Why Zombie Politics Resonate

Game of Thrones (HBO)

Both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are obliged by the nature of their dramatic structures to consider the fundamental questions of politics, and both invite deeply conservative interpretations.

Conservatives are acutely aware of our pop-cultural deficit, and sometimes argue that we need more conservative stories on film, on television, on stage, in books, etc. But we do not need more stories that are conservative — we need more stories that are true.

The great works of art that appeal to the conservative sensibility rarely if ever are constructed as self-consciously conservative stories — propagandistic literature lends itself more readily to progressive causes, in any case. What Coriolanus tells us about populism and mass politics is not true because it is conservative but conservative because it is true. The relationship between the beautiful and the true helps to explain how it is that so many actual Communists in Hollywood’s golden age produced works that were moving, true, often patriotic, often speaking to religious faith, and in many cases profoundly conservative. They weren’t out to make something right-wing, but something great.

I doubt very much that either Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead is the product of an overwhelmingly conservative group of storytellers. (From what I can learn of the politics of the writers, that does not seem to be the case.) But both shows are obliged by the nature of their dramatic structures to consider the fundamental questions of politics, and both invite deeply conservative interpretations.

The Walking Dead is, at this point, a show that is only incidentally about zombies. It is mainly a story about the origins of political order, one that has taken several different approaches to Mancur Olson’s idea of the state as a “stationary bandit.” Olson argues that political order has its origins in ordinary rapine and pillaging — at some point, his theory goes, the bandit begins to understand that his own interests are better served not by razing the villages, massacring the farmers, and burning the fields, but by leaving his victims with just enough to survive and to continue producing — so that there is something for him to loot next season. (Murray Rothbard and others made similar arguments describing the origins of the state as organized crime.) As the bandit begins to identify his own long-term well-being with that of his victims, he discovers incentives to stay in one place rather than roam hither and yon in search of new victims — a dangerous undertaking even for the most ruthless of bandits. He takes a proprietary interest in his victims’ property, which he begins to protect from rival bandits. The spoils of pillage become tribute, feudal duties, and, ultimately, taxation.

But reality is not much like “Whig history,” in which mankind and its polities move inevitably and invariably in the direction of progress and prosperity. Nations move backward and forward: Part of the shock and horror of the Holocaust is the result of the fact that it was undertaken not by a tribe of illiterate cannibals but by what had been Europe’s most culturally advanced nation. Venezuela has not always been what it is today. Neither has the United States.

The first part of The Walking Dead’s broad political arc has to do with the attempts of former sheriff Rick Grimes, a partisan of the law in a totemic lawman’s hat, to establish something like the rule of law in the post-apocalyptic chaos. He tries a bit of democracy and finds that wanting, but he continues to work toward a settlement based on rules and procedure rather than ad hoc savagery. And he fails. Much of the plot is the story of Grimes devolving into just another wasteland warlord, albeit one with some conscience and sense of decency. As the survivors begin to coalesce into semi-permanent settlements, they deputize one of their members to draw up a constitution — but a series of crises turns her into one of the coldest warlords of all. She is not a bad person, but the opposite: loving, loyal, fair-minded, deeply humane. She becomes a kind of left-handed military dictator not because of her vices but because of her virtues. She ends up being a kind of mirror image of the nefarious Negan, another warlord who sought not violence and domination for its own sake but order and security.

Many of the characters from The Walking Dead would quickly understand the facts on the ground in Westeros, the troubled kingdom(s) in which Game of Thrones’s titular contest takes place. Game of Thrones is, at its core, a Shakespearean succession drama: Something is out of place in the state, and the gears of the social machine must grind until a new stable settlement is reached. (Game of Thrones’s opening sequence, which presents Westeros as a series of complex machines, is well-conceived.) To Shakespeare’s political sensibility it adds a Dickensian scope, considering the life of the kingdom from many different vantage points: kings and courtiers, yes, but also slaves and prostitutes, religious leaders, children, common people, and literal outsiders, the “wildlings” who live beyond the wall that demarks the northern limits of civilization.

