The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

October 26, 2012

Political symbols 101

With apologies to Mad Max and “Thunderdome,” and as voting already is under way for the next president of these United States, come Nov. 6, two parties enter, one party leaves.

Well, not quite. But you get the gist.

On Election Day, there also are a number of U.S. House and Senate races to determine, governorships and state house posts all the way down to dog catcher.

Well, maybe not dog catcher.

Despite many attempts to do otherwise, in the 236 years since the Declaration of Independence, pretty much two major political parties have determined the candidates for president of the United States.

While you hear today of Tea Party candidates, Independents, Libertarians and the Green Party, you would be amazed at all the political parties that have some standing somewhere on this vast continent.

There’s the Concerned Citizens, the Constitution Party, Reform Party, Common Sense Party, We the People and even a couple of edgy parties called the Prohibition Party, the Marijuana Party and the U.S. Pirate Party.

That’s right. I don’t make this stuff up.

So, unless you are one of the increasing number of voters who now cast early by absentee, you get to see a little history when you are handed a ballot on Nov. 6.

Both major political parties have their symbols — the jackass for Democrats and the elephant for Republicans.

While I can’t say for certain exactly what will appear at the tops of candidate ballots come Election Day, in the past — and in previous national elections across the nation — the rooster and the eagle have appeared above the Democrat or Republican party candidates listed on the ballot.

Those symbols, according to history, were used so a voter who had total political party allegiance, or who simply couldn’t read, could identify whether or not he or she wanted to vote a straight-party ticket.

Pretty simple and straightforward. Check the rooster and it’s all Democrats.

Check the eagle and you vote a straight Republican ticket.

But those images aren’t the symbols normally associated with the two major parties in America.

If you’ve been paying attention over the years — and even if you haven’t — I’d be willing to bet just about everyone recognizes the kicking jackass symbol as the Democrats, and the trunked elephant as Republicans.

We have a gentleman who was one of the most influential cartoonists in American history to thank for these political symbols.

German-born Thomas Nast was a cartoonist in 1862 during the early years of the Civil War for the most influential publication of its day — Harper’s Weekly.

He ascended to fame depicting battlefield horrors of the day, and helped bring down Boss Tweed’s infamous New York City corruption.

Today, he is most noted for having created the modern images of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus (who used to be a tall, willowy fellow, only to have Nast make him jolly, short and portly).

The first use of a donkey in a political cartoon came in 1837, before Nast was born.

It depicted President Andrew Jackson stubbornly attempting to direct the Democratic Party after leaving office — and the obstinance of the jackass was embraced by Jackson, despite its sometime’s negative connotation.

Cartoonist Nast first used the donkey as a symbol because he despised Northern Copperhead Democrats, who opposed the Civil War and were, in his eyes, anti-Union racists.

In a cartoon in 1870, Nast had the jackass kicking a dead lion, tagged President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had just died.

It was an unflattering take on the Democratic press, who Nast felt dishonored Stanton’s memory.

Nast employed the Republican elephant in an 1879 cartoon, in which a leading Democrat for president was grabbing a donkey by the tail, trying to keep the party from hurtling into a pit labeled “financial chaos.”

The elephant, in Nast’s cartoon, was another story. It symbolized a party that had departed from its roots in social liberalism, a position Nast favored.

While a Republican, Nast had grown deeply troubled by his party, and took just as big a swipe at the GOP elephant as he had the Democrats.

The elephant had been used earlier in some campaigns, but Nast used it being chased by the donkey in a lions skin, characterized as a frightened animal being bullied by the scare tactics of Copperhead Democrats — a confused behemoth Nast felt Republican voters and publications had become.

While these historical footnotes are colorful, the sobering fact for today’s Americans is that this nation — despite all the hyper-partisanship and for all the faults of our political parties — needs them both for balance.

Historically speaking, the world only has to look back scant years on the Communist Party and the Nazi Party to see the sometimes deadly consequences of one-party governments.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.

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