In Boys State, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, filmmakers follow Feinstein and a group of young men participating in a high school summer leadership program in Austin as they’re tasked with building a mock state legislature from the ground up. This includes campaigning for state representatives, creating party platforms, holding elections and drafting and passing bills.
Politicians who partook in Boys State as teens over its 83-year history include former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and current U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, among others.
Feinstein, a graduate of Keystone School and a double amputee since the age of three, was elected as one of two state party chairmen from the 1,200 students who attended the 2018 edition of Boys State. In the documentary, he’s seen leading a campaign to elect his party’s candidate for governor.
“The principals of freedom, democracy and patriotism were embedded in me at a very young age,” Feinstein told the Current during an interview earlier this month. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to serve the country.”
Although Feinstein, at one time, aspired to enter politics, that’s no longer the case. For him, serving his country now means working as a civilian at the CIA or FBI. The change he’s seen his party go through since President Donald Trump took office prompted the change in plans.
Today, Feinstein considers himself “drifting” from the Republican Party. He’s seeking position where he can “stay in a neutral role.”
“I think the current political atmosphere is a little disheartening to me as someone who considered himself a Republican a few years ago,” he said. “I feel like some of the values and especially some of the language and statesmanship of the Republican Party has been lacking. The current party isn’t exactly what I’m looking for.”
What Feinstein is looking for now is a place where he can exercise his base-level principles.
“By working hard enough, anyone can accomplish anything they want in life,” he said.
Since losing both his legs and the use of his right arm after contracting bacterial meningitis as a little boy, Feinstein knows what it means to exceed expectations. He said he’s never used his disability as an advantage to get ahead.
“[My disability] is part of who I am,” he said. “Something my mom has taught me from a very young age is that if I need the accommodation, I should take it, but never take advantage of stuff just because you can. I always say that I should strive to overcome it. I shouldn’t rely on it and sink into complacency with it.”
Some of Feinstein’s personal mantras have also evolved over the past few years. At the beginning of Boys State, he explains why it is a “bad thing for this nation” when society keeps “focusing on … factors like race or gender or disability” and less on “individual failings.” When asked if he still feels minorities take advantage of the system by playing the race card, Feinstein’s answer is more nuanced.
“If you had asked me when I was 17 years old, when I had a lot less perspective on global issues, then I would’ve told you race wasn’t an issue, but that’s very obviously not true,” Feinstein said. “Racism is alive and real, but I think attaching everything to racism is selling people short on both sides.”
During one segment in Boys State, a young Black man who held the same position as Feinstein for the opposing party becomes the target of social media ridicule. Feinstein considers it “really gross racism.”
“Despite that, there were so many examples — in both parties and at every level — of Black, White and Hispanic kids all getting along and seeing each other as fellow citizens,” he said. “To account everything to race or to completely deny its existence is not accurate to human nature.”
In the past two years, Feinstein, who’s transferring to Dallas’ Southern Methodist University this fall after spending his freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said his ideas have “softened and grown more complex,” especially when it comes to identity politics.
“I’ve opened my eyes to a lot of things where I was ignorant,” he said. “I always broadly fit into this ideal that, ‘I am an American, and that’s all there is to it,’ because that’s always worked for me. That’s a very hard sell for someone who is constantly being judged on their personal identity. I can’t condemn that.”
In the end, Feinstein hopes a film such as Boys State can inspire more nonpartisanship during the turbulent political times Americans find themselves in.
“Our political system doesn’t work if we view the other party as the enemy,” he said. “I feel Boys State shows the power of believing in someone even if they’re not on your side.”
Boys State will debut on Apple TV+ on August
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