In his recent article in The National Review, “In the Zombie World, Only the Conservatives Survive,” David French argues that zombie fiction (notably AMC’s The Walking Dead) “may be the most conservative fiction of all.”[i] I disagree.
French predicates his case on three claims: (1) in zombie fiction, the government is incompetent and almost immediately collapses; (2) you’ll only survive if you have a gun and know how to use it; and (3) people end up being the most dangerous animals of all in the post-apocalyptic world.
First of all, the points French makes certainly have some truth to them, but they offer only a partial view. First of all, conservatives can be as enamored of the government as any liberal—to the extent, of course, that government embodies conservative values. (Kim Davis, the Kentucky country clerk who’s refusing to sign marriage licenses for gays and lesbians comes to mind here.) Liberals and conservatives each love their own particular incarnations of the government. If anyone’s going to be dancing when the government inevitably collapses, it’ll be the libertarians.
Secondly, yes, you need a gun (or a katana or a cross-bow) in the zombie apocalypse. But, as the NRA loves to remind us, guns don’t kill people, people kill people—and having a gun, and surviving with it, always depends on who you are and who you’re with. As The Walking Dead and every single zombie fiction repeatedly shows us, there is strength in numbers: you survive only with a group. Yes, humans may be dangerous (French’s third point), but humans are also their own salvation, and the people you choose to ally yourself with are the single most important predictor of survival. More important than guns, in short, is community.
French’s article also gives the complexity of zombie narratives short shrift in failing to mention the ways in which they express what could only be called liberal values. I make this argument with due caution, recognizing that while many liberals carry guns and are suspicious of government, many conservatives will hold these so-called “liberal” views.
First of all, while zombie narratives do indeed depict the cataclysmic collapse of government, most of the survivors almost immediately seek to re-create some form of societal structure. They recognize that the social compact (call it government) does indeed serve as a bulwark against Thomas Hobbes’ famed “state of nature.”
In a memorable plotline in season two of The Walking Dead, the survivors are trying to figure out what to do with a stray survivor who may, they think, pose a threat to their group. The much-loved Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) insists that they hold a town hall meeting where they debate his fate: the vote doesn’t go Dale’s way—but democracy prevails. Everyone has his or her say. This isn’t a shoot-first-ask-questions-later moment, but a scene demonstrating the importance of mutual respect and cooperation. Democracy’s embers may have been flickering in the series, ever since Rick announced “This isn’t a democracy anymore” at the end of season two, but the loss of a democratic social structure is a tragedy that haunts the survivors and forcefully impels their struggle to find a safe place, so they can re-establish it.
The Walking Dead has also consistently embraced an ethos of caring for everyone—the “vatos” in season one stay behind to care for the elderly, abandoned by their caregivers, and Hershel, in season two, keeps walkers in the barn in hopes they’ll be cured. Survivor after survivor voices the opinion that the least among them should be cared for. Health care for everyone! It’s only the decidedly evil characters—the Governor—who engage in purposeful violence against some to preserve themselves.
That everyone in the post- apocalyptic world has a say, that everyone is cared for, are both offshoots of the profound social equality that shapes zombie fiction—surely one of its most progressive characteristics. The apocalypse razes everything to the ground, including inequality of all kinds—economic, racial, gendered, religious. And while the government may be gone (which many conservatives might well view as the happy demise of the engine behind wealth redistribution), well, so too is the free market (which many liberals might view as the engine behind social inequality). The same cataclysm that brings down the government also brings down Wall Street—and the collapse of capitalism is so complete and so profound that it’s not even depicted (unlike the collapse of the government).
And then the post-apocalyptic world brings us what can only be called a massive redistribution of goods. Remember Peter’s glee at being free to roam the gun shop at the mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? (1978). More recently, Donna is awed by the prospect of being able to choose a house in the fancy Wiltshire Estates in Robert Kirkman’s comic. Indeed, every zombie narrative plays with the fantasy of being able to live in houses (or malls) and get stuff you could never have afforded before the apocalypse.
In the end, though, the reason zombie fictions like The Walking Dead are so popular is that they are predicated on the rubble of both political parties—on the demise of all bifurcated and divisive political ideologies. As the Republican primary is proving right now, the majority of Republicans (and, I would suggest, a great many Democrats too) seem to wish nothing but “a plague on both their houses.” And that The Walking Dead most definitely delivers. It is post-politics-as-usual, including the violent debates over identity politics. In this particular post-apocalyptic world, you can be black, white, and everything in-between; you can be male or female, gay or straight, city or country, northern or southern. You just need to be able to use your talents and learn new ones, cooperate with others and, yes, learn how to use a gun.
[i] David French, “In the Zombie World, Only the Conservatives Survive,” The National Review, October 3, 2015. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/425026/walking-dead-zombie-fiction-conservative#offer.