By Evangeline Morphos
What will a shutdown of the federal government ultimately look like?
One well-known scenario suggests that roaming bands of survivalists will be plundering stockpiles of abandoned weapons; the last vials of deadly diseases are cracking under the unsupervised mechanisms at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and all communications and travel are frozen — airports shut down, highways unpatrolled, bridges collapsing.
No, wait…that's The Walking Dead. A zombie menace has shut down any federal authority, and local groups form nomadic associations to survive.
In another scenario, self-appointed militias are in control, and rebellion is brewing. Cities have been abandoned. There is no federal authority. Communities are isolated and terrified.
No wait..that's Revolution. The electrical grid has mysteriously gone down, and is unrecoverable. People are desperate to adapt to a post-electric civilization that leaves them atomized. A new world order establishes itself — lawless and brutal.
Over the past few seasons, millions of television viewers have already seen a collective vision of an America that has come to a standstill. Television series like The Walking Dead, Revolution and Falling Skies all posit worlds in which there is no national government. Leadership is achingly local; laws are created on an ad hoc basis; almost anything is permissible in the name of survival.
In the real-life of the October 1 shutdown, shaped by the Tea Party's vehement stand against big government, there is no talk of compromise, and the stakes could become perilously close to world-rattling. The far-right members of Congress are talking about letting the American economy collapse to prove an ideological point. The other members of government — including the president — appear to be stumbling passively.
But, we've also seen an alternative scenario:
A hang-tough president plays a tactical game and gives his political opponents enough rope to hang themselves. He ultimately proves the value of government, and the enduring stability of the system.
No wait…that was The West Wing and that president is Jed Bartlet.
In the Season 5 episode "Shutdown," series creator and writer Aaron Sorkin replayed the 1995 shutdown propelled by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Sorkin's narrative featured a savvy political leader manipulating and maneuvering, completely in charge of the situation.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton was able to parlay the Republican strategy of the shutdown into a public case for government. The question is: Will Obama be able to do the same?
The scenarios of the post-apocalyptic series — though wildly science-fiction — can be seen as extensions of the desperation of a society without federal authority. Without Sorkin's soaring language in defense of government, however, does the idea that each man can become an ad hoc hero play into the Tea Party's suspicions of authority?
The appeal of this reflects how deeply the Tea Party misunderstands the formation of this nation. Only the fictional character of Revolutionary War historian Tom Mason in Falling Skies (played by Noah Wylie) seems to understand that the federalist impulse is a strength in the creation of a nation — even as one battles an alien invasion.
Are we too familiar with the appeal of post-apocalypse survival to take the threat of the consequences of a shutdown seriously? We have to hope that the outcome will be more The West Wing than The Walking Dead.
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)