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The Voldemort Effect

January 13th, 2011 · 29 Comments

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.” Judging by online commentary, this seems to be an enormous part of Sarah Palin’s appeal. Palin herself certainty seems to understand this. Her favorite schtick, the well to which she returns again and again, is: “Look how all the mean liberals are attacking me!” Weekly Standard writer Matt Continetti even titled his book about the ex-governor “The Persecution of Sarah Palin.” Perversely, liberals end up playing a significant role in anointing conservative leaders.

This is, I think, a bipartisan phenomenon everyone at least subconsciously recognizes: A political figure—though more often a pundit than an actual candidate or elected official—gains prominence largely as a function of being attacked or loathed with special vehemence by the other side. Which means it’s crying out for a convenient shorthand so we can talk about it more easily; I propose “The Voldemort Effect.”

I had the sense that a year or so back, the Obama administration was rather cannily trying to exploit the Voldemort Effect deliberately, treating Rush Limbaugh as the de facto conservative/Republican leader in hopes that conservatives would fall in line, precisely because Limbaugh is very popular with the conservative base and not so much with everyone else. Which, incidentally, is a danger of the Voldemort Effect: It tends to encourage the base to embrace polarizing figures who turn off moderates, which I suspect is why it is normally observed with pundits (who can do that and remain successful) rather than with candidates.

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media · Language and Literature



29 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Emily // Jan 14, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Additional correspondence on the conservative side: the tendency to believe in prophecies.

    If this catches on like EC did (unlikely; not nearly obscure enough a reference!), it’ll be similarly misunderstood. “They call it the ‘Voldemort effect’ when people gravitate towards scary and evil public figures!”

  • 2 sam // Jan 14, 2011 at 8:44 am

    That’s an interesting observation. Wonder if we can get any further traction out of the fact that’s it’s Neville who really delivers the killing stroke to Voldemort?

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jan 14, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Is it? I’ll admit, when the climactic duel turned into an analysis of wand ownership under wizard property law, I sort of zoned out…

  • 4 Joe Vecchio // Jan 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    One of the standing principles behind today’s right wing is to do things for no other reason than to anger liberals. You see it in advertisements for right-wing talk radio: “Liberals HATE us!” It’s how they roll.

  • 5 Jeanchair // Jan 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    The conservative AM station in Chicago used to (maybe still does) advertise with these billboards. Liberals hate it, you hate liberals, ergo you love it.

  • 6 dalloway // Jan 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Old joke: what did the sadist do to the masochist? Answer: Nothing.

    Narcissists like Palin and the Tea Party thrive on attention, any attention, even negative. The best thing we can do when confronted with Palin’s latest idiocy is to quote Reagan: “Oh, Sarah. There you go again.” And then you ignore her.

  • 7 John Irvine // Jan 14, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Palin, Limbaugh, and their ilk are trolling. They are the comment trolls of politics. They are not trying to add to the conversation (let alone govern), they are trying to piss people off and self-aggrandize – it brings them money and fame.

    There is a theory going around that this is what the Wesboro Baptist Church are up to. They don’t beleive that God Hates Fags, they are just trolling and lawsuit baiting:


  • 8 LP // Jan 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Brings to mind this quote from early 2008, which has stuck with me ever since:

    “One reason I support Barack Obama is that I think he’s much better positioned to pick up some of the pieces of the shattered GOP coalition, against either McCain or Romney, than HRC is. She could well be the only person in the world capable of re-forging that coalition. Think of her as the Republican unity candidate.”


  • 9 Henry Casey // Jan 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Re: Joe Vecchio & Jeanchair:

    In all fairness, and I’m a lefty, The Nation does this same thing with saying “Rush Limbaugh doesn’t want you to read us” and ideas to that effect.

  • 10 Peter Fitton // Jan 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    If you want this to catch on, you need to call it the “Harry Potter Effect.” Actually, forget it–this can’t catch on. In your analogy, Sarah Palin is Harry Potter and liberals are, collectively, Voldemort.

  • 11 sam // Jan 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    “Is it? I’ll admit, when the climactic duel turned into an analysis of wand ownership under wizard property law, I sort of zoned out…”

    Well, he delivers the killing blow in the sense that he cuts the head off Voldemort’s snake, the last cruxis, with Gryffindor’s sword. I suppose you could say the destruction of V is a joint enterprise.

  • 12 Seeking an Operational Definition of Decency | Just Above Sunset // Jan 15, 2011 at 4:16 am

    […] Well, it’s kind of kids’ stuff, which Julian Sanchez explains here: […]

  • 13 bjkeefe // Jan 15, 2011 at 5:12 am

    Ah, c’mon Julian. Stop with the Both Sides stuff. I notice you did not even bother to try to list an example of a liberal who is liked by liberals primarily because he or she pisses off the right.

