Forget Trump and Clinton: Zombie Movies Offer Best Political Lessons, by Daniel W. Drezner

Part of ongoing series: Teaching Worldview through Film

The living dead are the perfect 21st-century threat: They are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenge they pose is very grave.

by Daniel W. Drezner, PhD • Tufts University

The Zombie Apocalypse may have more to teach students about politics than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Regardless of what parents tell their children, books are routinely judged by their covers. Indeed, many book titles encapsulate a premise so obvious that the text itself seems superfluous. I’m talking about the literary equivalents of Hot Tub Time Machine or Aliens vs. Predator. I should know­—I’m the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies.

I can envision a future when such books will pass from individual to individual via secret-Santa office parties. They’ll be good for a chuckle, and then not surface until the ensuing Christmas. Most of my colleagues assumed that I wrote this book to make political scientists laugh a little—and they would be partially right. And yet a funny thing happened while I crafted a satire about world politics and zombies: I learned about the virtue of seriousness.

To be clear, the zombies in my book are not metaphors for thuggish political discourse or symbols of brainless economic ideologies. I’m talking about the genuine article: ghouls rising from the grave to feast upon the living.

Why write a book about the threat posed by the living dead? Sure, the ratings of AMC’s The Walking Dead demonstrate their popular cachet, but international relations is Very Serious Business. There is no shortage of “real” threats to scare analysts: nuclear proliferation, terrorism, pandemics, financial instability, cyberwarfare. Why introduce an implausible, shuffling, stumbling creature that desires only braaaaiiiiiinnnnnnns into the mix?

The End of the World as We Know It

Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review
Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review

The premise started out innocently enough. Scanning the Web on a bright August day in 2009, I stumbled upon a serious paper that modeled zombies as representative of certain kinds of pathogens. The paper soberly concluded: “An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead. … A zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly.”

The paper was entertaining and informative—but it lacked a political analysis. It failed to take into account variations in national responses, not to mention the cross-border coordination problems that an army of the undead would create. So I spent a few hours thinking about how various international-relations theories would respond to a zombie attack, wrote up a blog post intended to make a few colleagues giggle, and moved on.

The response to the post dragged me back in. A brilliant discussion thread emerged, with inspired comments tackling paradigms I had overlooked. At the next professional meeting I attended, more than one colleague told me that my post would be useful for teaching students. The more feedback I received, the more I realized that the average undergraduate knows a lot more about zombies than about world politics. A straight explanation of abstruse theoretical paradigms can cause a student’s mind to wander. Explaining realism, liberalism, or constructivism by way of references to Dawn of the Dead or Shaun of the Dead is much easier.

11173003_oriI’m not the only political scientist to recognize this fact. Major academic presses have recently published books that use everything from the literary canon to The Godfather to explain foreign affairs. Peer-reviewed scholarship has been published on international relations and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter books. Wizards, vampires, aliens, and hobbits had been covered, but I could legitimately identify a “zombie gap” in the literature.

My motivations were not strictly pedagogical. I have been in too many brain-rotting seminar debates about whether someone should be labeled a “defensive realist” or a “neoliberal institutionalist.” I’ve read the works of too many scholars who throw around quotes from Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics as party apparatchiks must have done with Mao’s Little Red Book. I love my field—but I worry about its descent into scholasticism for its own sake. Applying international-relations theory to a zombie-infested world was a way of affectionately but satirically tweaking the field’s strictures.

Zombie Education

But first I had to educate myself about the zombie genre, about which I knew little. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies—indeed, truth be told, my only childhood memory of a horror film was watching 10 minutes ofPoltergeist and then not sleeping that night. But I delved into the zombie canon, from the obvious highlights (George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Max Brooks’s World War Z), to more obscure fare (Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, one of the funniest and most disgusting films ever made).

