Reading the series makes us more tolerant of other people—with one notable exception
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., holds one of his books, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in his Cannon Building office. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call via Getty Images)
For loyal Harry Potter fans, this Sunday marks a big occasion: The eighth installment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, a script for a play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, goes on sale at 12:01 a.m. Now that the boy wizard has vanquished Lord Voldemort, speculation about his next fictional foe runs rampant. Back in the real world, a new study suggests that Harry Potter is poised to defeat another fearsome opponent: the Republican nominee for U.S. president.
Last week, a professor at the Ivy League institution University of Pennyslvania (UPenn) published a paper titled “Harry Potter and the Deathly Donald?” demonstrating a remarkable correlation. Reading Harry Potter books (or watching the movies based upon them) substantially lowers an individual’s opinion of Donald Trump—and the more books or movies consumed, the greater the effect.
The study’s author, Diana Mutz, a professor of political science and communication at UPenn, has previously designed experiments exploring whether television programs have any influence over our political attitudes. For her latest study, Mutz polled a nationally representative sample of 1,142 people in 2014, and again in 2016, about their attitudes on such topics as Muslims, homosexuality, waterboarding, and this year, their opinion of Donald Trump. She included several questions about the widely popular Harry Potter books, which have collectively sold over 450 million copies, to find out whether their “pro-tolerance” or “anti-authoritarian” messages might have a bearing on political values.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"][My students] are definitely aware of the parallels of Voldemort and Hitler.[/quote]
“Even after we took into account all kinds of other things, how liberal or conservative people were, ideology, age, education, etc., [reading or watching Harry Potter] still predicted negative attitudes toward Trump,” says Mutz. She acknowledges that the measure her researchers used to take people’s opinions, called a “feeling thermometer,” is general, though it’s a “traditional one that political pollsters use. It’s a great predictor of vote choice,” she says. As discussed on the election statistics blog 538, people nearly always vote for the person to whom they give the highest rating on the thermometer.
Rebecca Johns-Trissler, assistant professor of English at Chicago’s DePaul University, is not surprised by Mutz’s results. Johns-Trissler teaches a course on Harry Potter and has seen firsthand how engaged students are while discussing the seven-book series (reading all the books is a pre-requisite for the course). She says her students “are definitely aware of the parallels of Voldemort and Hitler,” and she thinks the course makes them “more sensitive to the idea of what social justice is, how certain groups are disadvantaged in our culture.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Even after we took into account... how liberal or conservative people were, [reading or watching Harry Potter] still predicted negative attitudes toward Trump.[/quote]
Students in Johns-Trissler’s course compete for their very own house cup by putting together a presentation of sociopolitical parallels between Harry’s world and ours. She’s particularly fond of a group of Hufflepuffs who drew stark parallels between the corrupt Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and actual corruption in Chicago politics.
The themes of Harry Potter have been analyzed, dissected, and argued over ever since the first book came out in 1997. But, Mutz writes, there is consensus on a few key topics: “1) The value of tolerance and respect for difference; 2) Opposition to violence and punitiveness, and 3) the dangers of authoritarianism. These same three themes are prominent in coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.”
Trump’s political views have been full of hateful rhetoric against many groups of people. Mutz posits that readers of Harry Potter are likely to see parallels in Voldemort, who—other than obtaining power—wants to root out “mudbloods,” a.k.a. muggles or those of non-wizarding origins, along with “lesser, non-wizard creatures.” Mutz writes, “Because Trump’s political views are widely viewed as opposed to the values espoused in the Harry Potter series, exposure to [it] may play an influential role in affecting how Americans respond to Donald Trump.”
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I think there is still a portion of society who want strong leadership and doesn’t care how they get it.[/quote]
So if the Harry Potter series is so popular, what’s with Trump’s latest surge in the polls? Johns-Trissler muses, “I think there is still a portion of society who want strong leadership and doesn’t care how they get it.”
As for Mutz, she’s looking forward to exploring the effects of fiction on real-world events in more detail. “I think the idea that people neatly compartmentalize fiction and non-fiction is not well-supported, that we move pretty easily between the two,” she concludes. (No word on compartmentalizing between the two hashtags #Voldetrump or #Trumpbridge, though.)