Political Cartoons (Intro & COATS)

Political Cartoons can be tricky. They assume much about their audience. 

For example, check out this modern example:

Entitlements Cartoon

What does the creator assume his audience will recognize or understand?

There's the man dressed as a baby. How do we know he's a man? Well, lots of hair, the stubble, his size, etc. How do we know he's dressed as a baby? We can kinda see diapers. And... the thing on his head - the baby bonnet. Something babies don't actually wear (modern responsible parents don't tie things around their baby's neck). But we're supposed to put that together and get that he's dressed like a baby.

He doesn't look great even for an adult, whatever his fetishes. He needs a shave, his shirt doesn't cover his ample belly, and he's generally kinda scraggly-looking. This suggests we're to view him unfavorably - otherwise the cartoonist would have made him look more impressive. 

We know he represents America, or some portion thereof, because of the flag on his shirt. His presumed parents in the background are in American colors as well; Dad looks a bit like Uncle Sam, but not the angry one who wants us in the military. 

Then there's the text. "Entitlements", which is a nice big word we can look up if we don't know. Problem is, we need more than the denotation - we need the connotation as well. Presumably it refers here to government services - welfare, health care, and the like. Calling those things "entitlements" casts them in a negative light; the term is generally used to suggest recipients believe they deserve handouts at the expense of the rest of us. It's a term of resentment. If you support those sorts of services, you don't call them "entitlements;" you call them social justice or something a bit more glowing. 

Then there's the comment by the woman in the background. It's sarcasm - rather abrasive sarcasm at that. If we don't read the tone correctly, we can't fully understand the cartoon's message.

Which is...?

Well, something along the lines of "Thanks to big government 'entitlement' programs, we've raised a generation of Americans who can't (or won't) grow up and take care of themselves. It's pathetic and disgusting. Get a job, ya' bum."

Political cartoons are quite accessible to a contemporaneous, politically informed audience. They can be brutal for a high school student in a history class a century later. The assume the audience will recognize people and events being referenced, understand any literary or historical allusions utilized, know common symbols, understand caricature, and above all properly process irony or sarcasm. Egads. 

I use two approaches to political cartoons in class - one fairly straightforward and quite doable by any level of student, and the other...

Well, the other is a work in progress. Let's do the easier one first. 


It's best to practice analyzing cartoons using Two COATS. The first time through, students list objectively what they see - any text (we're stretching the term 'Captions' to cover all text), what objects are drawn on the page, what seems to be happening literally, and whatever  date is provided for the cartoon. No inference, no deep meaningful analysis - just paying attention to what's there.

This serves several purposes. For students not fluent in political cartoon, this lets them start slow and lay a good foundation for understanding. It requires paying attention to detail without the onus of sounding 'smart'.

For stronger students, it forces them to slow down and not jump right into trying to say the most profound thing they can think of whether it applies to the cartoon in front of them or not. Sometimes it's the kids with the highest grades who rush through things and miss the obvious.

Finally, it helps distinguish between the "can't" and the "won't". I realize we're not supposed to speak of such mundane realities as grading or student engagement, but even a student with no clue what's going on can do this first COAT almost perfectly every time. Silence, or a blank or woefully incomplete page in this case means they're simply not trying for whatever reason (in which case you at least know with what you're dealing).

The Populists' Trap (Harper's Weekly, June 1896)

Populists Trap

First ‘COAT’

C – “The Populists’ Trap” (caption), “Free Silver” (label), it MIGHT say “Populists” on one of the big tree leaves, “GOP” (label, elephant), “Democracy” (label, donkey)

O -  Elephant, one leg lifted w/ sticky stuff on it, near edge of bridge, the bridge (pointed sticks?), donkey in mud or water or quicksand, broken wood, forest area, big trees – palm or other jungle-ish trees, 3 men in trees w/ spears or other weapons, hiding, various grass/fauna, more wilderness in background, header of magazine.

A – The elephant appears to have just pulled back, like he might have fallen in as well. The donkey is presumably in some distress. Men in trees are hiding and watching.

T – June 1896

Second ‘COAT’

C – The Populists were the party of the ‘little people’, especially farmers in the late 19th century. The trap is presumably the mud/quicksand into which the donkey (labeled ‘Democracy’ but probably meaning the Democratic Party given the context) is ‘Free Silver’, referring to the Populists’ call for more money to be put into circulation – ‘bimetallism’ and all that. ‘GOP’ = ‘Grand Old Party’, a nickname for Republicans, as verified by the Elephant. The term ‘trap’ suggests the cartoonists is not impressed by Populist policy – it is instead misleading and dangerous

O – We’ve already mentioned elephant/donkey as R/D parties. Bridge seems to be the path to this economic policy. Pointed sticks would make it difficult to turn around… not sure what that’s about? Placing the Populists in the trees as savages shows disdain for their policies and suggests they’re both ignorant and dangerous. These faces might represent actual Populist leaders at the time, but I have no idea. 

A – The Democrats seem to have moved forward into the ‘Free Silver’ policy and are paying the price. Republicans stopped just in time. Populists are manipulative and dangerous. 

T – 1896 was an election year, the first of two in which the Populists ran William Jennings Bryan as their Presidential candidate. Both times the Democratic Party joined them; both times they lost to McKinley, the (R).

S – Expanding the money supply is tempting, but dangerous. This deceitful demand by the Populists will do great harm to the Democratic Party as they fall for it. Even the Republicans came closer than should have to considering it.

See? That's not so hard.

It's when I try to accomodate the richer aspects of some political cartoons that it gets weird...

Next: CATS => <=MICE

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