The Walking Dead: Power Structures and Elite Theory in a Zombie Apocalypse

“The first law of man is that of self-preservation, his first cares those which he owes to himself; and as soon as he has attained the age of reason, being the only judge of the means proper to preserve himself, he becomes at once his own master.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

What I bring to your attention today surely cannot be a matter of novelty for many among you, rather a dash of old coupled with a new and daring interpretation. The adventures of Rick, Carl, Daryl and others in the post-apocalyptic United States of America have so far amounted to 5 seasons filled with dagger-stabbing and brain-splattering action as the group try to simply survive in the world of Walkers (zombies, for plebs).

However, we are students of political science and international relations, our very bread and butter are the power relationships and hierarchical structures that are set usually in the more or less civilized modern society. It is time to approach even the topic of a gore-ish TV show through our recently-obtained political science lenses. In this attempted (mock) analysis, I will employ concepts of political science familiar to you, authored by mainstream figures such as Aristotle up to Weber and Roberto Michels as we shall treat Rick and his group as we would a political party of the center. Due to various aspects I shall expand, the closest type of parties to complete this analogy would be those that function in extremely atomized party system without a dominant , not to go further into Sartori or Blondel. To continue, our metaphor is by far not original, as the resemblance between voters and zombies has been pointed out before.


Thus we can observe that after the original catastrophe that affected the world in the form of the “zombie” virus spreading, man was plunged back into Hobbes’s state of nature – a war of all against all. This state of conflict is one dictated by reason, as the resources left behind by the crumbled civilization are scarce and hard to come by. Each group (party) has to forego more or less idealistic moral behavior (doctrine) in their never-ending quest for safety.

In order to survive and attain the said resources (Parliament seats), survivors (politicians) naturally band together, as they did in the early stages of human civilization. Natural – mainly physical but also psychological – advantages of some again enforce domination over the others, as the group requires strength and is prepared to trade internal democracy for it immediately. From the beginning we are presented with Rick – a former sheriff who quickly assumes the role of sole leader through acts of bravery and selflessness, arguably falling into Weber’s category of charismatic rulers . Following this logic, it is the group – no matter the members lost or gained along the way – that consistently legitimizes their gun-wielding leader by following him time and time again into danger (elections).

Rick’s tightly-knit mini-party came in contact with other groups numerous times, most encounters ending with violence due to the age-old “yours versus mine” Weltanschauung/view of the world, or rather “what I’m trying to keep vs. what you might have”. Due to the history of violence accompanying each encounter, our group developed a “state of siege” mentality – always under threat and always acting as if under immediate threat, visible throughout history in all new elites formed in the aftermath of revolutions – most notably the communist one.

The Governor (David Morrissey) - The Walking Dead - Season 3, Episode 16 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The Governor (David Morrissey) – The Walking Dead – Season 3, Episode 16 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

The first walled encampment they successfully occupied and made their own was a prison. Keeping the walkers out and with convenient towers and fences, it was the ideal stronghold. It served as Rick’s base of operations while he was accepting people and expanding his dominance. The prison’s elite was a benevolent aristocracy composed of the former sheriff’s inner circle of trust that were equipped to have primacy in the most important tasks – supply runs, perimeter security and relations with others. In the act of governing, they resembled Weber’s expert officialdom that was so needed to monarchs. Division of labor was naturally present, as some would plant crops for future self-sustenance and others would serve better sword in hand (literally). The leader himself was out of touch with day-to-day activities of his belated group, recovering from the loss of his wife, which is however unimportant to our analytical advent.

Lethargy overcame Rick’s group as they settled in the safety of the prison (status of parliamentary party, if you will) until another group rose up. Stronger in numbers and carrying a more convincing way of life (discourse), the group of Woodbury represents in our analogy a sizable social-democrat party. Largely made up of innocent and non-violent citizens, the group relies on a minority of disciplined, cold-blooded executioners for security and success. The leader of Woodbury, the Governor, is a typical demagogue – using a populist discourse in front of his innocent masses and convincing them that in order to survive they must accomplish his own goals. Subsequently, the pacifist minority was overcome as the Governor’s supporters pushed for preemptive violence with a rhetoric drenched in utopian ideology.

Another group we come across was the one controlling the Terminus settlement. Welcoming and kind at first, attracting new recruits with signs (skilled propaganda) put up in a concentric circle around the settlement, the people of Terminus turned out to be no less than cannibals. Well-supplied and organized, they represent the extreme form of Woodbury, thus, in our metaphor, true communism. As such, they have no clear leader, only section chiefs and executants all following a mission to destroy all other groups (and then eat them, of course) due to the memory of past conflicts during which they were subjected to hardships by other groups. The state of siege mentality is stronger in this group compared to what the Governor had to instill in the people of Woodbury. The cannibal feature can also fit in the communist image as the Party in the Soviet Union turned on its own members under Stalin, abandoning the lesson of the French Revolutions and its Jacobins.


The last settlement our group came in contact with and finally settled in with was that occupying the town of Alexandria. An ideal location fully stocked beforehand, with walls surrounding a typical suburban neighborhood, the inhabitants of Alexandria have lived in ignorance of the outside world, recruiting Rick and his band for their slice-and-dice know-how. Their hopeful, isolated democratic society reeks of the United States in its isolationist period. The newcomers quickly made use of their skills assuming administrational roles following Michels’ iron law of oligarchy and C. Wright Mill’s theory of higher circles . Originally an attempted experiment of direct democracy overseen by a former member of Congress, Alexandria witnessed clashes between Rick’s group and the old elite. One could say that a savage form of Social Contract is formed among the members of our group and the inhabitants of Alexandria. Thus the former are coming out of the state of nature while the latter never knew it, both assuring each other of their safety.

In conclusion, we note that all the settlements and the pre-existing subsequent communities do not strive for Bakunin’s ideal of a stateless society . Rather, they mimic the model of the profoundly traditional form of organization, aiming at the modern state. Even though they often leave the state of nature and its natural liberty by settling down or joining a community and adopting civil liberty – the absence of any consistent authority allowing them this – Rick’s group still carries the echoes of revolt and violence that caused shivers to Hobbes and Burke.

Often, as we step off the grounds of our alma mater, the applicability of our studies and knowledge eludes us. Dare I say, political science is the most consistently useful field of studies due to the nature of its theories. While physicists, doctors and biologists have long renounced and revisited practices and beliefs from the youth of their field, we still cannot forego Plato and Aristotle. Upon a closer look, every organization of humans can be interpreted by employing the tools of political science.

Sources :

Sartori, Giovanni “Party and Party Systems”
Hobbes, Thomas “Leviathan”
Weber, Max “The Types of Political Authority” in “Politics as a Vocation”
Michels, Roberto “The Iron Law of Oligarchy” Cornell University 2010
Malia, Martin “The Soviet Tragedy : A History of Socialism in Russia 1917-1991” The Free Press, 1994
C. Wright Mills “The Higher Circles” in “The Power Elite” Oxford Press, 1956
Bakunin, Mikhail “Statism and Anarchy” Cambridge University Press, 1873

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