Alexis de Tocqueville and the Walking Dead

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Sally Zelikovsky beat me to the subject of the TV series, The Walking Dead, with her excellent AT article on December 4. Given her spoiler alert, I had to postpone reading the article until I finished watching the fourth season on VuDu — the first three seasons are available on Netflix.

Those who might want to watch The Walking Dead can safely read this article. It contains no hard spoilers. I write this to explore further why a show about zombies appeals to conservatives. I also hope to address the concerns of those commenters on this site whose critiques begin with the unhelpful lead, “I haven’t seen The Walking Dead but . . . . ”

In essence, the show functions as a highly compelling political science lab. It attempts to answer the question of how people organize themselves politically when social order breaks down. It deals not with people in general, and certainly not with people in an illusory state of nature, but rather with the residents of contemporary Georgia.

What makes the show work is that its creators do a much more thoughtful job of imagining such a world than have others who have tried the same. I think here of works like The Road, the Book of Eli, Waterworld, and the Mad Max series. In each of these, the clusters of humanity that survive resemble nothing so much as the San Berdoo chapter of the Hell’s Angels during a meth drought.

The creators of The Walking Dead understand that survival in a disordered world begins with self-governance. Those who cannot govern themselves cannot freely associate with others in any kind of enduring contract. In this regard, the show is all but explicitly Tocquevillian. Long before there was a zombie uprising, Tocqueville described the kind of citizen who prospers in a free society:

Why then does he obey society and what are the normal limits of his obedience? He obeys not because he holds an inferior position to those who run the administration or is less capable than his neighbor of self-government but because he recognizes the usefulness of his association with his fellow men and because he knows that this association cannot exist without a regulating power.

The protagonist cluster — let’s call this group the “Tocquevillians” — struggles its way to a social contract that allows its members to endure while others around them are dying. At the heart of that contract is a fundamental understanding central to Democracy in America, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” Although the Tocquevillians’ Judeo-Christian value system is never preached, it informs every tough decision they make.

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