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March 30, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: What do the elephant and donkey represent in politics?

The world is full of questions we all want answers to but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. In the spirit of that shared experience, we've embarked on a journey to answer all of the questions that burn in the minds of Philadelphians -- everything from universal curiosities (Why do disposable coffee cups still leak?) to Philly-specific musings (How does one clean the Liberty Bell?). 

Every election cycle, we're inevitably bombarded with images of the elephant and the donkey -- long-running symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties that are as ambiguous as they are ubiquitous. 

We reached out to Heather LaMarre, assistant professor of strategic and political communications at Temple University, for an answer.

What is the backstory behind the elephant and the donkey assigned to the Republican and Democratic parties? What do they symbolize?

There’s a lot of different theories or myths – if you asked 15 or 20 different political scientists, you might get different answers on this. But the idea -- or, at least, the way I interpret it and read about it in historical political science and sociology texts -- is the elephant symbolizes strength. It never forgets. It's this idea of continuity and longevity of central values and goals and principles in the GOP, or Grand Old Party. It’s this animal of majesty and great strength and very high intelligence. The sort of things elephants are associated with, it symbolizes that. I’ll give a different interpretation in a second, but this is the highbrow interpretation, and I’ll give the layman’s interpretation in a second.

The donkey, if you think of the Democratic Party, it’s always thought of as the party that's the big tent, and the party of the working class and unions. And if you think about the donkey, the donkey represents that in American farm life -- and American laborers and being this creature of hard work, as a symbol. I don’t want to say it in a negative way because it’s meant to be a positive thing, but it's a more down-to-earth -- also smart -- hard-working creature. It symbolizes that. 

So, if you think about them in terms of what they mean, culturally, the unions and the blue-collar worker and the middle class have always been sort of affiliated with the Democratic Party. And so, of course, there’s a lot of negative interpretation people put onto both animal symbols of the parties.

There's also a more 'circus' side of politics where layman interpretations have ranged anywhere from the P.T. Barnum circus-type animal being the GOP, and sort of the hard-working farmer, middle-American laborers animal being the donkey. That would be a more negative, but maybe more contemporary, interpretation. Which, the negative is more on the GOP side than anything. 

You can go back in history and find many different origins of why these animals were picked to symbolize [the parties], and it’s anything from circus life of politics all the way down to what I started with – sort of the majesty and good, wholesome side of what these animals represent.

Did this whole concept pre-date the Democratic and Republican parties?

The Whigs and the Tories, going back to British parliament where our parties sort of originated from, they didn’t have those kinds of mascots. I’m going to say it’s more of an American-culture type of thing. And it speaks to the fact that our country is more about political marketing than it is about public-policy-oriented types of elections. We have pushed very hard in the direction of our national campaigns and our two-party system really being about marketing candidates and a brand.

When did these two animals become symbols for the parties?

There are conflicting reports on the origins. The best I can find is as follows, but again: these have been disputed by some political historians, so I would be cautious in saying these are the origins.

For the Democrats, there are multiple reports that political detractors called Andrew Jackson a 'Jackass' in the 1828 election. Amused, he embraced the animal and used it in his campaign.

Other Democrats also went on to adopt the donkey as a symbol of Jackson's 1829 victory, in which he became the first Democratic President. As I said, it was later turned into a symbol of health, heartiness and hard-working Americans in the Democratic Party. 

For the GOP, this one is even more disputed. Some claim that it was used as early as the Civil War in political cartoons about Lincoln. Others credit political cartoonist Thomas Nast as popularizing the elephant in political cartoons that used multiple animals to depict voting blocs. The elephant was used to represent the Republican voter. It was seen in political cartoons such as Harper's Weekly in 1874 and became a popular symbol. Later, the elephant was used to denote tradition, strength and long-standing traditions within the GOP. 

They do feel like mascots. You half expect someone to dress up in a donkey or elephant costume in the same way they would at a ballpark.

If you go to the conventions you’ll see people with hats, buttons and all kinds of swag with these symbols on them, and so it’s really part of their overall brand. They are integral to the idea of the brand of what the party represents on the one hand, but on the other it is truly marketing. Political marketing. It speaks to the idea that American elections have become about how you wrap up and brand ideology as opposed to getting people to have earnest, responsible discussions about what is best for our democracy. So I think it plays into that.

Anything to add?

As I make this argument that it’s about branding and marketing more than it is about history and tradition of politics in America, the other example I would give is ... how these two parties are trying to ideologically align with different genres of music. If you think about even how the Republican Party has embraced country music singers and classic rock 'n' roll, that’s because a lot of social science studies show us that – in fact, I published one myself – that if you expose people to those kinds of music, they’re associated with patriotism. And classic rock and country music really rally people around the American flag and get them to have that very ‘USA! USA!' feeling. Whereas if you look at Democrats and when they’re running for election, the people they bring on tour for music acts, that music tends to be a lot more diverse in general and a lot more geared toward young people – very much that MTV ‘Rock the Vote' movement. It brings out -- not rebellion -- but protest and coming together and marching -- those kinds of feelings. 

So even the music they choose is another way of branding themselves to a certain population group that they want to evoke certain emotions from to get them to vote their way.

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