Can the Kids Can Save America?

Steven Garza and his peers offer a window into our strange political future: “People don’t realize that Generation Z is more conservative than they think it is.” Photo: Apple TV+

Each year, 1,100 teenage boys gather at the University of Texas, Austin, campus for the American Legion’s Texas Boys State. Over the course of the week, the teens split up into two rival parties, hash out their platforms, then elect representatives. This is Model U.N. on steroids — the assembled strivers are almost all conservative and white.

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State — which won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — is a ridiculously engrossing vérité look inside the 2018 camp. The directors follow four boys who offer a window into the odd future of Texas politics: Ben Feinstein, who inhabits the Karl Rove/dirty trickster role; René Otero, a Black liberal outsider who manages to capture the Nationalist Party chairmanship; Robert MacDougall, the handsome boot-wearing West Point–bound front-runner; and Steven Garza, the son of a Mexican immigrant and March for Our Lives organizer who runs against him.

With straight-to-camera interviews that function like a reality-TV confessional, Boys State lets each of its stars transcend their well-worn political identities. The film’s best moment comes as MacDougall admits to the directors (and seemingly to himself) that he’s been lying about his position on a key topic all week; we are left to imagine why adult politicians similarly abandon their personal morals and the unseen forces pushing them to do so. And then there’s Garza, the film’s hero, who is able to convince room after room full of teens raised on Fox News that his politics of inclusion and hope can actually work for them. It’s a glimpse of a politics of malleability that’s only possible because the constituency is not yet 18. The thousand teenage boys already have strong feelings about abortion, about gun rights, about secession, and about Christian values. At one point, a candidate is compared favorably to Ben Shapiro.

Of course, Texas is America turned up to 11, and Boys State doubly so, which means the documentary isn’t exactly a window into the soul of the nation. Instead, it’s more like a telescope pointed directly at a political pundit’s brain. That makes Boys State the perfect film as we barrel toward the oddest and most consequential election in decades. I called Garza to understand what it felt like to be left of center and Latinx in a white, conservative space and what the septuagenarians running for president can learn from Gen Z. Boys State will premiere on Apple TV+ this Friday.

What was it like to first stand up in front of an auditorium full of white and conservative 17-year-olds as a Latinx teen? 
It was daunting. It was very, um — I don’t want to say the word “scary” because I never felt like my life was in danger or anything like that. But you’re the odd one out. Most of the kids who go there end up falling in one or more of the following categories: involved in sports at their school, involved in JROTC, they’re in the band, or they’re involved in student government. And me? I was the short, brown, stocky, quiet one with a camera crew on me. [Laughs.]

Going up and giving that first speech, I had no idea how it was going to go. I was very afraid of getting a lukewarm response. You see in that first speech, I start off very normal, in a quiet speaking voice, and the more receptive the crowd becomes to me, the louder my voice starts getting and they become more receptive to that, and then I start getting louder and louder to a crescendo at the end of the speech and they’re all standing and cheering. I was not expecting that reaction at all. I was just hoping not to get scattered claps and walk out feeling dumb.

As the week goes on and I’m being attacked for one of my positions, it’s especially weird having a whole room boo you. But you’ve got to hold your own and set an example.

“If you’re waiting for the kids to save you, pull back a second,” says Steven Garza, “because there are some people there that aren’t who you want them to be.” Photo: Apple TV+

It’s fascinating to see which topics became red-meat issues during the election. It’s not surprising that secession and gun rights would excite a room full of teenage boys, but I was shocked how much sway abortion rights had in that room. How do you think the teenagers at Boys State get their political education? From their parents? Their churches? The news?
I think a mixture of all of them. It was obvious that some of the kids were repeating what their parents were saying or what they would hear Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson say. Funny enough, I was very conservative in my youth. I’m still young, but I had some pretty conservative views when I was 12 or 13 that I had gotten because I had Fox News on and I was interested. But then, as I grew a little bit older, I’m like, This is propaganda. So I started reading more and learning and have formed the views I have today, which are left of center.

Something that doesn’t get caught in the film too much that I’m glad you touched on is when they’re making these arguments like, “We don’t punish the unborn child,” it’s a room full of teenage boys talking about abortion with no women in the room. I think it’s a perfect allegory of what national politics is like. There were so many times when I wanted to just stand up and tell everybody to shut the hell up. We have no business debating this, right? If Girls State wanted to talk about reproductive rights of men and say like, “Men have to get a vasectomy” or this or that, I think we would want to have a say in that.

There were so many times I just wanted to stand up, but I knew that if I did that, I’d get nowhere. My response was to continue treading carefully and walking this tightrope, and I was never asked about my views on abortion the entire week. If I had been asked, “What is your stance?” I would’ve said I’m pro-choice. But if I’m the only person running with these views on abortion, I’m not gonna get elected and I’m not gonna get anywhere and they’re just gonna elect somebody who is 100 percent pro-life and all that kind of stuff.

Still, it’s something that I’ve struggled with personally thinking about every time I watch the film: Was it wrong for me to not stand up? Or was it just out of political necessity to survive to not bring it up but make sure my actions will reflect what I actually believe? It’s still something that I think about a lot and talk to my female friends about. “What do you think I should’ve done?”

