The Political Lessons Of ‘Harry Potter’

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and the movies based on them have been the most important ongoing pop culture event in the world for the last decade and a half. As I wrote in the Atlantic, I think the reason they’re a permanent part of the canon is that Rowling achieved something really unusual in writing a moral novel that feels particularly applicable to contemporary politics, but that is timeless not just by dint of quality but by design.

1. Torture is wrong. J.K. Rowling’s adamant that torture and indefinite detention are morally wrong and counterproductive. Barty Crouch, Jr. is a nut, but he’s clearly radicalized and made even crazier by his experience undergoing psychological torture at Azkaban. Sirius Black is imprisoned there without a trial — can you imagine what the punitive damages would be in a wrongful imprisonment case if there were dementors involved? Bellatrix Lestrange’s addiction to torture warps her morally — and she doesn’t get any useful information out of Hermione when she tortures the younger woman at Malfoy Manor. Harry tries torturing people several times, but can’t do it, and in the end, his preference for less coercive tactics helps him beat Voldemort.

2. Universal health care is pretty much a necessity. Can you imagine what Neville Longbottom’s financial future would be like if he had to pay for his parents’ long-term care at St. Mungo’s? Magic’s an incredibly dangerous business, and whether you’re getting all the bones accidentally removed from your arm or getting bitten by a giant snake, it’s lucky that St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries appears to operate along the same lines as the National Health Service.

3. Bureaucrats are heroes. Whether it’s Mr. Wealsey’s unheralded service in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, or the lessons of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s time as an auror that made him a strong leader of the Order of the Phoenix, and later, Minister of Magic, bureaucrats are often heroes in Rowling’s universe. When the bureaucracy’s corrupted by people like Dolores Umbridge under Voldemort’s rule, it’s a genuine tragedy.


4. Rita Skeeter is Rebekah Brooks. How much easier would it have been for News of the World to carry out its phone hacking scheme on a grand scale if it had just employed a bunch of Anamagi with low morals. In between the Quibbler, which doesn’t have enough credibility to carry the day when it’s right, and the Daily Prophet, which is badly in need of a public editor, the Harry Potter universe needs a magical equivalent of the New York Times.

5. Good intelligence makes good policy. Cornelius Fudge’s dithering as Voldemort rose is one of the most profound political failures of the novels. His distrust of good intelligence, suspicion of people who operate in good faith, and failure to act once he’s convinced of the truth directly enable Voldemort’s rise. If Fudge had been willing to act, he might have had to do ugly things to forestall Voldemort’s rise, like arresting Death Eaters on flimsy charges (and even then, Azkaban might not have held) until he could have built more substantive cases against them, denying Voldemort key allies. But at minimum, Fudge could have gotten the wizarding world ready to defend themselves.

6. Inherited wealth can be corrupting. Clearly, the obnoxiousness of the Malfoys is crying out for a good, hard progressive taxing. On the other hand, can you imagine Voldemort at a Tea Party?

7. Good domestic policy can be protection against and invasion. Hermione’s lonely quest to get people to treat house elves like the sentient beings that they are turns out to be mighty handy when Hogwarts comes under attack. Who know that treating tremendously powerful magical beings like something other than bony little punching bags might win their loyalty so they’ll fight on your side when their former masters show up, determined to destroy you.

8. Albus Dumbledore is a wizarding George Washington. Okay, so he never took the Minister of Magic post in the first place. But knowing when to walk away from power when you could hold on to it is one of the only things that preserve democratic governments. Dumbledore’s self-knowledge and self-control turns out to be one of the more admirable things in the novels.