Donkeys and Elephants, Monkeys and Whales

June 12, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016
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By Rob Lafferty

Back in 1874, Thomas Nast was drawing cartoons for Harper’s Magazine when he created two unique political images. First he drew a donkey to represent the Democratic party; a few weeks later he drew a Republican elephant. They were caricatures, not meant as compliments, and other cartoonists began using those satirical images when they set out to mock either party. Over time, however, an odd thing happened – both parties came to embrace those animals as their identifying brands.

They’re an appropriate pair of symbols, as both critters make some of the loudest and most irritating sounds a mammal can make. Both are smart beasts and can be trained to do specific tasks, but either one might turn rogue at any moment and start biting, kicking or stomping everything in their vicinity.

Twenty-five presidents have come into office and twenty-four have gone since Nast drew his first parody. Seventeen of those presidents have been Elephants; eight have been Donkeys. Next year it will be time to pick the twenty-sixth, so now we begin an 18-month-long political parade that won’t end until someone wins the popularity contest between the most-preferred Elephant and the most-favored Donkey.

There will be other mammals on the ballot in most states, but not all of them in every state. Their presence is very much needed and their campaigns are usually honorable efforts, but they can only hope to make a small impact on the final outcome. No independent or third-party candidate can win a presidential election in America today; none have for more than 150 years, and none will until a vast majority of citizens first choose to vote, and then choose to vote differently.

Right now we seem comfortable with Elephants and Donkeys completely dominating the American presidency despite the fact that added together, those two political groups total less than half of the American electorate. Picture it like this:

Take a really big pile of voters, one that includes more that 200 million eligible citizens. Now take 40 percent of those voters and make a separate pile way over on the side. In that pile are the Non-Voters, the folks who simply can’t be bothered to choose between a Donkey or an Elephant. They’re the largest herd of eligible voters in the land but they have consistently not voted for more than 50 years.

So forget about them for the moment; leave them aside where they prefer to be. Go back to your original pile, much smaller now with only 60 percent of the voters left. Divide that pile into three equal piles and line those piles up before you. Next, take three percent of the voters from the pile on the right and add them to the pile on the left. Leave the center pile alone.

And there you have it, the American electorate all laid out in four piles. The pile on the right, the smallest pile, are the Elephants with about 17 percent of all eligible voters. The center pile is the Donkey herd at 20 percent, more or less. On the left are the self-proclaimed Independents; their pile holds about 23 percent of all voters. Meanwhile, still way off to the side are those Non-Voters at 40 percent.

Independents are considered swing voters because that’s what they do, so perhaps their symbol should be a Monkey – always on the move, leaping from one branch to the next and back again while chattering loudly much of the time. Monkeys are a truly diverse group that includes dozens of types of smart primates; their behavior is as difficult to predict as the voting behavior of Independents, so they make a fitting image for that bloc of voters.

Some folks might not appreciate having a monkey as their political symbol, but they could get used to it over time. I’m in the Monkey clan myself, and it seems to me no worse of a symbol than a donkey or elephant. If I could draw cartoons I would copyright that monkey image right now.

The Non-Voter Party is a different animal altogether. Perhaps it’s symbol should be the Whale, a semi-solitary creature who stays below the surface most of its life. Real blue whales can produce a song that resonates below the threshold of human hearing, a tone so deep that it has the power to travel thousands of miles through the oceans of the world. Non-Voters could bring that kind of power to elections if most of them would just come to the surface and sing a political song by casting a ballot.

That probably won’t happen in the presidential election of 2016, as there is no compelling candidate who can draw those Whales up from the deep and motivate them to get involved. But the Monkey clan could change our political landscape at the local level right away. Real political changes always begin with the people we elect as school board and public utility directors; from the people we choose to sit on town councils and county commissions; in the neighbors we send to represent us in state legislatures. That’s where Independent Monkeys have the best chance of winning elections against Democratic Donkeys or Republican Elephants, especially if they can lure a few Whales into voting the Monkey ticket.

If we hope to have a quiet transformation of America instead of witnessing an ugly revolution in America, then electing people into public office who have not been compromised by party politics is one of the keys. The Donkey Party and the Elephant Party each has a platform, an agenda, and each party exists to elect members who will enact the party’s agenda into law.

And that’s fine – ­or at least it is when other parties and other agendas are also in the debates and on the ballot. But our national elections are expensive; you need at least half a billion dollars to compete with Donkey and Elephant fundraising machines that will funnel more than a billion dollars into each party’s presidential campaign.

Local elections are much less expensive. Thousands of elections are held every year in towns and counties across the land; many positions are uncontested and can won for just the cost of a filing fee. It’s back here at home where the groundwork begins if we want to create the democratic republic this country has always aspired to be.

For that to happen, the Monkey Party needs to find good candidates who can unite independent voters and gain their full support. Monkey voters need to stop abandoning their preferred candidates just because they have little chance of winning. And the Whales need to surface; they need to sing their songs for everyone to hear..

 Rob Lafferty is a former newspaper editor and National Affairs columnist from Maui now living in the woods of Oregon’s Coast Range.