New research finds people who read J.K. Rowling’s books are less likely to support Donald Trump.
By Tom Jacobs
(Photo: Alex Wong/Newsmakers)
If you’re recoiling from all the anger, hatred, and gloom of the Republican convention, and fretting about the rise of Donald Trump, don’t despair: A savior awaits.
Hillary Clinton? Hardly. The anti-Trump is, in fact, Harry Potter.
Tellingly, the more Potter novels people have read, the lower their opinion of Trump.
The books’ underlying themes of “tolerance for difference, and opposition to violence and punitive policies, appear to be influential in altering Harry Potter readers’ policy views, as well as (lowering) their support for Trump,” concludes Diana Mutz, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Her study, which is scheduled to be published in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, featured 1,142 Americans who were surveyed between November 2014 and January 2015. They were then re-contacted in late January or early February of this year, when they offered their views of Trump.
The initial survey asked participants whether they had read each of the seven Harry Potter novels, either in part or in full. They were then asked whether they had seen the film adaptations.
Using a “feeling thermometer” (in which zero represents a very unfavorable attitude, and 100 a very favorable one), participants expressed their general attitude toward homosexuals and Muslims. They also reported whether they are in favor of the death penalty; whether they agree that we should “hunt down and kill all the terrorists”; and whether they support the use of torture against suspected terrorists.
In the follow-up survey conducted earlier this year, they were asked to rate their feelings toward Trump, using that same cold-to-warm, 0-to-100 scale.
“This study provides some of the first evidence outside of a laboratory that a fictional story may have implications for general election preferences.”
Importantly, Mutz found “no discernible association between party identification and being more or less likely to have read the Harry Potter books.” But reading the volumes — which preach tolerance and advocate non-violence — appears to have influenced some readers’ political opinions.
“Each Potter book read raises evaluations of Muslims and homosexuals by one to two points on the ‘feeling thermometer’ scale,” she reports. Furthermore, “reading the Harry Potter stories appears to encourage opposition to punitive policies, although the effect is relatively small.”
This same trend was found in the Trump-centric follow-up survey. “Each book (in the series) that a person has read lowers their evaluation of Donald Trump by roughly two to three points,” Mutz reports.
While that figure might seem modest, “a given respondent may have read as many as seven Harry Potter books,” she notes. “Then the total impact on evaluations of Trump could be as much as 18 units lower.”
Which is, as the Donald might say, yuge.
Watching the movies did not have this same effect, presumably because their focus is more on story and less on Rowling’s underlying themes. As Mutz notes, they include “the value of tolerance and respect for difference; opposition to violence and punitiveness; and the dangers of authoritarianism.”
“These same three themes are prominent in coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign,” she notes, with the candidate in each case stating positions that are closer to Voldemort’s views than those of Harry and Hermione.
Mutz notes that, in the Potter books, “the protagonists are quite mindful of discriminatory practices, and the need to protect those vulnerable to unequal treatment,” and “the importance of group purity” is an obsession of the antagonists.
If the comparison of Trump to Voldemort seems unfair (to Trump), note that, last month, supporters of the candidate were conned into buying a poster of him accompanied by a direct quote from he-who-must-not-be-named. Clearly, there are some commonalities in their respective rhetoric.
Establishing causation in this kind of research is always problematic. Knowing this, Mutz took into account such factors as the participants’ gender, education, age, whether they identify as an evangelical Christian, and even their “social dominance orientation” — a belief that higher-status groups deserve to dominate their lower-status counterparts.
She reports that, even when controlling for all of those factors, the relationship between having read the books and expressing more egalitarian social values — and negative feelings for Trump — persists.
Before aspiring novelists reading this begin fantasizing about changing the world with their writing, note that Rowling has written “the best-selling book series in history,” as Mutz points out. It’s unlikely that too many other novels could have this sort of measurable impact on people’s attitudes.
“Nonetheless,” she concludes, “this study provides some of the first evidence outside of a laboratory that a fictional story may have implications for general election preferences.”
Next up in the series: Harry Potter and the Turn Toward Tolerance.