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes – The Walking Dead (Courtesy of AMC)

Armed with a knowledge of the undead that extended beyond Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, I sat down to write—and quickly hit a brick wall. My prose was clunky and ham-handed, full of obvious, unfunny jokes. It turns out that it’s hard to write about the living dead without drowning in puns. I drew attention to “gnawing problems with the literature” and declared my intention to “get at the meat of the problem.” I could feel the decaying corpse of Milton Berle elbowing me in the ribs. I sought advice from my editor, Chuck Myers, who wisely explained that my tone needed to be as deadpan as possible. Only by writing in a serious manner could the absurdity of the premise be revealed. Now the words began to flow, although it was etymologically impossible to root out all of the puns.

On the way toward completing the book, I encountered a series of intellectual surprises. For starters, I realized that zombies are a great synecdoche for a constellation of emerging threats. Even though it is relatively easy to define a zombie, the genre diverges widely on the capabilities of the living dead. In some films, like, say, Planet Terror, zombies possess enough intelligence to act like bioterrorists. In others, zombies are more like mindless but intuitive disease vectors. In this way, the living dead are the perfect 21st-century threat: They are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenge they pose is very grave. (See what I mean about the puns?)

I looked at the literature on “zombielike events,” calamities akin to an army of reanimated, ravenous corpses. This meant researching the sociology of panic, the political economy of natural disasters, and the ways in which past epidemics have affected world politics. I was new to this scholarship—jumping into it gave me the same thrill of discovery I felt as a grad student.

In predicting possible outcomes, I embraced Rudra Sil and Peter Katzenstein’s concept of analytic eclecticism, which draws from multiple theoretical approaches to attack a policy problem. The standard international-relations paradigms have their uses, but practitioners within them tend to develop conceptual blinders about causal mechanisms that do not conform to their own model’s internal logic.

Apocalyptic Optimism

Thinking through the implications of a zombie attack, I came away with a more optimistic take on humanity and a more pessimistic take on my field. While traditional zombie narratives tend to end in apocalypse, most of the theoretical approaches I surveyed suggested vigorous policy responses should we be attacked by the living dead. Realists would push for a live-and-let-live arrangement between the undead and everyone else. Liberals would call for an imperfect but useful global governing body to regulate the undead—a World Zombie Organization. Constructivists would call for a robust, pluralistic security community dedicated to preventing new zombie outbreaks and socializing existing zombies into human society. Bureaucracies would very likely err in their initial responses, but they’d adapt.

MV5BMTQ4MjY2MjMzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDUxNzIwOQ@@._V1._CR43,43.16667175292969,1298,1960.9999542236328_SX640_SY720_Predictions such as those suggest that maybe, just maybe, the zombie canon’s dominant equation of zombies + feckless humans = postapocalyptic wasteland is perhaps overstated. That said, even these “optimistic” outcomes would be unmitigated disasters from the perspective of human security. In a world where zombies concentrate in the weakest countries—stronger states are better equipped to fend off the threat—billions of human beings would face an additional menace on top of disease, poverty, and the erosion of the rule of law.

As I thought through these various scenarios, it became clear that the ability of standard international-relations paradigms to adequately analyze threats is eroding. Most theories are state-centric, but interstate conflict is on the wane. Consider again the list of real-world threats above; almost none of them emanate from states. Neither terrorists nor hackers possess large swaths of territory, making retaliation difficult. Natural disasters like earthquakes or volcanoes do not possess “agency” as we understand the concept. Neither do diseases or melting glaciers.

The international-relations profession has always started with the state—and governments will continue to play a vital role in world politics. But the field has been slow to adapt to the plethora of asymmetric threats that we now face. Unless that changes, international-relations scholars will be hard-pressed to offer cogent policy responses to emerging threats, much less the living dead.

Combining satire and scholarship is a risky enterprise. I have no doubt that many readers will conclude that I failed miserably. On the other hand, if the book gets people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about world politics to laugh, and then think, then the royalties—I mean, the intellectual benefits—will vastly exceed the costs.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. His latest book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, has just been published by Princeton University Press. Originally published as “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Zombies” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.