Politics & Policy

In the Zombie World, Only the Conservative Survive

(Roman Genn)
From the September 21, 2015, issue of NR

The Obama era is the era of the zombie. It is a strange irony that the politician of “hope and change” has presided over a pop-culture world dominated by shuffling, moaning, undead cannibals who mindlessly rule a post-government apocalyptic landscape. In theaters, we’ve seen zombie blockbusters, zombie comedies, and even sweet zombie romances. But the zombie colossus, the rotting king of this macabre world, is AMC’s The Walking Dead franchise.

The Walking Dead (TWD to fans) is rewriting the rules of television. Shows aren’t supposed to keep getting more popular every year, year after year. TWD does. Basic cable isn’t supposed to beat broadcast channels in the ratings. TWD rules the ratings in the key demographics. And in the era of targeted television, where the universally loved “water-cooler show” — the one that everyone talks about at work — was thought to be a thing of the past, TWD is appointment viewing for young and old, Left and Right. Its characters have reached first-name status with the American people.

And TWD is now replicating itself. In August AMC debuted its TWD spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead (let’s just call it Fear). Ratings were spectacular, breaking records for basic cable and once again dominating the broadcast networks. Fear begins slightly before TWD, so where TWD started after the apocalypse — with the lead character, Rick Grimes, waking up from a coma in a desolate, bloody hospital ward — Fear viewers get to watch the apocalypse happen in real time.

And make no mistake, the end is coming. The show begins in an atmosphere of dread. Helicopters constantly hover overhead. Sirens are omnipresent. One gets the feeling that something is happening, but the public is largely oblivious. The first zombies pop up in heroin shooting galleries, and when police are filmed gunning down an undead aggressor — filling it full of holes until the final, fatal “kill shot” to the head — the public assumes it’s an act of brutality, not self-defense. No one believes the impossible (as no one would), so characters do incandescently stupid things, like investigating abandoned churches in the middle of the night, armed only with a flashlight.

#share#But they’ll wake up to the terrifying reality soon enough — and that’s when the genre’s inherent conservatism kicks in. In fact, zombie fiction may be the most conservative fiction of all, drawing its dramatic energy from three principles every good Republican should understand: The government is incompetent and prone to collapse under pressure; the person who survives is the person who either knows how to shoot or learns quickly; and even when cities are overrun with undead, a living man is still the most dangerous animal of all.

If government is — to borrow Barney Frank’s memorable definition — the “name we give to the things we choose to do together,” then in zombie fiction like TWD, the things everyone chooses to do together include panicking, lying, and displaying breathtaking incompetence. To be fair, zombie fiction would be boring indeed if the first undead outbreak were promptly squashed by a squad of bureaucrats from the Centers for Disease Control. Yet even relatively government-friendly fiction, such as the bestselling book World War Z, features a series of catastrophic mistakes before the ship of state finally rights itself. In brief, in zombie world, the man who relies on the government for his safety will be zombie chow in short order.

In zombie world, the man who relies on the government for his safety will be zombie chow in short order.

So who lives? Well, it’s not Pajama Boy. In zombieland, there are three kinds of people: those who know how to use guns, those who learn how to use guns, and zombies. At the beginning of TWD there were a few characters who stubbornly clung to their pre-apocalypse fear and hatred of firearms. Those people are now dead. Yes, one can learn to use other weapons. TWD’s beloved Daryl — the most admired redneck in television history — uses a crossbow as his weapon of choice, while his friend Michonne is adept with the katana, but the gun is still king. (How beloved is Daryl? There are millions of TWD fans who begin every episode with aching concern for his safety. If the show killed him off, cities might burn.)

Oh, and the zombie universe has no use for idealism. Indeed, TWD has made a cottage industry of finding and destroying tiny post-apocalyptic utopias. Season 2 wrecked an idyllic farm, where a family hoped to ride out the crisis. In Season 3, the fortress town of Woodbury — led by a homicidal maniac called The Governor — is the scene of a bloodbath. The list could go on. The utopias fail because living people are far more dangerous than the zombies themselves. They kill through naïveté and wishful thinking, and they kill through sheer bloody-mindedness. The groups that survive are the ones whose members understand that trust is hard-earned and there is no such thing as a “safe space.” In other words, man is fallen, and you either remember that fact or you die.

Yet despite these premises, the Left loves this show. Read Huffington Post or Salon or virtually any other lefty site that follows pop culture, and they’re dissecting TWD, breaking down and analyzing episodes with loving care. The Left even tries to import identity politics into the show, pitching online fits when black characters are killed off disproportionately, demanding to see more gay survivors, and generally carping until the cast is as diverse as an Ivy League recruiting brochure. But none of these complaints touch the fundamental, underlying conservative realities. It’s as if painting a battleship in rainbow colors could fool the Left into thinking it isn’t a machine of war.

Where are the think pieces demanding to know why the government failed so miserably? Where’s the 8,000-word essay describing how Cambridge, Mass., would ride out the storm with technocratic efficiency while Mississippi crackers would aimlessly wander around the Delta, munching on each other? Why are there no real challenges to the lack of trust on the show, to the inevitable revelation that idealism is the path to the grave?

Yes, TWD, Fear, and the rest of the zombie universe is fiction, but even zombie fiction isn’t plausible or enjoyable unless it’s grounded in some perceived reality of humanity and human nature. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of self-reflection from liberal zombie fans. Why is it so darn believable that the government would go belly-up so quickly? Why do you watch these shows, sometimes even yelling at the screens when characters are too trusting, too naïve? Perhaps experience has taught you some things about human nature that you’re not quite ready to import into your politics.

There’s nothing new about conflicts between experience and politics. Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, marveled at the extent to which prosperous “blue” families live lives marked by traditional morality — intact, faithful, mother-father families — all the while applauding sexual-revolution mores and ethics. In other words, they live values they refuse to espouse.

It is said that the facts of life are conservative. And so are the facts of fiction — especially zombie fiction.

When liberals watch the government collapse, they’re watching with their last trip to the DMV in mind, or their frustrating encounters with public schools, or — heaven forbid — any form of contact with the Department of Veterans Affairs. When they watch the utopias burn, they’re seeing the will to power in their own colleagues, the way that even like-minded people will so quickly turn on all but their closest friends (and sometimes even their closest friends) when they sense the possibility of personal advantage. When they roll their eyes at characters who can’t or won’t use guns, they’re . . . well, then they’re just using common sense. Even the editorial board of the Village Voice knows you don’t walk through a zombie herd without an assault rifle and — yes — a high-capacity magazine.

It is said that the facts of life are conservative. And so are the facts of fiction — especially zombie fiction. So, if you can handle the gore, watch The Walking Dead unreservedly. You’ll find that its diverse cast is governed by an unseen code: Live by conservatism, die by liberalism, and the only way you give up your Smith & Wesson is if someone pries it from your rotting, zombified hand.

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review. This article originally appeared in the September 21, 2015, issue of National Review.

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