Or, the Crass Menagerie
Donkeys are not cool. Seriously. They're easily a step or two below the horse, and if a horse should happen to go slumming one night the best a donkey can hope for is a mule. Mules are not cool.
Elephants are pretty cool. They're smart. They're big. They're not really afraid of mice. But then again they're slow, ugly, smelly, and they produce a lot of crap. So maybe elephants aren't so cool.
As I sat at my desk in freshman American History in 1992, ignoring as well as I could the finer points of the Clinton/Bush campaigns, I thought to myself, if you had to choose an animal to represent you, why the hell would you choose either of those? And then I thought, Benjamin Franklin wanted the national bird to be the turkey. Really. The turkey. Could you imagine Thanksgiving dinner on the floor of the Oval Office with an olive branch in one claw and arrows in the other? Could you take the president seriously if he had to address the nation from behind a podium with a turkey on it, howsoever stern and steely-eyed that turkey should be? No. Thus, in 1782 the founding fathers opted for coolness and picked to represent the national character the most bad-ass bird-of-prey on the North American continent.
So, in the runup to November, I was forced to ask again: why pick a donkey?
The Weapon of the Enemy
As far as representing political parties, the donkey is the older symbol of the two, going back to 1828 and the campaign of Andrew Jackson. Jackson, a populist who in that year ran for office with the slogan, "let the people rule," was labeled a "jackass" by his political opponents. There being no such thing as bad press, Jackson co-opted the strategy and put the device of the donkey on his election posters. Renowned for his stubborness, the association of man and animal stuck throughout his presidency and beyond--in 1837 political cartoonists took him to task as still trying to lead his party though retired; he was represented in newspapers and illustrations as struggling to wrangle an ass.
Technically, then, the democrats didn't choose a donkey; a donkey was thrust upon them. Nor, for that matter, did the republicans choose an elephant. Political cartoonists were again behind the association as early as 1860, but it was one political cartoonist in particular who made both the images truly the respective parties' enduring mascots.
Thomas Nast came to the States in 1840 as a six-year-old boy, and was sufficiently unimpressed with what he saw that thirty years later he was eager to give his life over to making wisecracks about it in pen and ink. The donkey reemerged in his cartoons in 1870 as the representative of an anti-war faction, stubbornly kicking Abraham Lincoln's late and literally lionized Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. The image resonated, and the donkey reappeared in later works as associated with, but not yet a symbol of, the Democratic Party.
On November 7, 1874, however, Nast gave the future Democrat donkey a recognizable and reccuring dueling partner.
Earlier that year, the New York Herald raised a cry of Caesarism against Ulysses S. Grant and the possiblity of his winning a third presidential term. The issue quickly became a democratic party hotbutton. Nast knew good material when he saw it. The cartoon of the 7th, published in Harper's Weekly and titled "The Third Term Panic," showed a donkey wearing a lion's skin in order to freak out the other animals running amok in Central Park. Donkey = The Herald, skin = Caesarism, other animals = you. One of the animals was an elephant, who specifically stood in for the Republican vote, as it was persuadable Republicans the Democrats were hoping to scare over to their side.
The cartoon was inspired by an Aesop fable about a braying ass, and not, unfortunately, by the Central Park Menagerie Scare, run by the Herald the same year, in which the paper falsely reported that the animals of the Central Park Zoo had broken out of their cages and were roaming the park in search of people to eat. The cartoon was drawn before the story was revealed as a hoax. Note that the donkey is still not the Democratic Party; there's a fox playing that role, skitting back from the brink of chaos into which the elephant seems ready to plunge.
Apparently the strategery worked. The Republicans lost the House that November, and on the 21st Nast delivered the second part of his one-two punch. He portrayed an elephant caught in a trap set by a donkey, representing the success of the Herald's "deception." Pictures and parties got a little closer in the public eye, but were not yet one and the same.
Throughout the 1870s, the Democrats and Republicans appeared in cartoons variously as lions, bears, tigers, foxes, fish, lambs, sheep, roosters, bulls, and so on. Elephants were sometimes the Republican voters, sometimes the entire American public.
It wasn't until the Electoral College controversy of 1877 that the elephant fully belonged to the Republican party. When the Electoral Commission declared Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, President, Nast took the qualifying "vote" away from his elephant's label and made it the last animal he'd use to represent the party.
In the 1880 election, other cartoonists picked it up, and took the donkey, with its Jacksonian pedigree and close associations through Nast's work, for the more or less permanent symbol of the Democratic Party.
Though the elephant is now in fact the offical mascot of the Republican Party, the Democrats have still yet to formally adopt the donkey.
The Age of Irony
Sitting at my desk in 2004, unable to ignore the finer points of the Kerry/Bush campaigns, I note that both parties are now traditionally represented by figures of their own satirizing. The donkey is stubborn and unrefined; the elephant slow, easily deceived, and most contemporaneously disturbing, originally linked to another elected president who lost the popular vote.
Perhaps we should have stuck with the turkey.