregated, how do we create spaces that bring young people together to find commonalities and build bridges?
Boys State, they argue, may be one solution worth noting.
Learn and Unlearn by Doing
Team XQ: To start, how do you think Boys State–the program and the film—fit into the education landscape at the moment? There is an emphasis on civic education. How do you think Boys State informs that discussion?
Jesse: We recognized that the Boys State program allowed students to participate in civic education in a really interesting way. We wanted to understand what that meant given this cultural and historical moment. We loved the idea that these programs empowered young men and young women to build their own government and brought together people with different politics.
We didn’t exactly know how our film would fit into the larger education landscape. We certainly hoped that there would be a story that would connect with young people and documentary audiences and that would serve an educational purpose. That’s always a hope we have when making a film, but we didn’t think about this film as an educational tool. It’s been really exciting to discover that the film has found its way into the classroom.
Team XQ: What lessons can draw from this civic education experience? Are there parts of this experience that you think educators should replicate in classrooms across America?
Amanda: Texas Boys State Leadership firmly believes in this concept of learning by doing. They really think it’s okay for things to go off the rails, which they inevitably do. They explained that unexpected and uncomfortable stuff would come up, but those moments would serve as learning experiences. I found that comfort with discomfort really interesting.
But, we were also a little skeptical. How much learning could realistically happen in one week? How much change could happen? What kind of a crucible could this be? The program itself is so focused on how we elect as much as it is on who we elect. For instance, all these boys came into the session thinking that politics is a win-at-all-costs game. It was really profound to watch young men with that mentality realize that how you conduct your campaign and how you approach politics is representative of your values and leadership style.
In the week that we filmed, we saw boys act and make moral choices that they may have only ever encountered in a book. Yes, you can experience empathy by reading about it, but to actually be forced to make a choice in the simulation is an incredible ethical learning experience. That kind of education is really extraordinary.
Jesse: I think that there’s a really interesting question about the degree to which the program replicates an electoral system. In the film, you see two approaches to elections. You see the gamification of politics, which we see many boys participate in, and we see this more principled approach. There’s a hazard in replicating the game side of politics because we are teaching young people that politics is a sport. But, we know that for some adults it is. The documentary really explores this question of balance. What balance should we strike in civics education? How much of the current system—as flawed as it is—do you adopt and replicate even in a simulation?
Finding Commonalities From Across the Lone Star State
Team XQ: Boys State seems like a relic of the past—a past centered around empowering white men—and riddled with Americana. What do you think Steven’s story can offer to other BIPOC students?
Amanda: Steven was our North Star. From the moment that we met him, there was a depth to him that was really striking. Going in, we were worried because we knew he would be in the minority in a lot of ways—not the least of which was political. The program still draws from small, rural towns in Texas.
For me, the beauty of watching Stephen find his voice and gain confidence is strengthened by watching other boys, who haven’t been exposed to people like Stephen, discover Stephen and realize that they speak about politics the same way. That exposure is part of what Texas Boys State relishes. It brings together kids of very different backgrounds and very different politics. It’s a program that is going to be fraught. You’re going to be across the table from somebody who’s arguing the exact opposite from you about school vouchers. But that conversation is so valuable.
Jesse: Building on that, it’s safe to say that these participants have really different class backgrounds, racial backgrounds, and political backgrounds. School classrooms are smaller and tend to be drawn more closely from your neighborhood or social strata. That’s a major flaw in our education system. How do we ensure that people with different backgrounds are learning to talk to each other civilly? Being in a space to learn and engage with people very unlike yourself is rare. America needs more of those spaces. We’re increasingly siloed—especially with the rise of social media. It’s really hard to reach out of our own backgrounds and build bridges. But that’s how commonalities are discovered. We don’t see this commingling happening at the adult level. We have to ingrain, foster, and promote the value of connecting for young people.
How Do Political Identities Form?
Team XQ: It’s such an interesting case study also on how political identities are formed. Did you draw any insights about that while filming?
Jesse: We wanted to understand the extent to which the toxic political discourse of the moment had trickled-down and contaminated the way young people think about politics. In the film, you see the worst and the best of American politics. You see tactics and rhetoric which are alarming. You see boys mirroring negative aspects of politics and using less than positive accusations of bias and negative campaigning to win. Winning, to them, is the end in itself. Governing is secondary to winning. Then you see other boys who clearly believe that the purpose of a politician is to serve others and not themselves.
