UVM study: Did Harry Potter get Obama elected?
By Steven M. Pappas
Staff writer | July 29,2013
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Author and UVM Professor of Political Science Jack Gierzynski at his home in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — Anthony “Jack” Gierzynski is used to getting the side eye, whether it is among his peers in the field of political science or over a pint at a local watering hole. The skepticism stems from the University of Vermont professor’s latest study that suggests Harry Potter got Barack Obama elected in 2008.
Before you dismiss him, consider three facts about Gierzynski’s research, aptly titled “Harry Potter and the Millennials”: the study of college-aged Millennials was conducted nationwide; the conclusions and research methods cleared the rigorous peer review process, leading to its publication earlier this year by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; and his groundbreaking work of demonstrating how media and entertainment are shaping politics is charting a new path in the study of political science.
“No one has looked at the data from this point of view,” the Montpelier man said during a recent interview. “It is very exciting.”
In his UVM class, Gierzynski, whose previous books focus on campaign finance and national elections, began looking at how social science (in this case entertainment) can affect the mindsets of voters. He and his students began delving into other sources of entertainment, including television (“The Day After,” “Amerika,” “The Daily Show”) and movies (“Star Wars” and “Star Trek” series). While significant correlations could be made, the most obvious influence on Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2002) was Harry Potter.
The main themes of the Harry Potter story were repeated throughout the seven-book series that sold more than 335 million copies across the globe. No other series of books has been read by more people; and nearly all of the film adaptations are among the top-grossing films of all time.
“The oldest Millennials were 16 years of age when ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ was published in 1997. … Those who were born after 1992 were too young to vote in the 2008 presidential election or to participate fully in that movement of hope and change (two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Obama),” he wrote.
The discussion formed into research, and the research into the national study.
Gierzynski welcomes skeptics. In fact, they were the backbone of his research on Harry Potter.
His research, which was conducted in 2009 at schools across the United States, interviewed fans of the popular Harry Potter, as well as non-fans. Through a series of methods, Gierzynski and his team were able to conclude that fans of the J.K. Rowling series were affected by the story and its messages.
“In short, we found that Harry Potter fans tend to be more accepting of those who are different, to be more politically tolerant, to be more supportive of equality, to be less authoritarian, to be more opposed to the use of violence and torture, to be less cynical, and to (produce) a higher level of political efficacy,” Gierzynski wrote. “They are also more liberal, with a more negative view of the Bush years … they are more likely to have voted for Barack Obama.”
Along with co-author Kathryn Eddy, a regular contributor to The Times Argus, Gierzynski details the subtle and not-so-subtle political lessons of Harry Potter. For fans of the series, this will prove an interesting dissection of the characters and the metaphors they seem to represent. Gierzynski and his team zero in on race, class, discrimination, terrorism and other topics that were the focus of that time.
Gierzynski acknowledges that the “political development” of some of the respondents could have “already been ingrained in the students through family and other influences, but the research showed stark differences between fans and non-fans.
“… The results of the more rigorous statistical tests that we report … as well as the words of Millennials themselves on this issue, leave us confident that the story of the struggles of the wizarding world against Voldemort did indeed play an important role in the political development of many Millennials.”
“When we become immersed in a story, we are moved to emulate the characteristics of the heroes and reject those of the villains,” Gierzynski said. For the Millennials, that occurred every few years as they grew up; they were the first young people to be influenced by the epic story.
“Fiction — whether found in books, films, television shows, or video games — has the power to shape our politics,” Gierzynski concluded. Now, with this book behind him, and his popular UVM classes, Gierzynski is looking to the next phase of the political science field.
“While the stories in our entertainment media can affect generation after generation, some stories, because of their timing, have their largest effect on one single generation,” Gierzynski said. “The predictors are all there. Now we have a better understanding of where to look.”
Gierzynski said the fact that Harry Potter’s influences came out of reading and books is important, because of how engaged readers tend to be to process, and the world around them. “It is a remarkable feat,” he said of Rowling’s series and its implications.
But probably not intentional. “… Whether J.K. Rowling was out to influence a generation — an intent we sincerely doubt that she had — is of no concern to us. The point is that her story, like that of any other storyteller, was filled with values and perspectives of those who read or listened to it.”
Unquestionably, lessons that are repeated and reinforced are the ones that stick with anyone, Gierzynski concluded. It’s not magic.
“Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and Politics of a Muggle Generation” is available at area bookstores, and online at amazon.com and through Johns Hopkins University Press at www.press.jhu.edu
Steven Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.