As the Republican convention gets underway tomorrow in Cleveland and the Democrats the following week in Philadelphia, expect to see a lot of images of elephants and donkeys during the two events. In Sri Lankan politics, all political parties have an associated symbol that they choose for themselves. The symbols can be animals or inanimate items like a chair. These are prominently displayed at all party functions and are even present on ballot papers next to the party candidate’s name. This serves a practical purpose for voters who might be illiterate because they can identify whom to vote for by the symbol alone.
I was curious as to how these two animals came to symbolize the two parties in the US. The elephant is a powerful, majestic, and dignified animal and I can understand why a party might choose it as a symbol (and a major Sri Lankan party does have it as theirs). I was more puzzled by the donkey of the Democrats, since the qualities associated with that animal (probably unjustly) are braying, obstinacy, and general orneriness.
Elizabeth Nix says that the symbols were not chosen by the parties themselves and do not have any official status but were thrust on them by political cartoonists, Thomas Nast in particular.
The origins of the Democratic donkey can be traced to the 1828 presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson. During that race, opponents of Jackson called him a jackass. However, rather than rejecting the label, Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812 who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, was amused by it and included an image of the animal in his campaign posters. Jackson went on to defeat incumbent John Quincy Adams and serve as America’s first Democratic president. In the 1870s, influential political cartoonist Thomas Nast helped popularize the donkey as a symbol for the entire Democratic Party.
The Republican Party was formed in 1854 and six years later Abraham Lincoln became its first member elected to the White House. An image of an elephant was featured as a Republican symbol in at least one political cartoon and a newspaper illustration during the Civil War (when “seeing the elephant” was an expression used by soldiers to mean experiencing combat), but the pachyderm didn’t start to take hold as a GOP symbol until Thomas Nast, who’s considered the father of the modern political cartoon, used it in an 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon. Titled “The Third-Term Panic,” Nast’s drawing mocked the New York Herald, which had been critical of President Ulysses Grant’s rumored bid for a third term, and portrayed various interest groups as animals, including an elephant labeled “the Republican vote,” which was shown standing at the edge of a pit. Nast employed the elephant to represent Republicans in additional cartoons during the 1870s, and by 1880 other cartoonists were using the creature to symbolize the party.
The two parties have since come to accept these symbols as representing them and now feature them prominently in their campaigns.