Yes, we hungered for this clarity that the “kids were alright.” We live in a system that rewards inflammatory rhetoric. That’s the kind of discourse that gets shared and liked. It’s human nature and we’ve built a reward system that perpetuates and accelerates it. At Boys State, we saw young people who had absorbed the norms and behaviors of our elected leaders. This points to a larger question of how do we counteract that? How do we neutralize the damage that’s been done? That’s going to be the work of generations to come.
Amanda: It’s not just the codes of conduct. It’s the actual policies—the hot potato culture war issues—that we saw kids throwing around that pointed to how they’ve internalized or been indoctrinated by their parents and media, which leads to the question: Where do our politics come from and at what age do we develop our politics?
Jesse: The value of the program was that the boys were allowed and given the space to behave badly. They were also given enough time and models of leadership that drew them in a different direction. Not every civics curriculum or lesson plan can last a week and be so fully immersive. This program is complicated and allows for natural evolution to occur with the students. You have to let people make bad choices before they make good choices. We want kids to make good choices, but they don’t always.
Team XQ: There’s so much talk about in terms of how malleable teenagers are in their morals. Did any of the boys highlighted in the film reflect on their journey and want to change how they approached the simulation?
Jesse: Yes, particularly Ben. It’s taken two years of reflection for him to disavow the dirty tricks and tactics that he thought were necessary to win. I think he spent time looking at and measuring the consequences of his action against the corrosive national political discourse. He sees the fragility of our democracy and that if winning is a zero-sum game it threatens our democracy. In the end, he’s a patriot. He can see that something greater is at stake. He learned that respecting your opponent as a human being is necessary for national unity. That’s been great to see.
Renee’s growth has been in a different direction. He’s recognized that electoral politics isn’t the path he wants to pursue to make a difference. He wants to work locally as an activist. What’s happened this year around Black Lives Matter has really galvanized him to say, here’s where I can be effective. That’s been an interesting lesson from the experience for him.
Teaching Civic Duty in All Its Forms
Team XQ: Renee’s story is so illuminating. It kind of shines a light on our narrow understanding of civic engagement and civic duty. It’s important to remember that civic culture extends beyond just electoral politics and codified systems of representation. Civic duty means caring for your fellow citizen.
Jesse: We love that not all of the young men have not seen this program as a springboard into electoral politics. It’s really about civic engagement and about democratic participation. They’re all finding different ways to be engaged. For us, that is a powerful takeaway.
Amanda: They’re all doing different things. Rene is deep into his organization and activism. Robert is at West Point. He’s in the military on his way to serve. Ben is so committed to national security. And, Stephen is the guy who now has a job working for someone running for Congress. He’s doubled down and all the more convinced this is his calling.
Jesse: There’s a perception that this program is intended to produce politicians and we do highlight some of the more noteworthy people who attended the program. The program has some reflection to do to make sure that there’s space for people in this experience, for whom, running for office, isn’t the path to engagement. There should there be an activist track at Boys State—a track that’s not about getting people elected. It’s interesting to consider whether this program is too slanted towards electoral politics.
Team XQ: A final question: what would you want educators, students, and people who are engaged with civic education to get out of watching your documentary?
Amanda: As storytellers, we always go in with all kinds of big questions. Then you get there and a whole new set of questions emerges. We always hope that the end product that we’ve made moves people and provokes discussion. There is no specific discussion that I would prescribe. There is a list of questions that play out in our film: how does the two-party system provoke tribalist behavior? What is gendered politics? What does it actually mean to find a compromise and common ground? Do you have to give up your principles to meet the other person in the middle? Is that the right way to political change at this moment in our country? Does compromise prevent change? It’s a rich text for many conversations about electoral politics, democracy, and ethical behavior.
Jesse: On a very personal level, we also want people to think about how the individual choices that these young men make represent a moral education. Are their decisions ethical? What is ethical and moral in a political context? The story is as much about moral education as it is about the democratic process. The film is a text for discussions around ethics and morals as they relate to political leadership and personal behavior. I think that that’s incredibly valuable.