The origins of the modern political cartoon can be traced to the 16th century, with drawings used in the theological debates of the Reformation. The cartoon style as such developed in Britain in the 1800’s and is distinguished by the use of caricature.
Throughout much of the United States’ history, political cartoons have held a prominent place. During the Civil War era, Thomas Nast’s mastery of the medium was applied very effectively to the defense of Lincoln’s policies. Nast is the inventor of Donkey and Elephant signs that remain today the de facto standard signs for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. This type of iconic work is an example of the importance of political cartoons in our political scene.
To achieve such ambitious practical results as these, political cartoons must strike a delicate balance between telling things that seem real and true, and using wild imagination, exaggeration and humor. The result is to drive home a powerful and relevant message in a pleasant way. Indeed, this is the essence of caricature, or satire, which is the basis for political cartoons’ effect.
Political cartoons have seen the scope of changing media in both content and delivery. They represent vivid, imaginative insight into politics and popular opinion. Today’s political cartoons represent a fusion of pop culture and politics; and can be seen in a mired of ways. The web has become a new outlet for political cartooning.
Political and editorial cartoonists use satire to identify issues and to try to change beliefs and behaviors. They raise issues, but rarely offer solutions. Reactions to their representations are almost always mixed.
The question that remains is what is the effect that political cartoons have on an electorate and if their messages are actually hitting the right target.
I found and interesting survey on the research that has been done on this topic and political cartoons. Josh Compton, a senior lecturer on speech at Dartmouth, fell short of finding a strong effects research or quantitative study on the effects political cartoons have on the populous. However, the argument that the Josh Compton article makes is the cartoons are uniquely persuasive medium and have been called “one of the most powerful weapons in the journalistic armory,” by Steve Plumb a scholar on political communication and humor.
The little that Compton did find was a LeRoy Carl study which did highlight an inconsistency in what cartoonists intend and what readers perceive. In a random sample of citizens from two towns and a university city (undisclosed) revealed that the small-town residents were in disagreement 70 percent of the time with what the cartoonist intended. The university-city sample revealed only slightly higher results of 63 percent incorrectly perceived intended messages.
But what does this small sample mean to the realm of political cartoons as a whole? Compton offered some directions in how to pursue this research that I found interesting. Compton offers the idea that the same pursuits taken with research on late night comedy and politics be applied to cartoons. Asking the questions of how political cartoons affect the same themes such as cynicism, faith in media, political involvement and political knowledge. I came to the same conclusion as Professor Compton. If this form of media has been such an influence in the history of American politics and communication, then why hasn’t there been more of a quantitative study of it?
As a last note, here is a wiki that is an interesting tool in analyzing political cartoons.