Want to understand the US election? Watch the Walking Dead

Wait, hold on–don’t actually watch The Walking Dead. It’s terrible. But it is a guilty pleasure for me and for my brother, a PhD student in philosophy and religion. I watch it to get him to explain to me the difference between Rousseau and Hobbes, and to laugh at yankees who fail at Southern accents. Here’s all you need to know about the show: A zombifying virus spreads all over the world. Roving herds of humans have to survive under constant threat by roving herds of nasty zombies and roving herds of nasty humans. Six seasons of that.
What’s intriguing about the show is that different groups develop different rules for how to survive. One be-the-change-you-wish-to-see-in-the-world character refuses ever to kill another human. Another group kills everyone they come across. Then there was this one called The Governor who, when one character asks him how he could kill another man’s children if he had his own, responds “Because they aren’t mine.”


Some of these groups win; others lose. Here’s the lesson for the 2016 political election: There are multiple ways to win. And winning involves three things: Explaining to people what game we’re playing, convincing them that you (and they) will win it, and then winning. Allow me to walk you through how the Republicans and Democrats are going about this.

Here’s the Republican story: People are bad news. If you’re not strong, other people will destroy you. You win by bring strong. I am strong, and I win. Join my team and we’ll go kick some butt. Don’t join my team, and you’re dead meat. No seriously, we might have to eat you. There are zombies out there and I’m almost out of bullets.

Here’s the Democrat story: People aren’t that bad. If everybody chooses to trust everybody else, and give up just a little bit of self-protective power, we can build a system in which nobody gets screwed. It’ won’t be easy and you won’t get to kick anybody else’s butt, but you won’t have to worry all the time about your own butt getting kicked. If everybody cooperates, then cooperation can work.

How’s this playing out? Trump’s story is working. The Democrats’ story isn’t–because Americans have lost faith that the game is fair. Blue collar workers, #blacklivesmatter protestors, and American children with undocumented parents all feel like they’re getting their butts kicked. And even if they aren’t, they have politicians on both sides of the fence constantly telling them that they are. We never win anymore! The system is rigged!

So which story is right? To decide that, I think we have to go all the way back to the core belief that each story tells about human nature: Are we good? If we are, let’s all work together. Or are we evil? If so, lock ’em and load ’em.

I think the answer is “both.” I think the guys who wrote the US constitution thought the answer was “both.” Here is how John W. Gardner, who worked for LBJ, put it: “Man is a complex and contradictory being, egocentric but inescapably involved with his fellow man, selfish but capable of superb selflessness.” And here is where the story I’m telling diverges from the current Democrat one: Yes, cooperation is the beginning of building great things, but we can’t trust any human, or any system, to keep out that egocentric part of human nature. So we separate powers; we reject the divine authority of kings; we push for smaller government and break up big corporations. We choose to build a rules-based system on the international scale to move us toward a cooperative story, but we do it fitfully and over decades, knowing that beyond our borders the world is a bit nastier and more Hobbesian (see Walking Dead, The) than we wish it were.

We humans are fascinatingly complex and contradictory. That complexity and contradiction mean that we can do better than just figure out how to win the game; within the constraints of our own nature, we can decide what game we want to play. I choose the third: Believing that winning requires both cooperation and vigilance, and distrusting the accumulation of power anywhere and everywhere.  It means especially distrusting leaders–here’s looking at you, Trump–who tell the bleakest, most hopeless stories about who we are–and are willing to kill terrorists’ children (remember that?) simply because they’re not ours. We can do better than that, if we make the choice to do so and then act on it.

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