My article for The Huffington Post (23 October 2013) on the way zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead deals with democracy. Much better than most political fiction, I argued.
One of the seminal moments so far in The Walking Dead – which returned to Fox this week – came at the end of the show’s second season. The small band of survivors we follow were stranded in the woods in the middle of the night, having narrowly escaped death when their farm was overrun by a migrating herd of ‘walkers’. Our hero Rick Grimes, covered in the blood of his best friend, interrupted a debate among the group about what to do next and announced he alone would be the one to decide. ‘This isn’t a democracy anymore,’ he said, and none dared challenge him. The handgun he was waving around at the time probably helped.
Rick’s declaration reflected real-life concerns about the future of democracy. Last year Democratic Audit’s extensive study of the quality of democracy in the UK found it was in long-term, potentially terminal decline. The Economist’s Philip Coggan has warned of the existential threats to democracy across the West posed by debt, financial crisis and inequality. Even Francis Fukuyama, who declared the historical victory of liberal democracy twenty years ago, has more recently been wondering why large parts of the world have failed to move beyond autocracy.
Some of us are less worried about this than others. Philosopher Roger Scruton recently got himself in the news by asking whether democracy is overrated. There are many Americans who might just have answered yes before their elected representatives finally agreed to end the shutdown of the US federal government after two weeks of political stalemate. Many Egyptians were disappointed enough in their own choice of president after the Arab Spring that they welcomed his overthrow by the military.
No surprise, then, that we can imagine democracy being abandoned under the extreme stress of a zombie apocalypse. Prior to this moment, however, Rick had ruled by consent. Although never formally selected to lead the group, as a former sheriff he possessed the natural authority and the combat skills necessary for the job. He was – to borrow Bagehot’sfamously inaccurate description of the relationship of British Prime Ministers to their Cabinets – first among equals.
Rick’s power was never absolute. Earlier in season two, for instance, when the survivors had to decide whether to execute a prisoner, the issue was put to a vote. In season one, Rick was powerless as Andrea refused to kill her infected sister, and later when the Morales family chose to leave the group, despite the threat posed in both instances. Rick’s rule was akin to the emergency powers governments grant themselves in times of war. In the face of imminent danger he took charge, but beyond that he could achieve nothing without negotiation and compromise.
For some reason the world found it quite difficult to work out how to describe events in Egypt as President Morsi was removed from office. In The Walking Dead, by contrast, there is no doubt that Rick enacted a ‘coup’. Unlike in Egypt, nobody suggested this was a temporary suspension of democracy. During season three Rick went on to make a series of unpopular and sometimes irrational decisions. He decided the group were going enter the interior of the prison, then cast out Tyreese and Sasha, and finally hand over Michonne to the Governor, his dictatorial counterpart in the nearby town of Woodbury. On every occasion he overruled objections from the others, with consultation limited to Rick’s inner circle of senior allies.
For the start of season four, however, The Walking Dead has pressed the reset button on democracy. There was no revolution, no Apocalypse Spring was needed to overthrow the oppressor. Rick made a unilateral decision to submit himself to the wishes of the group, conveniently declaring his earlier coup a mistake. Still, to make post-apocalyptic democracy function the survivors are going to face some difficult choices.
The first set of choices concern the membership of the political community. At the end of season three Rick invited the remaining residents of Woodbury to live in his prison, swelling the population. Are these latecomers citizens in the new democracy, with equal rights to the original members? If yes, they will outnumber the originals and effectively control political power if acting as a united bloc. This is a problem we are still grappling with in Britain today: note Migration Watch’s recent proposal to strip one million Commonwealth citizens of their right to vote in general elections.
How will the new democracy treat its youngest members? Ed Miliband has recently proposed extending the franchise in Britain to 16 and 17 year olds, an idea met with awithering response from some democratic theorists. At the end of season three, teenagers Carl and Beth had not reached the age where they would have been allowed to vote pre-apocalypse. Yet they have important responsibilities with the group, including defending it against enemies both living and dead. Arguments we hear today about those below 18 not being mature enough to participate in politics surely do not apply when post-apocalyptic teenagers are expected to put down a couple of zombies before breakfast.
A second thorny issue to contend with is that of political leadership. The expectation must be that democratic Rick will continue to play the most prominent role in the group’s decision-making. How will he establish the authority of his position? Even assuming some sort of election is held to appoint him formally as leader, the lack of choice on offer may undermine his democratic credentials. Rick killed his main rival, Shane, in self-defence, shortly before his season two coup. As with Gordon Brown’s ‘coronation‘ in the Labour leadership election of 2007 – not to mention the flawed elections held in authoritarian states to keep the likes of Vladimir Putin in power – the absence of a credible opponent will weaken Rick’s claim to electoral legitimacy.
The way in which the show explores these issues will be an important test of how we portray democracy in popular culture. While there are honourable exceptions, such as Borgen, most television shows about contemporary democracy tend to focus on the corruption, selfishness or incompetence of politicians, with these traits usually exaggerated for comedic or dramatic effect. The Thick Of It, State of Play, House of Cards, and Scandal are all in this mould. Who would have thought it would take the adaptation of a zombie horror comic book to portray democracy a little more realistically.
Image: Roland Molnar