In the future, when students of culture and history examine the current decade, they’ll undoubtedly devote great attention to the growth of science fiction, fantasy and superheroes. But if they want to understand how the mood in the West shifted to the right, the answer is waiting for them in “The Walking Dead.”
The television series may be a hit across the entire political spectrum, but the messages it sends from its bloody world seem to have been drawn from the election platforms of the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties.
“The Walking Dead” ended its seventh season this month with fewer viewers than in the past, but it’s still the most watched series on cable television in the United States.
In this post-apocalyptic world, the vast majority of the human race has been turned into zombies, while a small minority of survivors live in constant fear. A zombie can be hiding around every corner, and just one bite means the end. We quickly learn that the zombies are only the secondary threat even worse are the surviving humans we meet in this lawless world.
Robert Kirkman’s comic-book series spawned this successful show, an interesting thought experiment with clear roots in the doctrine of moral enlightenment. In particular, the roots are in “the state of nature,” the hypothetical state before the appearance of civilization based on conjecture over how humans acted without the limitations of society and law.
The disgust many have for “The Walking Dead” may lie in the repulsive zombies, but actually they’re just the backdrop for a world where man can’t live alone but can’t build a new society either.
This is how the moral discussion on the “state of nature” at the heart of the series begins. It focuses on the lead character Rick Grimes, who finds himself leading a small band in a dangerous world in which any stranger might kill you for a can of food, or just because he can.
Bubbling up from under the surface are the age-old questions: What is the force of morality in a world where there’s no one to enforce it? Are rights truly natural or a product of an abundant society? How can a society be maintained when every stranger can turn out to be a threat? Is compassion a privilege of the well fed?
Despite all the dilemmas and mistakes, Rick and his group are portrayed as the winning combination for human existence in this dangerous world: a small group that takes care of itself and is loyal only to its own members, with the group's survival the ultimate value.
Other communities in the series are intended to show where Rick and his people are located on the moral spectrum. The cannibals in Terminus and the character of the Governor lack any morality, so their fate is to be killed. The residents of Alexandria, whose wall blocks out the zombies, are naive, so their fate is to die too.
These two extremes position Rick and his band as the representatives of morality in the new world, similar to the campaign platforms of right-wing parties. This is a morality that doesn’t extend beyond the community’s borders. It offers compassion, solidarity and all the recognizable values of humanity, but not for outsiders. Rick and other right-wingers would call this being “realistic.”
Prof. Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst told the pop culture website Vulture that the show espouses a fascist ideology. This may be an extreme claim, but the conclusion that the series expresses right-wing values has been confirmed by Jared Kushner. According to Forbes, the Republican campaign identified a large overlap between the audience of “The Walking Dead” and potential voters for Donald Trump. So during the presidential election campaign hefty funds were devoted to Trump ads during the program, as well as on social networking sites for fans of the show.
The bases for “The Walking Dead” are all out of the 21st century’s political right: a life-and-death line between “I” and “the other,” a fear of the masses of “strangers” who could breach the borders, and an emphasis on social cohesion over universal values.
This insight was at the heart of a fascinating debate in the conservative magazine National Review. In his column, Jonah Goldberg enthusiastically supported the series’ values, but he said he found one flaw: “I have a hard time believing you could have a community like Alexandria exist in such innocence for so long after the End of the World.”
National Review’s Mario Loyola responded in his own column: “Alas, that suicidal innocence is all too familiar. For countless millions, the 20th century might as well have been the End of the World. In some places, like the ISIS territory, a kind of zombie apocalypse continues this very day.
“And yet here we are in Alexandria, comfortable in the fantasy that we’re prepared for what’s coming next.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t have phrased it better.