Thursday, October 29, 2020

 Day 5: Semiotics of the Donkey and Elephant


In the election of 1828, a political satirist characterized Andrew Jackson as a jackass, using the image of a donkey to depict the raucous Democrat politician, an image he co-opted and used to his advantage. Years later, the elephant was used by soldiers as a euphemism for war. Those having seen combat were said to have “seen the elephant.” During Abraham Lincoln’s election, the elephant was applied by a cartoonist to the Republican party. 


Jackson was the first person to be elected President as a Democrat. Lincoln was the first person to be elected President as a Republican. While I suspect this is little more than an interesting historical footnote, a conspiracy-minded person may find greater significance in this parallel. Have fun with that!


Semiotics, as defined by Daniel Lucid in his book, “Soviet Semiotics, An Anthology,” “is the science of sign systems transmitting information inside some social group; it is the science of communicative sign systems.” A sign may be one of three types: icon, index or symbol. An Icon looks just like the actual thing for which it stands. An example might be the padlock you see when you visit a secure website. It indicates that your information is being locked or protected. An Index is a sign that is tied to or easily inferred by the function of the sign. An example might be a circle with a diagonal line through it, meaning don’t, for example don’t smoke. A Symbol has no apparent connection to the concept it is conveying and must be taught and learned. An example might be the cone-shaped marker used to indicate a position on a GPS-enabled map. We must learn that the cone means “you are here.”


Over the years, the donkey and elephant have become engrained symbols in our social group, specifically as they relate politicians and voters in our political system.


While never officially adopted by the Democrat party, informal use of the donkey is widespread and has come to represent for Democrats intelligence, strength, loudness, bravery, humbleness and stubbornness. Some of these characteristics may be indices, which is to say natural traits of the donkey. Others may be symbols that have been taught and learned over time.


An official sign of the Republican party, the elephant was adopted to represent the Republicans as strong and dignified. As with the Democrat’s donkey, the elephant may be both index (strength) and symbol (dignity).


As time passed, the donkey came to be a symbol of progressive ideals, which rely on greater government involvement in the regulation of citizens’ lives and governmental control that is, to a greater and greater degree, centralized. The elephant came to be a symbol of conservative ideals, which rely on limited government involvement through de-regulation and control that is pushed to state and local governments or to the people themselves.


I recall a time when candidates’ banners and yard signs almost ubiquitously included a donkey or elephant, indicating party affiliation. As I drive around and see candidates’ banners and yard signs today, almost none has one of these familiar images. I’ve wondered why. Perhaps you, kind reader, have also pondered this curious shift in communicative sign systems.


Might it be, perchance, that the symbolism of the donkey and the elephant have lost their meaning…that no difference between the two may any longer be discerned? Under both parties, government has grown in terms of cost and intervention. Under both parties, we have become entangled in foreign conflicts that cost the lives of our young men and women. Under both parties, we – the citizens of the United States, have become the daily targets of our multiple overt and covert spy agencies.


It may be this lack of distinction between the two major parties that causes politicians to omit these images from their banners and yard signs. There is no longer any meaningful semiotic differentiation between the donkey and the elephant, save one...


This difference may be one of index. Specifically, I’m talking about the rate of growth in government and government intervention. Both parties seem intent on growing government, perhaps because it grows their power, as we’ve discussed over the course of the past year. A donkey’s average top speed is approximately 40 miles per hour. An elephant’s average top speed is approximately 12 miles per hour. Both are moving forward, but one is doing so at a faster rate than the other.


If a voter desires a greater involvement in the lives of the masses and the regulations, restrictions and costs thereto attendant, and if he or she wants that involvement to be big and soon, the donkey is the way to go. If a voter is resigned to those things but wants to put them off or tolerates them incrementally, the elephant is the way to go.


For those of us who find no connection to the donkey or the elephant, we are left with an alternative party, the most prominent being the Libertarian Party. It’s official sign, one that may be both index and symbol, is the Statue of Liberty. Her torch is often found on candidates’ signs, the light of which guides our way as a nation and drives out the darkness of tyranny. I believe Libertarians still use this image publicly, because it remains closely linked to the party’s principles. For Democrats and Republicans, genuine principles have long since been swept into the dustbin of history.


Unofficially, the Libertarian Party identifies with a porcupine, an index that represents the animal’s defensive nature. It will not harm anyone who leaves it alone. This speaks to the party’s non-interventionist philosophy of live and let live – at home and abroad. Symbolically, both the official and unofficial signs of the Libertarians teach that government has three – and only three – key functions.


Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman described them saying, “Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government – in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.”


As you enter the polling booth, which animal will you take with you: the donkey, the elephant or the porcupine? 

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