Political Party Animals
By Nick Thomas
While there are many odd aspects to American politics, surely one of the most bizarre is how we assign animal mascots to the two major political parties. And even stranger: neither is a turkey.
The Republican Party has long been associated with the imposing elephant, while the Democrats are linked to the humble donkey. But how did these connections come about? The association can be traced back to nineteenth century political cartoons.
It all began in 1837 with a then little-noticed drawing that showed Democratic President Andrew Jackson, well known for his stubborn nature, leading a donkey. The donkey-Democrat association might have abruptly ended there, were it not for an observant political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who revived the Democratic donkey some three decades later. The public quickly accepted the quirky connection.
Not wishing the GOP to feel ignored, a few years later Nash again sharpened his quill and turned his artistic wit toward the Republicans.
In 1874, a New York newspaper printed a story suggesting that two-term Republican President Ulysses S. Grant might run for an unheard of third term.
Although the story of Grant running again was apparently untrue, the Democrats seized on the idea, hoping to scare Republican voters away from the party by portraying Grant as an aspiring “emperor” of the United States. It’s nice to see that the distortion of facts as part of political strategy has been remarkably consistent throughout the years.
Mr. Nast’s sketch was published in The New Yorker magazine, and depicted the Republicans as elephants that were unmovable when calm, but unstoppable and destructive when agitated. The public quickly embraced the connection, and the Republican Party would be forever linked to the popular pachyderm.
Historically, of course, the Democrats have seen the elephant symbol as “a bungling, pompous and conservative” beast. But it was a former presidential candidate of the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson, who offered the best description of the Republican symbol ‒ at least from the Democratic viewpoint.
He said: “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.”
Undeterred by the Stevenson description, the Republicans actually adopted the elephant as their official symbol, preferring to believe that the “dignified, strong and intelligent” animal represented them well. We’ll never know how elephants feel about the symbolic adoption.
Not surprisingly, the Republicans haven’t offered a particularly flattering view of the gentle donkey either, considering it to be “stubborn, silly and ridiculous.”
The Democrats have never officially adopted the donkey as their party’s symbol, which is probably wise since representing yourself by an a– just doesn’t seem a good idea.
Nevertheless, the Democrats claim its “humble, smart, courageous and loveable” nature is a good analogy to their party’s philosophy, although humble and loveable are terms rarely applied to any politician.
Despite their obvious differences, the elephant and donkey actually do have something in common, aside from pungent body odor: both have been used throughout human history, in various cultures, as beasts of burden to carry our heavy loads.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the two parties could not only actually pledge to work together but combine the symbolic strength of the elephant with the donkey’s stubbornness to succeed, and carry the burdens of the nation to solve our problems for the benefit of all?
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 650 magazines and newspapers.