The unhappy reality at the center of the political economy of Game of Thrones is one of particular interest in the Western world just now: that, as the proverb has it, great men seldom are good men, that the characteristics that make one an effective leader — a leader who is genuinely of use to his people — often are the characteristics that make one a god-awful human being. And the converse: that many of the virtues of good men make them poor leaders in difficult times. Jon Snow, who recently (and at the most inconvenient of times) has learned that he is presumably the legal heir to the Iron Throne, is a decent, fair-minded, liberal man — and an almost completely incompetent leader of men. His first real command (of the border patrol, essentially) ends with him being murdered by mutineers. (He is resurrected.) In trying to unite the kingdoms against the same threat that Sheriff Grimes et al. faced – zombies — he ends up getting romantically involved with the conquering Daenerys Targaryen, who believes herself to be entitled to sit on the throne. (She is also his aunt, but he did not know that when he first went to bed with her.) That romantic entanglement leads enemies and allies both to question his motives and calculations — and not without good reason.

Daenerys, on the other hand, is a power-mad megalomaniac — and, so far, a much more effective leader. She may be traveling the world freeing slaves, handing down rough justice, and building multinational coalitions for her own selfish reasons, but she understands her own reasons. She knows what she wants, and that she has to give the people she rules what they need if she is to achieve her own ambitions. This is not a matter of mere calculation: Like most successful megalomaniacs, she sincerely believes that her own destiny is fundamentally identified with the good of the people she rules and those she means to rule. She can be transactional when necessary, and will take good advice when she recognizes it, but she is a true believer, too: in herself.

The Walking Dead offers its survivors a couple of clear choices: They can have peace, trade, security, material prosperity, the rule of law, and cooperation, or they can have slaughter and brigandage. The choice would be obvious to almost everyone — if not for the presence of the external threat and the trauma of social collapse. Game of Thrones offers a less clear choice, but does make an implicit case for things like federalism and the separation of powers, inasmuch as most of the Seven Kingdoms’ domestic troubles come from the fact that whoever sits on the Iron Throne expects not only to reign but to rule, and that the very different peoples of the kingdoms are, corporately, ungovernable — not even by terror, as the assassination of the Mad King makes clear. Again, it is possible to imagine how a modus vivendi might have evolved, if not for the external threat of the White Walkers and the privations of the long winter.

That these stories should resonate so strongly in our own political moment is a little strange. Unlike, say, at the height of the Cold War, there is no existential foreign threat to the United States and our way of life. Unlike, say, 1968 or 1861, there isn’t very much in the way of political violence at home, either. These are reasonably peaceful and prosperous times.

But our mood is not the mood of peaceful and prosperous times. That is, I think, the result of a series of earlier crises, minor and major, that were stacked on top of one another in a particularly destructive way: the convulsion of the 2000 presidential election, in which many Democrats believed (with varying degrees of good faith) that they were robbed by the Supreme Court; the events of September 11, 2001, shortly thereafter; the sense of paranoia and crisis on both sides of the political aisle that followed; the confusion about the Iraq War and its casus belli; the 2008–09 financial crisis; that extraconstitutional abuses of the Obama administration and the criminal misdeeds of the IRS and other agencies during those years; the emergence of procedural maximalism as a congressional political norm. Even with the Soviet menace, Vietnam, stagflation, etc., the majority of Americans spent most of the postwar era feeling relatively safe and secure in a way that no longer really holds. There is a sense that our constitutional order has fallen into disorder, that the system — as figures as different as Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren insist — is rigged.

And so our minds naturally turn to the basic questions of politics. By what sort of people do we want to be led? On what terms? Within what limits? To what ends?

You won’t get much of that from our elected officials, the professional commentators, or the academic philosophers. If you want to get a real feel for our politics, you’ll have to turn to a couple of dopey television shows about zombies.

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