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The Voldemort Effect

A coinage from Julian Sanchez:

In the Harry Potter books, the titular boy wizard is the subject of a mystical prophecy, destined to come into mortal conflict with the evil Lord Voldemort — and perhaps even capable of vanquishing him. But there’s a wrinkle: One of Harry’s classmates, Neville Longbottom, also fits most of the prophecy’s description: born at the end of the seventh month, to parents who defied Voldemort three times. The prophecy adds, however, that “the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal” — which he does to Harry, in the failed attack that leaves the infant Harry with his iconic lightning-bolt scar. But that attack had only occurred because Voldemort, learning of the prophecy, had assumed it applied to the Potter boy, not little Neville. In other words, as Harry’s sage mentor Dumbledore notes at one point, it was Voldemort’s choice to regard Harry as his predestined foe that made it true.

There’s a similar phenomenon in American politics, which I long ago mentally dubbed The Voldemort Effect. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it seems like especially recently, if you ask a strong political partisan — conservatives in particular, in my experience — which political figures they like or admire, and why, they’ll enthusiastically cite the ability to “drive the other side crazy.”

I think the equivalence here is not only mistaken, but actually 180 degrees off base. You do see this Voldemort Effect in a lot of conservative thinking, but if liberals go awry it’s more likely to be in the reverse way — a lot of Team Blue’s thinking about politics is dominated by a kind of desperate search for leaders who won’t drive the other side crazy. Hence Bill Clinton, southern good ol’ boy. Hence John Kerry, decorated war hero. Hence calm, rational compromising Barack Obama instead of polarizing meanie Hillary Clinton. And that goes back to war hero George McGovern, southern good ol’ boy Jimmy Carter, Massachusetts Miracle technocrat mastermind Michael Dukakis, etc. In retrospect all of these people are hated by the right and “obviously” represent just another strain of out of touch liberalism, but in advance each and every one appealed to the rank and file as somehow “different” from his predecessors in some key way.

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The smug conceit here is that our answers are so self-evidently correct that the other side’s failure to embrace them constitutes a kind of psychological disorder or a medical condition. Team Blue is medicine the country needs, but Red America’s allergic. What we need is to find a figure with just the right mix of personal and cultural qualities, someone who won’t activate the Red antibodies. The idea that the Republican Party voting base consists primarily of people whose interests would not in fact be served by the Democratic Party’s agenda — that, indeed, in a loss-averse world it’s conceptually quite difficult to frame an agenda that isn’t contrary to the interests of some large group of people — seems totally off the table.