Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thomas Nast, Elephants and the Republican Party.

If you were an alien sitting in a spaceship and the only signal you could pick up from us was the Thai newscast, you may well think that there are only two countries on Earth: Thailand and the United States of America. Here, all we hear about is Thai news and the upcoming presidential election in the land of Uncle Sam. 

Many things can be very surprising (to say the least) when it comes to US politics; one of them is definitively the party choices of animal emblems. On my left, the Democrats, represented by a donkey, a creature universally known for embodying stubbornness and stupidity. On my right, the Republicans, characterized by… an elephant. You may agree that for the party claiming to be the most patriotic and USA-centered of the two, choosing an animal that is not native from America or even the Western world is rather odd.  So why is the elephant the symbol of the Republican Party?

Surprisingly (or not..) the emblems of the parties used to be other animals: the proud and US-born bald eagle for the Republicans, and the rooster  for the Democrats. Donkeys and elephants only entered the political arena during the 19th century. 

The donkey made its debut in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president. His opponent had labeled him a “jackass” [1] for using the slogan “Let the people rule”. Following the wise words of Tyrion Lannister – “wear it like an armor and it cannot be used against you”- 150 years before they were pronounced, Jackson adopted the insult and carried it with pride, arguing that the creature was brave and strong willed.  The image reappeared in 1837, with Jackson riding the animal, in an attempt to denounce his effort to influence the Party even after having left the White House. However, the donkey's moment’s of fame was yet to come: on January 15th 1870 was published a political cartoon depicting a “Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion”. The donkey symbolized a certain category of democrats called Copperhead Democrats. The drawing was published in the Harper’s weekly and created by an extremely influent political cartoonist named Thomas Nast. From this moment on, the donkey pursued its career as the –unofficial- emblem of the Democratic Party, being increasingly used in caricatures, speeches and even in person: in 2008 a very alive donkey called Mordecai was crown Democratic National Convention mascot. 

On to elephants now. Their first appearance can be traced back to 1864 in an ad in support of Lincoln’s race to the White House. However, the imagery didn’t stick until Thomas Nast published another satirical drawing in the Harper’s weekly in 1876. Called “Third Term Panic”, it depicted a donkey wearing a lion’s skin – the Copperhead Press – scaring away an elephant labeled “the Republican Vote”. The cartoon was highly successful, and Nast kept on using the symbol in following works. With time passing, the Republicans adopted the animal and made it the official symbol of their party. We are yet to see a live elephant being presented in the next Republican National Convention. 

It may be hard to understand why all it took for donkeys and elephants to become political superstars was a couple of cartoons published here and there.  It would be underestimating the political weight hold by Thomas Nast. An immigrant from Germany and a school drop out with spelling problems, Nast was also highly popular. He is responsible for popularizing the images of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam that we still use today.  His acerb drawings were so influential during presidential campaigns that his friend Mark Twain wrote to him: “Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant—I mean, rather, for Civilization and Progress.” With such a formidable manager, no wonder the elephant made it to the US.

[1] Yes, a jackass is a donkey. And also a penguin. Go figure. 

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