The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our collective zombie obsession is an allegory for congressional dysfunction

Our politics leads us to the catharsis of apocalyptic entertainment. Unfortunately, the politics are still there when the movie ends.

Zombies–they’re entertaining until they inhabit your politics. (CBS News)

For reasons I’d prefer not to think about, I’ve become a dedicated fan of apocalyptic entertainment, which, as far as I can tell, is proliferating like the zombies whose butts Brad Pitt so thoroughly kicks in World War Z. But while my personal motivation is off-limits, what’s interesting is: Why now? The answer, I believe, relates to a theme I’ve stressed often — the lost ability of governments to absorb factual information, diagnose problems and implement solutions.

First, although I’m a novice, it helps to organize a typology. As alluded to above, there’s the zombie genre, with both your standard undead (e.g., Warm Bodies, which is fun and sweet even amidst the brain-eating) and those possessed by a maniacal virus (the aforementioned World War Z, not at all fun or sweet). Then there’s the subgenre of apocalypse born of the failure of the electric grid, including Goodbye World and Revolution, which link to either terrorism (see also How I Live Now) or failed government. Most recently, I’ve been watching Falling Skies, where an alien invasion kicks off the fun.

It’s easy to be historically chauvinistic. In fact, there have of course been other moments in history, even within my lifetime, where events raised the specter of massive societal failure and triggered similar waves of cathartic movies and shows. The proliferation of nuclear weaponry and environmental degradation, for example — I was one of more than 100 million who watched The Day After (nuclear war between the United States and the Soviets) in 1983.

But I think there’s more of this sort of thing today. And it’s not just grownup stuff — you should see the extensive dystopia book collection owned by my 14-year-old. And I’m not just talking The Hunger Games. Have you read the Gregor the Overlander series? (If not, you should; I loved it) I don’t remember much like that from my early teen years. I mean, society’s failures and hypocrisies are certainly at the heart of Catcher in the Rye, but it’s not children fighting each other to the death for the elites’ entertainment.

So what’s the political economy of all this?

Starting with the The Hunger Games (and this new film Snowpiecer also fits here), the extent of economic inequality and how impervious it seems to intervention is surely a motivator. During the last business cycle, unregulated finance inflated yet another massive bubble, leading to the deepest recession since the Depression. And yet, the banking elites continue to rule. Bailed out by the rest of us, they recovered first (back from the dead!) even while the middle class still lags. And as their strength has returned, they’re using it to block financial regulation and “re-domicile” their corporate mailboxes abroad to avoid taxes, all the while arguing that this is really what’s best for the rest of us, as the benefits of their actions will soon trickle down.

It seems fitting to note here that such so-called “supply-side tax policy” is often called “zombie economics” because while it long ago died from the lack of evidentiary oxygen, it yet lives on in the halls of power.

Then there’s government failure. I had a distinctly apocalyptic conversation the other day with an energy expert explaining to me the fragility of the national grid and the impossibility of getting Congress to focus on it. Now, most people don’t get to have those conversations (lucky me!), but they surely sense what’s going on.

And there’s a critical interaction here between our inability to do anything much about climate change, the increasing intensity of weather events and the failure of our energy infrastructure. After listening to my friend, the decision of Adrian Grenier to get the hell off the grid (Goodbye World) made a lot more sense to me.

Same with guns, immigrants (undocumented “aliens” from outer space Central America), and the rest of the infrastructure. I’m not saying it’s as simple as Rep. Michelle Bachmann announcing that it’s fine for the United States to default on its public debt and we start subconsciously worrying about the coming apocalypse, but … hmmm … actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

At least for now, we live in a world where climate change is a hoax, trickle-down economics lifts the middle class, the solution to mass killings is more guns, the folks that crashed the economy get bailouts and tax breaks, public infrastructure can safely be ignored, migrant children can be pilloried, we can have all the government we want and not have to pay for it. Moreover, government fails on an almost daily basis to challenge or change that world — to the contrary, backed by the increasing influence of concentrated wealth, it reinforces it. In such a world, we can all be forgiven for walking around in a bit of an apocalyptic daze.

Of course, pretty much all of these movies and shows I’ve cited end on a happy note. The love of a hot girl brings the zombie boy back to life; the aliens are vanquished; the electricity comes back on, or even if it doesn’t, we all happily revert back to a simpler time before it existed.

In the real world, we’re stuck with the government we have and all the perverse outcomes ticked off above. And that’s so damn scary you just want to forget about it, check your brain at the door and watch a movie … and hope that nobody eats your brain during the show.