3 Crucial Lessons The 'Harry Potter' Universe Can Teach Us About U.S. Politics
There are hundreds of parallels between the Harry Potter universe and real life — from presidential candidates who are reminiscent of Dolores Umbridge to passionate fights for justice all around. J.K. Rowling's writing was intentional in this way; she wasn't just writing a children's fantasy series, but a series that would resonate with people of all ages. Of course, Rowling is British, so we definitely see some strong resemblances between the politics of the U.K. and that of the Potterverse. However, there are quite a few similarities between the American and Harry Potter political systems, too.
The Harry Potter series is profoundly influential. In many ways, it encouraged young people to be critical of people in positions of power — as well as skeptical of the media, because Rita Skeeter exemplified unethical journalism. The series also demonstrated how the personal is often political, and addressed class differences, the relationship between academic and governmental institutions, and the systemic nature of injustice. Perhaps it's a fluke to say that Harry Potter teaches readers to battle prejudice, but it's also just as likely that it's true, at least at an elementary level. At any rate, Rowling's magical universe mirrors the American political system — and exposes its problematic nature — in several important ways, from educational reform to corruption.
1. The Necessity Of Educational Reform
In the United States, our persistent emphasis on standardized tests is problematic. Arguably, we tend to fall into the trap of pushing young people to learn for the sake for exams, rather than learning for the sake of learning. What this does is assume that there is only one main way to be successful in the educational arena — being an accomplished exam-taker — rather than recognizing the different ways in which people engage with educational content.
This is exactly what Umbridge represents. She's an authoritative figure, with a great deal of influence, and she's convinced standardizing learning by only ever practicing theory and setting theoretical exams is the quickest way to eliminate any possible threats to the Ministry's power at Hogwarts. In other words, she sees individualized learning styles as a threat. Why? Because — oh, the horror! — they foster creativity, and when people are allowed to learn in individualized environments, they might learn to think critically, and possibly challenge institutional power!
2. The Importance Of Holding Politicians Accountable
For half the series, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge comes across as a benevolent father figure. He is kind to Harry because he can afford to be, and because anything other than respect directed toward The Boy Who Lived would more than likely have landed him in many a tough spot. But then Voldemort returns, and it's a game-changer. As Dumbledore rightly pointed out, Fudge would rather make the easy choice of ignoring Voldemort's return in favor of safeguarding his own popularity than make the tough call to accept it and take the appropriate measures to fight back. And then Rufus Scrimgeour, Fudge's successor, is the opposite — he's tough, and is taking all the necessary steps to protect the Wizarding World, but he also wants Harry to be a poster child for his administration, and he makes unnecessary arrests just to make it seem like he's getting something done.
There are a number of comparisons that could be made here, but let's zone in on the War on Terror. Brown people in a post-9/11 America have to constantly live in fear of being mistaken for terrorists, because that is how we are often perceived. In the aftermath of 9/11, many hate crimes against brown people went unchecked because people wanted to place the blame on someone and accomplish something, even if it was totally irrational. Then-First Lady Laura Bush tried to justify the War on Terror by painting it as the liberation of Muslim women — she made it seem as though she and those women were on the same side — but, of course, she was just doing it for the positive press.
Now, think about the Second War for the Wizarding World in the Potterverse. We see a lot of the same patterns there: The arrest of Stan Shunpike took place to make it seem like the Ministry was doing something productive, the Muggleborn Registration Commission was an explicit form of structural oppression, and the Death Eaters' takeover of the Quidditch World Cup was an example of the seemingly random (but actually intentional) nature of hate crimes.
3. The Exposure Of Often-Hidden Social Hierarchies
For the first half of the Harry Potter series, readers were privy primarily to The Golden Trio's personal struggles, but the systemic violence that caused these struggles was always present. It would occasionally reveal itself — when Remus Lupin was outed as a werewolf and realized he could no longer keep his teaching position, for instance, or when Draco Malfoy called Hermione Granger a Mudblood.
But then Voldemort returned, and all of the oppression that had until that point been hidden in the shadows was violently thrown into the spotlight. However, it was not Voldemort's return that caused the oppression; the prejudices that were exposed had always existed, but they were made to seem more acceptable under Voldemort's supervision. The new statue at the Ministry of Magic, which showed Muggles "in their rightful place," exemplified this.
The American political sphere is overwhelmingly similar. Donald Trump might seem like a joke to a lot of people, but the fact that he's permitted to run for president — and that everything he says isn't immediately shut down as hate speech — should concern anyone who cares about justice. Marginalized people are always aware that the American political system is flawed and that this country was built on our suppression. But only when someone like Trump comes along are our voices joined by those who don't experience that pain and oppression on a daily basis.
It is hard to ignore people like Trump, just as it's hard to ignore people like Voldemort. And yet, it's easy to ignore the voices of those who have been oppressed for so long, because people in positions of power often assume that their cries for justice will simply subside.
Essentially, Voldemort's openly oppressive nature reveals in the public spotlight the social hierarchies that have always existed for those of us who aren't at the top. Similarly, the GOP has long been problematic, but it is Trump's candidacy that makes the party's institutional racism clear beyond a doubt.
One of the greatest things about rereading the Harry Potter series when you're older is that you're bound to pick up on messaging that you couldn't have possibly interpreted as a child, simply because our perspectives — and the things that matter to us — change as we age. If you're curious to see just how eerily similar the two political systems are, go ahead and pick up Order of the Phoenix, and you'll be amazed to see just how carefully Rowling crafted her fictional political sphere to line up with reality.
Images: Giphy (4), Warner Bros. Pictures