This special holiday episode of LogicCheck is dedicated to an evergreen in political cartooning: the use of Christmas-related images to make arguments regarding contemporary issues.
Before starting, I need to fess up to a prejudice I have regarding “argumentative laziness” when it comes to editorial cartoons that try to leverage pop-culture imagery.
For example, this first cartoon features a familiar Christmas icon. Can you guess what argument the cartoonist is trying to make?
That aforementioned icon is the titular character from Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (and his dog Max) who is looking at the aftermath of a contemporary event in the non-fictional world where gangs of robbers (referred to as “Smash & Grab Mobs” on a piece of shattered glass) have been looting stores at Christmas time.
If the artist wants you to believe that looting stores is a bad thing, it’s not clear the Grinch, Max, or the cartoon itself are necessary to help you reach that conclusion. Perhaps juxtaposing fictional and real wreckers of Christmas connects recent gang robberies to the holiday season, but even here it’s not clear why the Grinch would be disappointed that others are carrying on his work (unless this is the good, big-hearted Grinch from the end of the story – which would jibe with the disappointed/horrified expression on his face).
While there are law-and-order and other arguments being made regarding recent high-profile “flash-mob” robberies, this cartoon does not touch on any of them, relying instead on a character from a beloved children’s book to generate emotional impact. You saw something similar in the example at the end of this piece which used imagery from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to make a point, but at least that point (the superiority of equity over equality) contained an argument.
Moving on to socks, here is a familiar holiday motif (stockings hung by the fireplace with care) used to deliver a political argument:
The argument in this example is straightforward: that stimulus checks (presumably from COVID spending over the last two administrations) to one generation (Dad and Mom) will need to get paid for by the next generation (Kids).
In this case, the choice of Christmas imagery does a lot of heavy lifting in support of an argument that passing bills on to the next generation is a bad deal. The association of Christmas stockings with presents emphasizes that checks to Mom and Dad are gifts, presumably from a benevolent government, while the people who should be the main recipients of holiday largesse (Kids) are instead getting stuck with a sock-full of bills they will eventually have to pay.
This last cartoon imbues a well-known Christmas scenario, Santa readying his sleigh, with political meaning by replacing two of the characters (Santa and Rudolph) with political leaders you may recognize:
Unlike the first two examples, this one is smile-provoking, partly due to the quality of the caricatures of President Biden and Senator Manchin, partly due to the thoroughness of the metaphor (especially the angry donkeys standing in for Santa’s reindeer).
At first glance, the argument baked into this cartoon is that a mean-spirited Manchin is preventing Biden and the Democrats from delivering trillions in presents (all contained in Santa Joe’s enormous Build Back Better bag) to the good little citizens of the nation.
While this is a simplification of complex political dynamics that have been going on between the House, Senate, and White House over the last six months, such shorthand is fair in the world of political cartoons, especially this cartoon that – intentionally or not – is subtly ambiguous in the judgement it is asking the reader to make.
On one level, Manchin is the villain of the piece, the surly reindeer refusing to get with a program that will allow Santa to do his job. At the same time, someone who feels that this is not the time for the President and his party to be playing Santa Claus can find imagery to support negative impressions of Joe Biden (portrayed as grumpy and sleepy, not to mention ridiculous in a Santa suit) as well as sleigh-donkeys unflatteringly portrayed as both petulant and judgmental.
I suspect that an editorial criticizing both sides in the Build Back Better spending debate would do a less effective job at taking jabs at all parties, illustrating the ability of political cartoons to pack a lot of potent messages into a single holiday image.