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What Does Our Obsession With Zombie Stories Tell Us About Our Politics?

Between widespread feelings of political disenfranchisement and growing economic inequality, it's easy to feel as if we're facing a zombie apocalypse.
 
 
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Zombie chatter reached unprecedented cultural prominence last week when reports of two murders involving cannibalism appeared in the national headlines.

But since the 2008 financial crisis, zombies have had quite a resurgence in popular culture. First, it was the comedy film Zombieland, followed by 2010’s sleeper hit, AMC’s "The Walking Dead." During the summer, we’ll get two youth-themed zombie flicks, the high school film Bad Kids Go to Hell and a stop-motion film called Paranorman from the creators of Coraline.

Zombies are everywhere these days – there’s even an  Osama bin Laden zombie film coming to the big screen this summer. But why might zombies be so omnipresent at this moment in time? Maybe between widespread feelings of political disenfranchisement and growing economic inequality, it’s easy to feel as if we’re facing, say, a zombie apocalypse.

A year ago, a CBS poll suggested that, “Americans have long felt they have little say in government. But the trends are troubling: While 58 percent said they have little say in what government does in 1990, that figure has risen to 69 percent today. In the new survey, 85 percent say that people like them had too little influence on American life.”

Political alienation in the United States, in other words, has never been higher. A staggering 85 percent of Americans did not feel that American politics allowed them much in the way of participation.

It’s really no wonder that American popular culture has taken a turn toward the grim. Maybe zombies sell these days because, not unlike the sort of nuclear apocalypse tales that resonated throughout the Cold War, they posit an outside threat, a menace beyond the control of regular people. And maybe there are more feelings of futility now than there were then, even as anxieties about nuclear holocaust loomed.

These days, it is hard to believe how optimistic so many Americans were back in January 2001, at the end of President Bill Clinton’s presidency. It must be said that the level of prosperity the nation experienced during the Clinton years is often exaggerated. In fact, Clinton presided over what were then the most devastating social welfare cuts in American history by way of his Welfare to Work Program. He was not a good president for poor people, but even so, the middle classes had reason for optimism, with plentiful jobs and that talking point about how Clinton “balanced the budget” during his first term. The end of the Cold War was more than a decade-old memory, and Americans entered the 21st century without fear.

A little over a decade later, it seems clear to everyone who is paying attention that the United States is only just beginning a period of major social, political and economic decline. The big issues have been well-enumerated: Deeply entrenched wars in Muslim countries that continue even though President Barack Obama abandoned his predecessor’s “War on Terror” rhetoric. The near illegitimacy of the executive and legislative elected branches of government, both in thrall to corporate interests and “checked” only by a judiciary that can’t or won’t rein them in. Growing economic inequality between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us, even as Democrats offer hollow promises to support working people. A student debt bubble about to burst and leave hundreds of thousands of well-educated young people in dire poverty – all with few, if any, employment options.

Foreign Policy magazine now has a blog called Decline Watch that documents evidence of national decline, seemingly insignificant tiny piece by seemingly insignificant tiny piece. It features a wide range of scary, humorous and absurd cultural and political anecdotes. A few recent headlines include, “ Disaster warning system kind of a disaster,” “ Congress takes action to protect pizza’s vegetable status,” “ US Army fishes for compliments on Twitter,” and “ Vietnamese businessmen buy Wyoming town.” Influenced by the political optimism that ensued at the Cold War’s end, political scientists in the 1990s and early 2000s declared the US, for better or worse, a global hegemon. Only a few years later, and we’re just a nation of Onion headlines.

 
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