    I’m not saying the principle doesn’t exist, but it sure isn’t widespread, and further, there is just about no Dem/lib politician or major media figure a large part of whose shtick is “you should like me, because I infuriate conservatives!”

    To the extent that we have anyone of prominence on the left who does particularly irritate the right (such as Krugman, Maddow, Olbermann, Stewart, and Colbert — no politicians really come to mind), we like these people mostly because we see them as being rare birds who don’t hide behind he-said/she-said narratives, but rather say what we think should be said.

    You can disagree with how well these people do this, but I don’t think you can dispute that they’re popular because of an annoy-the-right approach.

  • 14 bjkeefe // Jan 15, 2011 at 5:13 am

    [Added] In thinking about this a little more, I suppose I can concede that some of the popularity of the figures I listed, as well as, say, Nancy Pelosi, has been enhanced by the wingnuts’ demonization of them. So I do buy your main point, just not a part of how you led up to it.

  • 15 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Jan 16, 2011 at 10:56 am

    I spent a considerable amount of 2005-2008 trying to convince my fellow Democrats to nominate John Edwards because he’d be palatable to Republican-voting Bubba from Alabama. Given subsequent revelations, it surely wouldn’t have worked.

    But anyway, the point is: being palatable to Bubba was a feature, not a bug. That was accepted by the vast majority of my Democratic interlocutors.

  • 16 The Voldemort Effect | Talk Radio Sucks // Jan 16, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    […] very interesting article by Julian Sanchez, which discusses how people on one side of the political aisle end up defining and empowering the […]

  • 17 » SciFi Weekend: The Cape; A Baby Timelord; Torchwood Casting and Filming News; The Voldemort Effect Liberal Values // Jan 16, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    […] Sanchez has blogged about The Voldemort Effect: …as Harry’s sage mentor Dumbledore notes at one point, it was Voldemort’s choice to […]

  • 18 livex // Jan 17, 2011 at 10:33 am

    “Epistemic closure” was bad enough. I propose that you quit while you’re behind.

  • 19 Vince // Jan 18, 2011 at 3:33 am

    As others have said, this seems stronger for the ressentiment-driven right.

  • 20 Elvis Elvisberg // Jan 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    bjkeefe and Vince are correct. This kind of reasoning has much less appeal on the left.

    The Medicare Part D-passin’, NCLB-cheerin’, Patriot Act-defendin’, deficit-fearin’, big gubmint-hatin’ GOP has abandoned any views on policy in exchange for a series of resentments.

  • 21 Edwin Perello // Jan 21, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    The only problem with this thesis is Palin started out not persecuted as much as she was vetted by the public after being chosen by McCain but failed miserably in the first moments – no different than any other candidate would if he or she were an unknown to most. Most had already heard of Biden when Obama picked him; no one (who isn’t a complete nerd or pays attention to all state politics) had heard of Palin before McCain picked her. The thing that really set Palin apart was she started whining about persecution practically from the start — right after the many public blunders started occurring (which was right after she was picked for the candidacy).

    Harry Potter never whined about typical politics as if he were especially targetted beyond the norm.

  • 22 Edwin Perello // Jan 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    As a matter of fact Harry Potter, despite the persecution, didn’t start whining about being picked on his oppressors until about the fourth book… in real-time, that’s a few Palin years. If the thesis would actually fit what happened to Palin, she would have taken all the persecution with stride and eventually became a bitter old man like McCain did. She probably would have done less harm to McCain’s candidacy if that were the case. Everyone loves a Harry Potter.

  • 23 Tweets that mention The Voldemort Effect -- Topsy.com // Jan 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Laughing Liberal and alexs' grandma, Edwin Perello. Edwin Perello said: No, Sarah Palin != Harry Potter. The Voldemort Effect does not apply. Palin brought this upon herself. http://bit.ly/enOegD […]

  • 24 How Ideologues Choose Their Own Enemies, or "The Voldemort Effect" - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine // Jan 26, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    […] Doherty | January 26, 2011 Reason Contributing Editor Julian Sanchez with some interesting observations that help explain Sarah Palin's strange […]

  • 25 silent v // Jan 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm


    When you start seeing a lot of responses that fit the “The other side does this but we don’t” mold, you know you have stumbled onto the truth.

  • 26 精力剤 // Jun 22, 2011 at 9:34 pm


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  • 28 Роман «Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone» как источник прецедентных имен в современных англоязычных культурах. Я.Б. Шойдопова (рук. И.Н. Столярова) | Read // May 9, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    […] The Voldemort Effect 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. http://www.juliansanchez.com/2011/01/13/the-voldemort-effect/ […]

  • 29 Jason // Jun 20, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    Just an update: This is quite opposite of the now commonly accepted definition of the Voldemort Effect. I suggest you look at the meaning popularized by Maajid Nawaz: