As the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead drew to a close last weekend, millions of fans were stunned and saddened as Hershel, the comic book-turned-TV-phenomenon's most endearing character, was slaughtered by the show's monocular psychopath, the "Governor."
Hershel is the heart and soul of the collection of survivors around whom The Walking Dead is based. He is a farmer, a father, a veterinarian, and the sage of the clan; he possesses an undying optimism about mankind, a sober clarity about human nature, and an intense belief in G-d even at a time when that faith is easily called into doubt.
Some commentators are confounded by the show's success -- from talk radio host Michael Medved to Fox's Bill O'Reilly. Medved did a segment a while back highlighting TV shows most popular with conservatives and liberals and was perplexed that The Walking Dead ranked high among conservatives. Although he had never watched the show, he wondered how religious conservatives could relate to reanimated humans when reanimation is antithetical to religious doctrine.
Then, with fans all atwitter in anticipation of the third season premiere, Bill O'Reilly took a few shots at the silly flesh-eaters and the "dead heads" who watch them.
Why is the show so popular, especially with conservatives? This is a no-brainer (pun intended).
The Walking Dead is well-produced and well-acted, and the character development is excellent. Viewers are immediately drawn into this surreal world of survivors: their human frailties, strengths, internal wrangling about whether to fight or give up, and their quest for normalcy. At the conclusion of most conflicts, there is usually a respite from the blood and bombs. But when the world's population has become zombified -- as will happen to the survivors when they die -- there is no end to this kind of existential battle. The living are always on the run.
The show is admittedly gory. It has to be. The only way zombies can survive is by consuming human flesh; the only way to die is by destroying the brain. With advances in technology and the materials used for make-up and costumes, it's amazing how real they can make it.
But real it is not. A "Zombie Apocalypse" is pure fantasy and escapism. It is so far-fetched that it can live only in our imaginations, where a freak experiment goes awry or an unanticipated genetic mutation reanimates the dead. The viewer can unhesitatingly sink his teeth (pun intended) into this imaginary story.
The difference between a zombie apocalypse and one brought on by aliens, nukes, acts of G-d, or real-life plagues is that the latter four fall within the realm of the possible and would decimate -- not reanimate -- the world's population. They aren't fun to watch, because they touch a fear and worry deep inside each of us. (The word is still out on aliens -- if they exist, they could be friendlies or enemies. But, I submit, it is more likely we'll encounter aliens before we develop a virus that zombifies us.)
There is nothing overtly political about The Walking Dead. Without taking a conservative or liberal stance on any of the situations in which the characters find themselves, they are constantly confronting legal, moral, and philosophical conundrums that require some kind of resolution. Because the living are rebuilding something of a society while trying to survive -- in a lawless world, with dwindling resources, surrounded by death -- their struggles connect with principles conservatives hold dear: self-reliance, personal responsibility, building a civil society in an uncivil world, creating realistic rules to live by that comport with our moral compass but allow us to survive amidst lawlessness, weighing and making moral and ethical decisions that preserve individual liberty while balancing it against that which is best for the common weal.
The show is about persevering in the face of annihilation, remaining tenacious when the odds are stacked against you, employing survival techniques and self-reliance while developing interpersonal relationships with people you don't know and have no reason to trust but must rely upon anyway. Viewers must grapple with the desperation the characters experience and how it often compels them to behave in ways they normally would never condone. Is it right to put one's family above others? Should groups share food, resources, and munitions and work together to stay alive, or is it literally every man for himself? Should one bring children into this world? When is it acceptable and not criminal to kill another person? (At some point, everyone will have to kill someone he or she once loved.) How do you know if others are a threat? If they are, do you preemptively kill them or wait until they show their hand, when it might be too late?
In this post-apocalyptic world filled with more zombies than human beings, survivors must come to grips with the reality that the enemy can't think, can't reason, can't feel, can't talk, can't relate, can't build, can't create, can't share, can't change, can't be trained or negotiated with. They exist to eat you. They don't discriminate among the old, sick, pregnant, young, smart, or stupid. They show no mercy, have no plan, and are driven by no motives. They are pure destruction.
Zombies act in concert. If one smells human flesh and starts moaning and dragging his mangled, decrepit body toward the source, they all do, sometimes in herds thousands strong. They simply respond. The ultimate "groupthink."
While fantasy's zombies lack cognitive function, today's real-world humans do not. Yet how often do members in our society behave in a "groupthink" mode -- responding viscerally, neglecting to exercise independent thought, failing to question their behavior, yearnings, and motives?
Maybe conservatives detect a lot of zombie-like groupthink behavior in the liberal community.
Talk to any college student, and you'll be flabbergasted at the excessive use of drugs, alcohol, and sex just because they want to do it. Perhaps this is what leads some black youths to "knock out" whites, Jews, Asians, and the elderly for no apparent reason. Maybe this is what accounts for hysterical shopping on Black Friday, when customers buy stuff just because that's what the crowd is on line to purchase. Perhaps blindly following the media message is what motivated over 50% of this country to re-elect a president whose record they clearly didn't scrutinize. And what could be more zombie-like than drafting, passing, and enforcing a 2,200-page bill "just because," without knowing its content?
Too many living beings in our world respond with minimal, if any, rational thought. Zombies have excuses to behave the way they do. With our cognitive abilities, we do not.
Conservatives correctly conclude that today's progressive zombie army is destroying morality, responsibility, civility, and liberty. We are struggling to survive in a morally bankrupt, fiscally apocalyptic world where instinct reigns over reason. Not only must we battle the progressive zombies who threaten our humanity, civility, and society, but because of them, we are often compelled to fight amongst ourselves. We see this currently playing out within the GOP as moderates, establishment types, social conservatives, and Tea Partiers clash over the direction the party should take.
Internecine wars also break out among the survivors in The Walking Dead, where one group kills another to confiscate resources. For many living in a world where survival is all that matters, if someone has supplies that could prolong your life, you commandeer what you want. You don't ask to be included in their bounty. You don't live in peace next to each other despite disparities in access to resources. You do what's necessary to make what was theirs yours. With the flick of a virus or genetic mutation, man is reduced to the basest Hobbesian state. This is what the Zombie Apocalypse hath wrought.
Similarly, progressives want nothing more than to take from those who have and give to those who have not -- by whatever means necessary. While the goal of giving to those less fortunate is worthy, it is meaningless when the sharing is non-consensual and executed with brute force. There are better ways, and Hershel's group has figured out how to cultivate a community of the living in a dead world, and to fight to the death only when necessary. To be part of their budding society, the unspoken covenant is twofold: there is no place in the group for those who threaten it, and, once taken in, everyone must do his part. These warriors have learned not to sacrifice their humanity on the altar of survival at all costs.
As conservatives search for the right path to thrive in a withering America, we must not be distracted from the imminent, external threats by focusing instead on disagreements within -- that is, eating our own (pun intended). We have the advantage over our zombie-like opponents of reason and the ability to analyze and think clearly about our predicament. If we target those lifeless menaces to our prosperity, civility, and liberty, we should be able to politically obliterate the walking dead among us and restore the shining city on the hill.