Real Political Animals: Donkey and Elephant

9 years ago

Democratic Donkeys and Republican Elephants: The political animal imagery has been around so long - at least 180 years - that we no longer question the how or the why. In fact, I'd forgotten about it entirely until Sarah Palin showed up to a rally wearing a red-white-and-blue donkey neck scarf on October 21. Naturally, she got slammed with lots of 'WTF?' blog posts and news headlines and her misplaced accessory might've been overlooked but the darn thing had the word "VOTE" all over it.

So, let's go back to the beginning. The first evidence of a donkey symbolizing the Democratic Party was in 1828 when Andrew Jackson ran for president. Like the political battles of today, name-calling ensued and his opponents labeled him a "jackass" for his populist views and his slogan, "Let the people rule." Jackson, however, turned the tables and used donkey imagery in his campaign posters. Throughout Jackson's presidency, the donkey was used to represent Jackson's stubbornness, particularly when he vetoed re-chartering the National Bank. (Hey, that sounds familiar ...)

Meanwhile, the elephant first appeared in 1864 as a symbol of the Republican Party when Abraham Lincoln used it in some of his campaign literature. The pachyderm appeared again in an 1872 Harper's Weekly political article. But it was Harper's political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who cemented both donkey and elephant as permanent party symbols.

"The elephant has a thick skin, a head full of ivory, and as everyone who has seen a circus parade knows, proceeds best by grasping the tail of its predecessor."

--Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential candidate, 1952

In his first cartoon featuring the donkey, published in 1870, Nast penned the animal kicking a dead lion. He branded the donkey as the Copperhead Press and the lion as Edwin M. Stanton, President Lincoln's secretary of war, who had just died. In Nast's mind, the cartoon illustrated a Democratic press whose lingering anti-war beliefs dishonored Stanton. ('Copperheads' were Northern Democrats who had opposed the Civil War from the beginning; Nast considered them anti-Union racists who had acquired too much power.)

Nast's first use of the elephant appeared in an 1874 "Third Term Panic" cartoon that also featured a disguised donkey chasing frightened animals. An elephant depicting the "Republican Vote" stumbled towards a pit labeled "Inflation" and "Chaos." From Nast's perspective, the elephant represented the effects of Copperhead Democrat scare tactics, as well as the confused lumbering body that Nast felt that Republican voters and publications had become.

Known as the "Father of the American Cartoon", Thomas Nast unwittingly contributed two of the most enduring political symbols of this nation and I find it pretty damn delightful that he was a German immigrant. Nast's cartoons went on to illustrate the beauty of emancipation and to lambaste the poor treatment of blacks, Chinese, Native Americans and basically any people that were being oppressed. Except the Irish - Nast HATED the Irish.

But it was his famous skewering of corrupt New York Democrat, William “Boss” Tweed, which delighted readers the most. Tweed's fear of Nast's cartoons was widely quoted:

"Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!"

 The best part? When Tweed was eventually indicted, he fled to Cuba, and then Spain. Officials wired ahead to Spain to arrange for Tweed’s arrest. The Spanish authorities, however, had no photographs of Tweed to identify him, so they used one of Nast’s cartoons. Bingo! Tweed was arrested as soon as he stepped off the boat.

Oh yeah, one more thing: Thomas Nast also gave us the enduring and overwhelmingly jolly images of Santa Claus in 1863. Before Nast got to St. Nick, he was tall, skinny and somewhat dour. (Nast also gets credit for Uncle Sam's goatee.) How crazy is that? Almost as crazy as finding out that Willard Scott, occasional weatherman and centenarian lover from 'The Today Show', created the Ronald McDonald character, which is also true.

On his blog, Amused to Life, Reese wonders if given the choice, would the same symbols be chosen today?:

"Interestingly, in these days of product branding and trademarks, the Democratic Party has still not officially adopted the donkey as their mascot (though they use it widely), while the Republicans have officially adopted the elephant. It begs an interesting question. What icons they would choose if they were to start from scratch and begin the process again. Doves and hawks? A tree and an axe? A bouquet of flowers and a pistol? A wishing well and an oil platform? Peanut butter and jelly? For the last, certainly not, because we know despite all the platitudes of bipartisanship, they clearly don't mix well together."

Another take on the symbolism from Kevin Scarborough at Scarborough's Fair, a Ron Paul supporter. (Actually, his reasoning makes more sense to me but who am I? A jackass, that's who.):

“These symbols cover both eastern and western religions. The donkey from the democrats represents the western religions of Judaism and Christianity. The Messiah is said to be riding a donkey, and Jesus, too, rode a donkey. The elephant represents the eastern religions (specifically Hinduism). It is Ganesha, the elephant headed deity and one of the most worshipped Hindu gods. Also, it represents Airavata, the white elephant that Indra (God of war, weather, and King of the gods) rode upon.

In both instances there is the notion of royalty. Jesus was the Messiah who was the King of Kings and King of the Jews and rode upon the donkey, and Indra, King of the gods, rode upon an elephant. Both hint at royalty, divinity, and sovereignty. Notice the use of the stars. One is opposite of the other, right side up, and upside down. They are opposite expressions of the same divine symbol."

Olivier Blanchard over at The Brand Builder Blog, offered some great excerpts from Williams Safire's probe into this symbolism. Olivier also asks readers to use current symbols as more relevant updates. The results?:

"Just wondering if maybe political logos like the ass and the elephant - which have pretty much lost their meaning sometime at least three generations ago - are still the best emblems to represent political parties that look and sound nothing like they did back in 1874. I posed the questions to a few friends today and this is what they came up with ...Star Trek and beer. I may have to broaden my focus group just a tad."

Finally, who says the folks at Associated Press don't love scary squash? The AP has helpfully provided a bunch of great political pumpkin stencils, including donkey and elephant, for your Friday night festivities.

Update: On Oct. 26, the Contra Costa Times reported in its "The Eye" column that the donkey scarf was given to Palin by former Hillary Clinton supporter Linda Williams, of Carmel Valley, Calif., who claimed that she gave up the vintage 70s item to send a message that she was now supporting Palin.

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.
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