Among many other award-winning writers and economists, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman enjoys deploying the term “zombie economics” to signify budget planning based on outmoded paradigms that have long since proven their lack of value – “trickle-down economics” is Exhibit A, but hardly the only one. Basically, anyone championing the unreconstructed rules of wealth creation from 2007, pre-crisis, is trotting out “zombie economic policy.”
The term Krugman isn’t using – the term I’m not hearing from so-called political analysts anywhere – is “zombie politics.” Perhaps Krugman, no matter how leftist he says he is, can’t admit to himself that a Democrat might be representing obsolete ideas.
This is the century of zombies (The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, World War Z, etc.) and the century of zombie politics. In the last couple of weeks, as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton have declared their official intentions to run for President of these United States, you could hear the relief from the mainstream media at the prospect of another zombie fashion show. These sclerotic parties – Democrats and Republicans – will spend the next 18 months trotting out the same old zombified, Wall Street-approved solutions. Because despite all the talk of “bottom-up” media, the major networks and sites still carry a lot of power, and they insist that the two major parties are the two only possible originators of political solutions to our problems. Makes you want to eat your brains – or shoot someone’s out.
One way that our politics have become like zombie movies is that you’re not really rooting very hard for either side. Unlike an old Gary Cooper movie, you’d be somewhat comfortable if either side won, for various reasons. That’s one reason that the first real zombie movie, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, couldn’t have happened until it did, in 1968. You needed a country that no longer needed a hero when it saw a film. In Romero’s classic, they hole up in the house, shout at each other, and try in vain to keep the other side from overwhelming them. Pretty much what Demos and Repubs do now, and just as unsympathetically. (Our politics also dovetail with reality-TV programs, where we bring our own reasons to love, hate, and hate-watch various contestants.)
In zombie movies and in our current binarized politics, you never root for either side partly because they’re both basically playing defense. Now, hold on, you say, zombies don’t play defense. Actually they don’t play well at all – just the way the left describes the right and the right describes the left. Even in attack mode, they’re less attacking and more just lunging thoughtlessly forward – does that remind you of any politicians you know? As for the humans in zombie movies, they don’t give you anything positive to root for – it’s not like any of them were building suspension bridges or curing malaria before these zombies showed up. Mostly they just talk about how scary the other side is.
I realize Hillary Clinton has begun her campaign with a flush of positive images of people gardening and smelting and so forth. I realize Cruz, Paul, and Rubio have websites with some good ideas. (Well, not Cruz. Heck, by zombie-movie standards, two out of three ain’t bad.) Enjoy that spring of daffodils and crocuses while you can, because winter is coming. Clinton cannot afford to take the high road directly to the White House, not when “Obama’s third term” will be stuck to her like an undead creature’s guts. The Republicans seem congenitally against the high road in any case. Lock and load, defend that outpost.
Eventually, all you’ll hear from the Democrats is just how scary Republicans are, and vice-versa. There has to be a better way to choose our next leader than one pointing at the other and saying “THAT PERSON SUCKS!” Imagine if you were in a real zombie invasion, and you had to kill one of two people left with you in Ye Olde Shed, and the only way you could decide was which one wasn’t yelling “they did it!!” louder. You don’t parent your kids this way. You shouldn’t have to cast your vote this way.
In this over-polarized environment, a populist candidate would be like a sailboat in a zombie movie: the one solution everyone should have already tried, the one thing that seems obvious in retrospect. (Seriously, Rick Grimes: get on a boat, find a small empty Cast-Away-sized island in the Bahamas. You’re welcome.)
A populist president that wasn’t beholden to either party would represent a break from zombie politics, a chance to hit refresh on our brain-eaten political system. A populist president would listen to what at least 51% of Americans wanted, and then do his or her best to make that happen, with some exceptions. (51% of Americans probably want chocolate ice cream at some point this evening. Forcing the government to pay for ice cream would fall into the category of exceptions.) Suddenly we’d have proposed, workable solutions on climate change, immigration, the deficit, education, and a hundred other issues that, unlike the bills proposed by today’s Democrats and Republicans, wouldn’t preserve little pockets of non-reform because of special interest groups, special districts that make a certain kind of widget, and even more special donors.
Money doesn’t always win elections; the latest evidence for that came ten months ago, when Virginian Dave Brat ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary election where Cantor outspent Brat at least 40:1. If Meryl Streep or Will Smith or someone on that level was running on a populist, bring-the-country-together platform, they wouldn’t even need to spend their own money, much less match what the Dems and Repubs will spend in 2016; they’d get boatloads of free press from the, uh, free press. Despite the way they behave, given the choice, major media sources, like us, prefer genuine drama to zombies. Give them a good reason for it, and we’ll all be changing the channel from The Walking Dead.