The Political Animal


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By: Natasha Mintz /


It all began during Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential campaign, when his political opponents, intending to insult him, started labeling him a “jackass.” Jackson, being the stubborn man that he was, adapted the insult and began putting a donkey on his election posters. From then on in his career and even into his retirement, newspapers and cartoonists continued to represent Jackson either as a stubborn ass or struggling to control one.Almost 40 years later, the donkey was used to represent not just Jackson, but a larger group of Democrats.


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However, in 1874, Thomas Nast, a German cartoonist (later known for “Uncle Sam”) and life-long Republican working for Harper’s Magazine, illustrated what would become the two most recognizable mascots of American politics. It was a time when political cartoons weren’t just relegated to a tiny corner the editorial page, but really had the power to change minds and sway undecided voters by condensing complex ideas into more comprehensible representations. Cartoons had immense power and Thomas Nast was a master of the medium, albeit one who was extremely loyal to the Republican Party. At the time, he had become frustrated with his party and had resorted to expressing this frustration through none other than a cartoon. Using the image of a donkey to represent Democrats and the elephant, to symbolize Republicans, Nast initiated what would forever become national symbols of the respective political parties.

The cartoon, titled “The Third Term Panic,” shows a donkey (representing the Herald and the Democratic press) wearing a lion’s skin (labeled “Caesarism”- Military or imperial dictatorship) in order to frighten a group of animals. Among those animals are an elephant (labeled “Republican Vote” and fleeing towards a pit labeled “Inflation” and “Chaos”). Nast continued to use the elephant and the donkey in his cartoons, eventually having them represent the whole of his party and the opposition. The reason for choosing the elephant as representation is uncertain, but it is suspected that Nast may have picked it as the embodiment of a large and powerful creature, though one that tends to be dangerously careless when frightened.


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By 1880, cartoonists had begun using the symbols, spreading them across the nation and instilling them in the minds of American voters. Over a century later, they remain prominent in political cartoons, party literature, campaign buttons and a variety of political merchandise and propaganda that has cemented the association between the parties and their animals. The Republican Party has even adopted the elephant as their official symbol, though Democrats have yet to officially adopt the donkey (but its image is used frequently enough).

Though popularized in a Thomas Nast cartoon, the GOP’s elephant symbol originated during the 1860 campaign, as a symbol of Republican strength. Republicans envisioned “free soil, free speech, free labor.” Under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln, the GOP became the Party of the Union as well. (

Years (and years) later, The libertarian porcupine icon was created by Kevin Breen of the National Libertarian Party Social Media Team in March, 2006 to help bring libertarianism to the mainstream with a mascot that the general public could easily understand and identify. This was an alternative to the Statue of Liberty, which was the Libertarian Party’s mascot and was generally disregarded or unnoticed by the general public, who just saw it as a generic patriotic icon. As a peaceful and defensive animal, the porcupine symbol is intended to embody libertarianism.

Thomas Nast ultimately popularized these familiar symbols that have lasted over a century and remain just as prominent today. As a result, these animals become personified and symbolized to represent the ideals and opinions of humans.

But what came first: the recognition or the brand? Does having a political mascot increase the parties’ visibility to the public?

In a sense, yes. This action/process has been repeatedly engrained into the minds of American voters and even those who are too young to understand politics, thus turning the animal into a brand or a logo, much like McDonald’s “golden arches”, or Apple’s Macintosh symbol. Come election season, both animals lose any zoological significance in favor of political shorthand. For instance, in 2012, campaign buttons depicting the elephant were seen everywhere inside the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. In 2008, one of the hits of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado was a live donkey named Mordecai, who served as the Convention’s mascots. During these conventions, voters go as far as wearing themed clothing and accessories such as ties, hats, jewelry, and pins as a means of showing support for their party.


Anthropomorphism exists within the relationship between these animal images and their political shorthand counterparts. In addition to the fact that the animals are made to symbolize the political opinions of humans, certain qualities are attributed to the animal and its respective party. For an example, donkeys are generally seen as stubborn beasts of burden that are difficult to control, two qualities that have been attributed to the Democratic party on many occasions, and elephants are seen as strong but careless when threatened. De Mello writes that animals are used to symbolize a whole host of characteristics that we see in ourselves and those around us, resulting in the bestializing of people and the anthropomorphizing of animals.


This sort of animal representation as a brand/logo/mascot erases the animal’s physical significance, essentially substituting the real thing and leaving behind a superficial and simplistic symbol that humans use to make sense of our political ideologies

Margo DeMello writes that the ways in which we paint, worship, and tell stories about animals also shape how we treat them in turn. For many people, the real relationships that humans once had with animals have been largely supplanted by symbolic representations. (283)


As with a majority of human-animal relationships, this one involves a significant amount of exploitation. Images of animals are being used to convey the concepts, opinions, and ideologies of humans, essentially becoming a sort of advertisement. In our society, most people would not consent to their image being used to represent an organization*, especially a political party, as it would deviate from their own identity and personal beliefs, establishing a whole new character (i.e. substitution) or “brand”.


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I’ve concluded many things from this project, one of the most significant being that the animal mascot is more than just a symbol—it’s a brand. As I have said before, when the image of an animal is appropriated and made into a mascot, it becomes a form of advertising, much like Macintosh apple or MacDonald’s “golden arches”. These symbols are instantly recognizable, as they have been engrained in the minds of the media consumer to the point where they are automatically associated with the company or organization that they represent. Now, every time I see a mascot in sports, restaurant chains, cereals, political parties, and more, I am aware of the impact left by this appropriation and substitution. I no longer see the animal as just an extension of that brand or advertisement, but rather, I remember its true identity—that being a living, breathing organism, just like myself.



AAS: Part IV, Chapter 14, Animals in Human Thought (283-296)

Intro and Chapter 1, Understanding Representation Jen Webb, Sage, 2009 (1-38)

Introduction and Chapter 2/ Understanding Images in Image Studies: Theory and Practice, Sunil Manghani, 2013 (1-36)

Photos from Republican/Democratic conventions- Tampa, Minnesota (2012 mostly)


Colbert Report-

Shown at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth, June 7-9, 2012.-

Are You A Donkey Or An Elephant?-

Irene the Democratic Donkey-Video Blog of the recognized mascot of the national Democrat Party. Owner – Dr. Willie Kirk, musician – Greg Lowery. Featuring live news footage from CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, C-SPAN, British, Canadian and Mexican TV networks during the 1992 & 96 Presidential Inaugurations:


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