During your candidacy, the fact that you led a March for Our Lives demonstration becomes a talking point. When I went to the Black Lives Matter protest in Hollywood, it was amazing to see how many young people were there. How do you think that education on organizing for Gen Z has impacted the powerful response to this moment?
For Generation Z, we’ve always had the shadow of 9/11 on us. We’ve now been through two economic depressions — the Great Recession in 2008 and now the coronavirus economic depression — a pandemic, active-shooter drills. All of us find it really hard to be able to afford to pay for school. People are afraid of getting hurt because of their health care. It’s been rough, you know?

I think that our generation is the most politically involved generation since the 1960s, and that’s in part because of social media and people being able to get information quickly and to see things that they may have not seen in their small town or on their side of the city. So, it’s inspiring to see. I wanted to attend the protest but wasn’t able to because of COVID and my mom being more at risk — we all ended up getting COVID anyway. We’ve recovered now, but it sucked.

People give a lot of shit to Gen Z about young people not voting, young people not being involved. But it’s also like, when young people do get involved, they’re told to take a seat in the back. You want us to do all these things for you; you guys call us the saviors of the Earth, climate activists, Black Lives Matter activists, gun-reform activists. You’re like, “They’re the heroes. We need to follow their lead.” But when it comes time to give young people a seat at the table, it’s crickets. Some of the adults don’t want to give us a seat at the table, so we have to put our own seat there.

What do politicians and political journalists most misunderstand about your generation?
There’s the saying, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you vote.” But people don’t realize that Generation Z is more conservative than they think it is. And that’s due to parents and 24/7 news and things like that. Our generation is more susceptible to influence than any generation previously because of social media, disinformation, propaganda, fake news — not wanting to use that word in the Trump fashion. Their grandma will post something or their aunt will post something, and that’s the views they have.

I think the biggest misconception is believing that we’re all liberal. There’s a bunch of really kickass people leading the fight, but there’s also a part of the generation that is very conservative. You see that in the film. If you’re waiting for the kids to save you, pull back a second, because there are some people there that aren’t who you want them to be.

Obviously neither presidential candidate looks much like your generation or like you. How can a 77-year-old white guy from the Northeast energize the youth vote?
By listening to them and by adopting the positions that they want to see. Bernie Sanders, who’s also a 70-something-year-old white guy from the Northeast, was able to energize young people and win over the Latino demographic in every age bracket. And especially 18 to 34, winning them over by huge margins. How did he do that? Why couldn’t Biden’s campaign do the same thing?

Giving young people leadership roles in the campaign and holding roundtable discussions with them and understanding what they want to hear and giving them a seat at the table is the way to ensure that, one, Biden gets elected and, two, that he’ll have the ear of the young people who are the generation Biden is going to leave to run things. To make sure their needs are met and they feel they actually have a place in the future of the country is so important.

The most hopeful part of the film for me was seeing many of the conservative teenagers who subscribe to the racist beliefs of the president coming over to tell you how inspired they were by your speech. But still, it’s frustrating that they have to meet an exceptional Mexican-American to recognize the humanity of immigrants. Do you think that meeting you will actually change the way these future leaders of Texas live their lives? Is that pressure to be the “reasonable” liberal and the “good” Mexican-American exhausting?
A little bit. It’s a lot to have that extra weight on your shoulders knowing that it’s a lot harder for you to get people to listen to you. But I had people coming up to me that were saying things like, “Dude, I really disagree with everything you stand for, but I truly do believe you’re an honest person who truly wants to work with everybody to find the best solution for all our problems, so I’m gonna vote for you.”

It’s tough but it’s also kind of a responsibility to make sure that it’s easier for the next person that comes after me to be able to throw himself in there and not have to face that kind of fight. The fight of not only being a liberal in a conservative space but also being brown in a conservative space. Boys State isn’t something that most Hispanic teenagers would want to go to, but I hope that when the film comes out, they’re able to see that a brown person in a sea of white is able to run a campaign and win hearts and minds and make it as far as I did. I hope that the program becomes more representative of Texas; that people can see like, “He did it, so why can’t I?”

To be able to be that first person to throw yourself in there and inspire a new generation of Staters — because, again, the program has a lot of famous alumni [Bill Clinton, Corey Booker, Samuel Alito, and Dick Cheney went to their respective home states’ Boys State as teens] — for me, it’s a responsibility to make sure that the Boys Statesmen that come after me in the next few years know that it can be done.

When the film starts streaming, you’re going to become a bit of a political celebrity. How soon are you announcing that you’re running for office? Do you want to announce it right here?
[Laughs] I’m not sure that I ever will. I’m in college right now, and I’m studying political science. I hope to work on political campaigns. A dream scenario for me would be to work as a government staffer in a high-level position as some sort of adviser. If I were to do that for somebody, I’d be like, “Hey, mission accomplished.”

But if it ever comes up — like there’s a vacancy wherever I live for whatever office and nobody steps up with the right message or the right vision for the district or the area — then maybe then. If I do, I can’t wait for them to bring something I said when I was 17 to attack me when I’m in my 30s.

I gotta say: I think your 17-year-old public history is better than most. I haven’t seen your TikTok or anything, but I think you’re okay.
I’d never in a hundred million years do TikTok. My girlfriend loves it, but I never will. I like Twitter.

Can the Kids Can Save America?