The Power of Political Cartoons

Political cartoons have been a staple of the American media since Benjamin Franklin published the famous “Join or Die” cartoon in 1754. Since that time, they have helped to shape political debates, influence how citizens viewed candidates and elected officials, and even added new words to the English language. Their ability to tell a story quickly and effectively has made them an important part of our political discussions.

Cutting through the Clutter

"The canvas fence" by Jon Kennedy depicts Uncle Sam looking angrily at terrorist escaping through a canvas fence after destruction at a US Embassy and marine barracks. October 16, 1983.

“The canvas fence” by Jon Kennedy. October 16, 1983.

Debates about politics and policy can often get bogged down in confusing and competing details coming from different sides. The use of a visual representation of an individual, issue, or event can provide a powerful, yet simple way to cut through the clutter and communicate a clear message. Consider, for example, this piece from Jon Kennedy entitled “The Canvas Fence,” which was published after the bombing of the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The depiction of the canvas sheet labeled “U.S. Security” next to the devastated barracks and the damaged embassy provides a clear narrative for the reader to explain what is to blame for allowing terrorists to kill our soldiers. The irate, but impotent Uncle Sam, unable to stop or catch the perpetrators completes the image. It connects to the reader on a gut level in a way that a more complete and dry recounting of the event might not be able to do.

Using Humor to Make the Reader an Accomplice

"But what "But what would we do without them?" by Jon Kennedy depicts the hand of "Sin Taxers" pointing to shame cigarette smokers. The machine reads "Dangerous to your health!" but collects profitable taxes. Caption reads "-But what would we do without them?" March 2, 1983.

“But what would we do without them?” by Jon Kennedy. March 2, 1983.

Political cartoons also allow authors to insert humor into the discussion, often to ridicule people or ideas that the artist opposes. This next Kennedy cartoon takes on the concept of sin taxes, taxes on items or actions considered to be undesirable. In it, Kennedy shows a finger pointing to shame a man who is smoking one cigarette while purchasing more from a vending machine, all while tax dollars the government wants and needs pour out the back of the machine. It is a simple way to make fun of the thought that these taxes will both deter people from doing something that is considered to be bad (like smoking) while, at the same time, raising large amounts of money for the government. Of course, some who support the concept may be offended by his depiction, but if they laugh at it, they become his accomplices in the joke, which makes it much more difficult to write off the message.

Communicate a New Message with a Familiar Story and Adding Complexity

"Modern-day Aesop" by Bill Graham depicts a rabbit labeled "Russia" as it speeds down a path where a sign points to the "space and missile race." A turtle, labeled "U.S.A." sleeps against a tree. January 27, 1960.

“Modern-day Aesop” by Bill Graham. January 27, 1960.

Another effective way to quickly communicate a message is to link it to something familiar – whether that is an image, a story, or a common saying. In this Bill Graham piece from the 1950s, a tortoise, representing the USA, slumbers while a hare, representing Russia, leaps ahead in the “Space and Missile Race,” making an obvious allusion to Aesop’s fable of the race between the two creatures in which one of the participants unwisely takes it easy, while the other plods on and eventually wins. At the same time, however, this piece illustrates the ways that political cartoons can carry layers of complexity. While the reader is likely to think of “The Tortoise and Hare” upon first viewing the cartoon and instantly get the general idea, a second look reveals that something is wrong with that picture. In the fable, it is the speedy hare who naps and misses out on the opportunity for the easy victory, while the hard-working tortoise’s determination and persistence pays off. In this version, however, it is the tortoise who is napping and the hare who is pushing ahead. Imagine how that changes things. In the fable, the hare should have won because of his greater natural speed, but didn’t take full advantage of it, thus allowing the tortoise to prevail. In the drawing, the tortoise is already at a disadvantage and has only made it worse. If the hare continues to run full speed, there is no way that the tortoise will ever catch him. Not only, therefore, is Graham alluding to what he sees as a missed opportunity for the U.S. in the space race, but he is suggesting that the U.S. might never be able to catch up to the Soviet Union’s efforts.

When it comes to politics, it is often difficult to convince other people to change their minds, something that seems even more true today than it was in the past. With so many different arguments thrown at us by so many different people, it is easy for people to tune everything out but the voices they are most comfortable with. Political cartoons, which allow messages to be quickly and powerfully communicated to their readers, provide an opportunity to reach people who might otherwise ignore the messages we want to send. This is why, even as so much about the way we communicate with each other has changed, they remain an important part of the political landscape more than 250 years since they first appeared in an American publication.

Joseph Giammo

Joseph Giammo, Ph.D., is the Interim Director of UALR’s School of Public Affairs. He teaches a variety of classes on American politics, including courses on elections, the presidency, and Congress. His research focuses on campaigns, voters, election laws, and political communication.