The name Zodiac Killer refers to the still-unidentified serial killer responsible for the deaths of anywhere between five and 37 people in northern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The nickname comes from a series of threatening letters sent to local newspapers during this time period. To this day, the identity of the Zodiac Killer has not been confirmed, and the case remains open in several cities.
This election cycle, a rumor has been circulating around the Internet that presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the unnamed Zodiac Killer are in fact the same person. The meme was spawned on Twitter and has since generated an incredible amount of traffic on its Facebook page and other forms of social media. Many serious news outlets, including the Washington Post and Vox, have run real articles debunking the impossible claim that Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.
Ted Cruz was born in 1970, over two years after the first confirmed Zodiac killing. The utter impossibility of Cruz being the Zodiac Killer makes this the most brilliantly self-aware political meme of our generation. Supporters of the meme are quick to point out that Cruz has never presented his birth certificate, nor has he denied the claim that he is the Zodiac Killer. The absurdity of these arguments both echoes and parodies the “birther movement” that exploded in 2008 regarding the unfounded theory that President Barack Obama’s citizenship may have been illegitimate (of course, this was conspiracy has since been disproven).
The genius of this Zodiac Killer theory lies in its satirization of the combination of the illogical political discourse that has characterized this election season and the strange unlikeability of Ted Cruz as a person. What separates this meme from a normal conspiracy theory is the fact that virtually everyone responsible for its existence is in on the joke. No sane person would actually believe that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer, right?
So one would think. A few weeks ago, the respected Public Policy Polling organization found that 38 percent of voting-age Floridians (one of the most influential states in determining the outcome of the presidential election) cannot rule out the possibility that Ted Cruz may indeed be the Zodiac Killer —10 percent of voters think he is and another 28 percent remain unsure.
Has this joke gone too far? The numbers are astonishing, to say the least. It’s difficult to maintain faith in the decision-making skills of America’s voting base when over two thirds of a state’s voters legitimately think that a presidential candidate might be a serial killer. Polls like this force us to confront the reality of the average voter’s information level. The current state of affairs might seem unfortunate, but this is how democracy works: the vote of someone who believes that a United States Senator might be the Zodiac Killer carries exactly the same weight as someone with a Ph.D. in political science.
The depressing reality of our country’s voting base is not without a silver lining, however. Tim Faust, a fan of the “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” meme began selling T-shirts featuring an artist’s interpretation of Cruz’s face morphed with the police sketch of the actual Zodiac Killer. Faust estimates he sold around 7,500 shirts equivalent to proceeds of nearly $70,000, which he donated to the West Fund, a center in southwest Texas (the area most affected by Cruz’s anti-choice policies) which provides abortion services, support and funding for women.
The fact that 38 percent of polled voters in Florida think Cruz may be the Zodiac Killer is about as funny as the fact that Donald Trump will probably the Republican nominee. It would be much easier to find the dark humor in this situation if the violent rhetoric and policies proposed by these candidates weren’t threatening the the livelihood of a large percentage of the population. It’s often easy to joke that we’ll move to Canada if Trump or Cruz is elected, but this response ignores the political and geographic mobility that we often take for granted. The rhetoric that perpetuates racism and other forms of discrimination is life-threatening to racial and ethnic minorities, foreign-born citizens, women, religious minorities, LGBT individuals, the working poor and so on. Policy proposals that aim to reduce access to welfare, education, healthcare and other social services disproportionately harm these groups as well.
As citizens of the strongest democratic republic in the world, our freedom hinges upon the same self-rule that permits us to vote in a presidential election without ever having researched a single candidate’s platform. Full political, social and economic participation is key to any functioning democracy — even if said participants have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Thus the very same political freedom afforded to us by democracy may simultaneously be our biggest limitation. At the very least we can hope that people don’t vote for a candidate they think might be a serial killer.
Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Lunch appears alternate Mondays this semester.