Zootopia and the Follies of Democracy

Zootopia, Disney’s latest movie, is a delightfully animated story set in a world where all mammals, both predators and prey live together in peace, for the most part at least. The story centers around Judy Hopps, a small-town, country rabbit, who dreams of being the first ever rabbit police officer in the big city, Zootopia. Despite the reservations of her parents, and the discouragement she faces due to her diminutive stature she succeeds in becoming an officer on the Zootopia Police Department, and sets off for the city.

Officer Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde from Disney’s Zootopia

Judy soon realizes that relations between predator and prey, are more delicate than she had anticipated. She gets her first glimpse of this when she sees Nick Wilde, a fox, get refused service at a restaurant frequented by prey.

It’s pretty clear that predators in Zootopia are meant to represent African-Americans in the US. The guys at “The Film Theorists” point out (in this fantastic video) that aside from getting refused service at restaurants, there are some other clear indications that predators are meant to symbolize African-Americans. According to a map shown in the ZPD office most predators live in the inner city of Zootopia, and Assistant Mayor Bellwether even says that predators make up only 10% of Zootopia’s population, which pretty closely aligns with the African-American population of the US, which is 12.2%.

This film clearly tackles the issue of race relations in the US, and there is, and surely will be plenty written on that. I’d like to focus my attention on another subject the film also addresses, that of a challenge faced by  democracies (although all forms of government also suffer from this phenomenon to a lesser degree).

Spoiler alert, if you have not seen this movie and would like not to have the ending ruined for you, go watch the movie and come back and read the rest of this article.

Judy Hopps is assigned a case in which predators from Zootopia have been disappearing. With the help of Nick Wilde, the fox mentioned above, she discovers that all the animals that went missing reverted to a “savage” version of themselves and attacked other animals in Zootopia. She and Nick discover that these animals are all held in one facility, which is being overseen by Zootopia’s  Mayor Lionheart (who is, in fact a lion). Judy Hopps breaks the story and Lionheart is sent to jail for false imprisonment. Still no one knows why all these predators went savage and Judy, during a press conference, speculates that there is something specific to predators DNA that makes them predisposed to “go savage”.

Emmitt Otterton going savage from Disney’s Zootopia

With Mayor Lionheart in jail,  Assistant Mayor Bellwether (a seemingly timid sheep who was ill treated by Mayor Lionheart), becomes mayor and suspicion toward predators grows more and more intense. As the film progresses Judy learns that plants called “Night Howlers” are the cause of the savage nature of predators who were falsely imprisoned. Once she discovers that this, and not something in the predators DNA is responsible she starts to dig deeper. When she uncovers that it was Mayor Bellwether all along who had been processing night howlers into a serum and using a dart gun to target predators in order to stir up unrest among prey.

In the movie’s climax Judy confronts Mayor

Hopps: So that’s it. Prey fears predator and you stay in power?

Bellwether: Yeah. Pretty much.

Hopps: It won’t work!

Bellwether: Fear always works, and I’ll dart every predator in Zootopia, to keep it that way!


John Adams, 2nd President of the United States

“Fear always works” could be the unofficial motto of politicians in the real world. If you think this is only a recent phenomenon, think again. Even President John Adams used fear of the French to pass controversial legislation that would allow him to deport any resident foreign national regardless of whether or not they were from a country that was an ally (all this in a time when all that was required to come to the United States legally was to step off the boat). In addition, any person who criticized the President, the courts, or the congress could be tried and jailed. Were these laws used to stop a bloody uprising spurred on by French immigrants? No. They were used to punish the political enemies of John Adams and the federalists.

H. L. Mencken

H, L. Mencken, an economic journalist of the early and mid 20th century once said: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
Just as John Adams and the federalists used the imaginary threat of the French immigrating en masse and overthrowing the US as their hobgoblins, politicians today trot out different groups attempting to scare us into doing their will, whether that be electing them, accepting that we must give banks billions in bailouts, or supporting a war that would otherwise have gained little to no support (I’m looking at you W.)

This tactic is not limited to presidents and presidential candidates, it can be seen in all levels of government, but in a presidential election year it is clear to see that politicians intend to scare us into voting for them. If you don’t vote for me, Bernie Sanders, the millionaires and the billionaires are going to hold people down and steal all their money. If you don’t vote for me, Donald Trump, Mexican rapists and drug dealers are going to come across the border and threaten your family. If you don’t vote for me, Ted Cruz, the Muslim terrorists are going to attack you. Etc etc etc. But what can be done to stop it?

Connor Boyack’s Feardom

One of my favorite books is written by author and political activist, Connor Boyack. His book “Feardom: How Politicians Exploit Your Emotions and What You Can Do to Stop Them” describes 5 steps that if implemented, can help us not to fear when the politicians with media’s help trot out their hobgoblins and boogeymen:

  1. Be skeptical of the official story being told. Just because someone has won an election, or owns a media station, does not mean they are worthy of trust.
  2. Find trusted news sources that dig deeper than the surface to find the more complex, nuanced truth.
  3. Become informed by reading from a diversity of trusted sources. Multiple trustworthy points of view will help to add clarity to the situation.
  4. After having become informed spread the word. The greater the number of people who know that the hobgoblins are largely imaginary, the less the politicians can get their way.
  5. Internalize and institutionalize the Golden Rule.

All five of these steps are important for becoming a citizen that isn’t driven by fear, but in my heart I have a special place for the fifth one. I see it as the most effective way to dispel fear and hatred. Boyack says:

“Whether the person be our neighbor, fellow church-goer, a member of the rival sports team, a person from an ethnic minority group, or a citizen from another country with whom we share little in common, that person is somebody with rights, interests, family members who love and depend on them, life goals and other things common to each of us. While others work to dehumanize them we should let love become the basis of our feelings and thoughts towards others-even, and perhaps especially, those who are being painted with broad brushes by a government looking to implement policies that will harm them.”

This election cycle, re-watch Zootopia keeping in mind that just as Assistant Mayor Bellwether used fear to gain political power, candidates seeking office in the real world are doing the same thing. Keep in mind that the predators that everyone grew to fear were not the real enemy of Zootopia, but the politician promising protection, safety, and security from a boogeyman she herself created. Bellwether said “Fear always works”, but that doesn’t have to be true. Let’s prove her wrong.


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