Tags

Nothing here yet.

Free the GOP Elephant

January 29, 2015

As sculptors discern the figure—the god or goddess, the rearing horse, the general—residing in a block of stone, cartoonists, if they are any good at all, see the creature hidden within the celebrated, powerful, and political. Michelangelo evidently saw his giant David in a huge, partially sculpted block of marble. Pogo-creator Walt Kelly detected Senator Joe McCarthy’s inner bobcat, Simple J. Malarkey.

It was this same discerning eye that led Thomas Nast, in an 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon, to give the Republicans the elephant, and along with several earlier cartoonists of the day, the Democrats the donkey.

Originally tied to the Andrew Jackson side in the presidential election of 1820, the donkey was no doubt intended to associate Old Hickory’s supporters with a jackass—a braying fool. But over time, the party and the little ungulate have proved a near-perfect fit.

While stubborn and inclined to bite and kick, Equus asinus has been the tireless animal of all work, the Saturday’s Child of domestic stock, for thousands of years. Not much seen in the richer corners of the world these days, donkeys are still ubiquitous in developing countries, where, heads high, they dance their rather pretty trot along the rough streets and highways, while the kid in their wagon flicks his whip, looking for a bit more from his proud horselet. They seem immune to insult or exhaustion. When we want to describe really hard labor, we say someone works like a donkey in a mine. Because of these qualities, the intended jackass slur of the early 19th century has bloomed into a compliment, for donkeys and Democrats alike.

If we turn our cartoonist’s eye—everyone has one, although not all are fully developed—upon a chamber filled with Democrats, we see pretty much all donkeys, the main differences being size and coloration and the myriad inflections of the basic hee-haw bray.

Look at Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, look at Barack Obama or any Kennedy or Clinton, and there will be a Democratic jack or jennet, with all the donkey’s heroic attributes, its audacity and fortitude, along with, of course, some kicking, biting, and bad behavior.

One finds no such commonality between modern Republicans and the elephant. The elephant metaphor, like the Democratic donkey, was intended as a slur, likening the Republicans to a fat, easily spooked musophobe with a vast memory but little sense. Wearing the perpetual elephant smile, the jumbos docilely obeyed the crack of the circus ringmaster’s whip. Adlai Stevenson is said to have said, referring to his Republican opponents, an elephant “proceeds best by grabbing the tail of its predecessor.”

That may have described the competition, but it hugely insulted Loxodonta africana. Since Nast’s day, and even Stevenson’s, most people have come to see that elephants are very different from the political stereotype. They fear nothing, they are at least as smart as whales, and peaceable. They mourn their dead. They are empathetic and self-aware. They hold intricate infrasonic conversations, and seem downright fond of one another. Bulletins from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya tell us how each new elephant orphan is welcomed and adored by the other boys and girls. And sadly, they report the spike in the number of youngsters orphaned, as the species is poached to extinction for Asia’s bustling bric-a-brac trade.

In their slide toward oblivion, and in every other respect, elephants are nothing like modern Republicans. Would elephants make the poor among them poorer, the unhealthy unhealthier? Unthinkable. Would King Babar or Queen Celeste shut down their government on a political whim, or seasonally threaten to default on their sovereign debt? Of course not. Would an elephant leader consign her subjects to eternal war? Are you mad?

If we return to our imaginary chamber, this time full of Republicans, would we see elephants behind the masks? No, we would see none. We would find animal caricatures aplenty; we would see a zoo, but a zoo without elephants.

Look at recent Republican presidential nominees, at McCain and Palin, Romney and Ryan. Look at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or Ted Cruz, or Paul the ophthalmologist, or House Speaker John Boehner. You will find no elephants there.
Republicans have kept the elephant as their official symbol, but abandoned what Rudyard Kipling might have called The Way of the Elephant. They have embraced a cruel austerity that renders the poor poorer, drives the destitute into despair, and steers the herd—that is, the nation—toward political dysfunction and constant conflict.

It is time, then, to ask whether Republicans, having abandoned the principles of The Elephant Way, deserve to keep that magnificent creature as their mascot—and whether the elephant deserves better. There is no evocative link between the party and its icon. Republicans and elephants are nothing alike. The GOP should put something, or someone, else on its flag.

But what would take the elephant’s place?

Some detractors of the party, guided by the polls, might nominate a less popular species, the hyena, perhaps, for its ugly cunning, or the sidewinder for its venom, or the crocodile, for its tears and the coldness of its blood. A resurrected Simple J. Malarkey might also have a shot.

Republicans will not go gently down this path. The elephant, they will argue, has always been theirs and will remain theirs forever. Long after the last noble pachyderm has been poached, the GOP will cling to and trivialize the elephant.

No matter. This cannot be resolved by politicians anyway. Only cartoonists, with whom the donkey and elephant began, can settle the issue. Only they can take the elephant out of play. They can stop drawing political elephants, and allow the symbol to fade to nothing. And then they can dream up a substitute that more accurately represents the modern Republican Party.

What cartoonists have given, they must now take away.


Selected Works

Fiction
A former RAF squadron leader and Russian nuclear safeguards inspector try to thwart a decades-old Iraqi scheme to re-infect the world with smallpox.
An editor named Randall strives to succeed at Dawn Books, part of Dawn magazine’s media empire.
An international thriller, a moving tale of love and deception, beautifully told.
A mysterious rain of radioactive material poisons Bolivia’s coca crop. “Outstanding thriller.”
Publishers Weekly
American operatives stalk the world’s first molecular microchip in communist Bulgaria. “Extraordinary on every level.”
London Daily Telegraph

Quick Links

Find Authors