An ideological war; an overbearing and incompetent government ministry; and a heap of great philosophical quotes — the Harry Potter books are a ripe source for political discussion. Indeed, there have been several books on the subject, and there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to the politics of Harry Potter. What, you may ask, does this blog post have to offer on this rich but slightly crowded subject matter?
In short, this post is a politics geek’s answer to the question: what are the politics of Harry Potter? More specifically, we’re going to explore what the characters’ political philosophies are — what they think an ideal world would look like, and how they try to bring their vision about. In addition, we’ll look at some of the institutions of Harry Potter, and what ideas they promote and encourage.
But first, a little house(elf)keeping. As with most things, when talking about someone’s political philosophy it’s quite an easy shorthand to give them labels – we’ll be dealing with four here. As with anything vaguely political the definitions can be quite malleable, but I will be using them in a way which is hopefully the most straightforward and simple.
The first type of political philosophy we need to know is conservativism. This is the belief in an established hierarchical society in which everyone has their place — power and wealth should reside with those families which have always had power and wealth; those without these things aren’t supposed to have them and should be content with what they’ve got. Conservatism is essentially a resistance to change —history should guide how we do things, with any deviation from this leading to disaster. It therefore sets out rules about how particular people should act to maintain the order and prevent chaos.
The next political philosophy we need to know is liberalism, which is probably the most flexible of the four. At its core, however, is a belief not in society, but individuals — these individuals, no matter their sex, skin colour or background, should have the freedom to do as they wish. Liberals believe in competition — the individuals who will be successful are those who are talented and work hard. Unlike conservatives, liberals believe that change, not stasis, is the best thing for society.
The final mainstream philosophy (but the third of four we discuss here) is socialism. Like conservatism, socialism subscribes to a belief in a society as being more important than individuals. While conservatives see that society as unchanging, however, socialists believe that the society as a whole needs to change in order for humanity to progress and become better.
Our fourth philosophy is perhaps the one which is so nakedly evident in the Harry Potter books — fascism. Fascism (made famous by various European dictatorial regimes in the early 1900s) is a kind of perversion of conservatism — it believes the most powerful in society are not only entitled to their power and wealth, but that anybody less powerful than them should be subjected or eradicated. It is a chillingly horrific ideology which J. K. Rowling embodies very well in Voldemort, who believes “pure blood” wizards are entitled to rule over muggles and muggle-borns. We shall return to Voldemort shortly.
First, though, let’s take a look at a couple of the political institutions of Harry Potter which help shape the characters’ beliefs and actions. Hogwarts, for example, is divided into four houses, which almost perfectly matches our four political philosophies above. Hufflepuff is the house which best matches the ideals of socialism — while none of its students have particular talents or attributes, they will all gain a great education and help contribute to a better society. Ravenclaw, meanwhile, is the house of liberalism — the house of the best and the brightest, who will go on to do great things.
From here it gets a little muddy, but Gryffindor and Slytherin appear to be the two houses of conservatism. The defining feature of Gryffindor is bravery, which in the books appear to manifest itself in an endless curiosity and a medieval sense of nobility — Gryffindors have to act in a certain way which is considered brave. This restriction by rules is obviously a very conservative one, and in this instance is similar to the “one nation” conservatism of many British prime ministers that can be traced back to Christianity — certain people are born to rule, but they must treat everyone below them in the hierarchy with kindness. This contrasts with Slytherin, which appears to subscribe to an arrogant form of conservatism which says certain people are born to rule and only these elites matter. That Gryffindor and Slytherin are both conservative houses is shown in their both having old “pure blood” families in their ranks — the Malfoys, the Blacks, the Weasleys, the Potters and the Longbottoms. They are essentially the houses of wizarding royalty, and much of the books can be seen as a competition between conservatives.
However, that is not to say that every character fits the ideology of their respective houses. Hermione “how come you’re not in Ravenclaw?” Granger is one of the most liberal characters in the book — her belief that house elves should be “free” and that they should not have a pre-determined role in society as wizards’ servants is one of the stand-out attacks on the conservative status quo in the books. Dumbledore — who was a Gryffindor when he was a student at Hogwarts — also propounds liberal views in his advocating for muggle rights among a sceptical wizarding community. Others, such as Ron, have more characteristically conservative views (although in the case of Ron this seemed to be changing towards the end of the last book, perhaps as a result of Hermione’s influence). In terms of the most important character of the series – Harry, the hero – things are not quite as clear cut, so let’s see if we can unpick his political philosophy by going into more detail.
When one of my old politics tutors gave a lecture on Harry Potter’s political persuasion, he argued that Harry was a conservative because he fights for the status quo. However, while throughout the books Harry is muted when it comes to ideas of house elf rights and muggle equality, the status quo he is defending seems to be more liberal than the alternatives presented.
For example, let’s take a look at the new vision for Hogwarts laid out by Ministry of Magic officials Cornelius Fudge and Dolores Umbridge in The Order of the Phoenix: rules on press freedom; banning of certain groups and organisations; and a network of spies and informers. This seems pretty illiberal compared to the status quo of Dumbledore’s Hogwarts.
If we compare the Dumbledore/Potter status quo to the wizarding society under Voldemort, we also see that the protagonists are fighting for a more liberal society. Muggle-born registration and the almost complete banning of free speech are just two examples of Voldemort’s society being far more illiberal than the status quo Harry fights for.
As a result, we can say that Harry, like the books as a whole, are stuck frustratingly between liberalism and conservatism — staunchly against muggle-born registration but ambiguous about house-elf liberation; against the constraints of Voldemort and Umbridge but not craving any extra liberties. Fascism is actively fought against, while the socialism of Hufflepuff is completely ignored throughout the books (especially compared to the philosophies of Slytherin and Gryffindor — even the ideas of Ravenclaw get some extensive analysis in The Deathly Hallows) with perhaps Professor Sprout acting as the sole figure who truly embodies the socialist philosophy.
So there you have it: Christian conservatism and liberalism are the political ideas which influence Harry and co, even if they didn’t realise it (although Hermione should not have insisted on being put in Gryffindor and just accepted her liberal Ravenclaw beliefs). But then, as Albus Dumbledore says: “It is our choices that show what we truly are far more than our politics.”
Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.