We watched Boys State this week. It’s a documentary that follows a cohort of Texan teenage boys going through an intense one-week political bootcamp at the Texas state capitol. They’re divided randomly into two parties*, given lessons in the state constitution, and then they run a compressed set of elections for party chairmen, gubernatorial candidates, and ultimately for state governor.
I really enjoyed it, though I felt myself predictably enamoured with the charismatic and thoughtful liberals Steven and René. Conversely, I found myself predictably horrified with the mini-demagogue-to-be Robert, and the Steven Miller Jr. in Ben Feinstein.
Ben was interesting as a distillation of the do-what-it-takes-to-win archetype that we saw coalesce around Trump. He realises early on that a negative campaign can really stall the momentum of a values-led movement in the opposition. First he pushes a “Dems in disarray” style narrative during the chairman race, and then switches to a “rigged system” narrative later on.
His final candidate for governor is presented as lacking in charisma, he even loses his voice at a crucial stage in the race. Ben is presented as a kind of Machiavellian kingmaker. He’s directly compared to Ben Shapiro at one point, and the comparison is apt. He’s all facts and figures until he sees an opening to meta-game the debate, to object on a rules basis to one moment in a district debate and then repeat that narrative to block out the issues discussion from then on.
Overall it was a good watch. I wonder how much we project our anxieties on these kids. We all wondered what Girl State would be like and whether the issues would still be: guns, abortion, immigration, and in that order. Apparently a sequel is in production.
* The parties are given the names “Federalists” and “Nationalists”, which seem to be detached enough from modern party labels that they don’t seem to come with any ideological baggage for teenagers. That’s funny given that the Federalists were once an American political party and nationalist certainly means something to me.