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Political Cartoons

Having discussed the plusses and minuses associated with visual evidence in this just-completed series, I’d like to zero in on a couple of visual forms of political communication this week, starting with political cartoons.

If you count things like graffiti covering the walls of Roman cities, proto-political cartoons can be traced back centuries, although the combination of satirical imagery and dialog or captions explaining what is depicted in a cartoon can be traced back to the 18th century, becoming a fixture of political communication with the advent of the popular press.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what the artist was trying to represent in the cartoon atop this piece published during the American Revolution.

Moving ahead a couple of centuries, this cartoon was drawn by Herbert R. Block (better known as Herblock), and was one of many my father had to explain to me during Richard Nixon’s presidency in the 1970s:

In Herblock’s cartoon, a hapless administration (helpfully labeled “Administration”) is depicted as the captain of a ship, explaining to “The Economy” (anthropomorphically shown as a person – likely also a stand-in for the worried public) that everything was fine since rising inflation and a crashing stock market would even out so that “on the average, we’re doing OK.”

Like other types of images that supposedly tell a thousand words, the words communicated through this cartoon contain an argument which looks like this:

Premise 1: Inflation is rising

Premise 2: The stock market is going down

Premise 3: The administration (in this case, the Nixon administration) is making ridiculous claims that economic indicators that are both bad (rising prices and an underwater stock market) can “balance out” to describe an economy in equilibrium, rather than freefall.

Conclusion: The administration is incompetently handling an economic crisis and trying to cover up that fact with non-sensical happy talk.

While the first two premises in this argument represent facts that can be checked, the third is a metaphor, and thus open to interpretation and subject to judgement.

It’s safe to assume that the Nixon administration did not actually make the claim that rising inflation and falling stock prices cancelled each other out. So, the cartoon is arguing that we should accept that ludicrous claim as representing the kinds of ridiculous things the administration was actually saying.

Given that accepting or rejecting the conclusion hinges on what a reader thinks of Premise #3, you can see how the strength of an argument behind any political cartoon depends on understanding and analyzing metaphorical premises depicted in imagery, words, or – as in this cartoon – a combination of both.

Turning to a 21st century topic (since inflation is behind us, after all), contemporary debates about what policies can help achieve equality in America hinge on what is meant by “equality.”

While “equality of opportunity” in which every citizen – regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or national origin – should not be hindered from achieving success has traditionally undergirded civil rights and anti-poverty policies and programs, the persistence of inequality in society has caused some to call for “equality of outcomes,” in which final results (such as percentages of people with high-paying jobs or enrolled in prestigious colleges) should reflect the nation’s overall demographics.

With “equality of outcomes” rebranded as “equity,” fierce debates rage over what metrics should be used to measure equality/equity/fairness/justice and what methods should be used to achieve those ends.

With fierce debates come fierce cartoons, including this one from the conservative political cartoonist A. F. Branco:

In this cartoon, the left image shows three children standing on equally large crates, allowing each to watch a baseball game (even if the third child must stand on his toes to achieve a result equal to that of the other two).

In contrast, the right side of the image shows what the cartoonist believes is represented by equity: a situation in which all three kids have achieved equal height (i.e., equity), with none of them able to watch the game, something they all could do under the equality regime.

This equity side’s equality of outcome is achieved by giving the shortest kid a box too small to see over the fence, depriving the middle kid of any box at all, and actually hindering the tallest kid by forcing him to stand in a hole, thus achieving an equity of outcomes that leaves everyone deprived. And, lest you wonder where the ideas came from that led to such an absurd course of action, the shovel used to shorten the tallest kid is helpfully labeled "CRT" (for “Critical Race Theory”).

Needless to say, no advocate for equity, whether under the umbrella of “Critical Race Theory” or some other name, advocates for the actual (and ludicrous) course of action depicted in the cartoon for achieving their goals. So, again, the reader is required to determine if a metaphorical premise depicted in the cartoon reflects reality.

Those who associate forced equity with coercive regimes like the Soviet Union are likely to agree with that premise, while those who embrace equity as a way to achieve fairness for all are likely to reject the cartoon’s metaphor, meaning this cartoon – like many political cartoons – is likely most effective at reinforcing beliefs, rather than changing them.

Perhaps it is the harshness of Branco’s critique that limits the persuasive power of his cartoon beyond those who already agree with the sentiment it depicts, in which case how well might this softer set of images (from a blog from Washington University's Milliken School of Public Health) persuade a reader?

If these images caused you to smile, rather than scowl, it is likely because they were deliberately drawn in the same style as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a classic children’s book, written in 1963, that tells a heartfelt story of sharing, kindness, and sacrifice.

This artistic choice illustrates the rhetorical power of visual imagery. For if you disagree with the sentiments depicted in the cartoon, does that place you in opposition to Silverstein and the themes of a book that was read to you as a kid, or that you read to your kids, about the virtue of generosity?

Since recognizing an emotional argument is the first step for controlling for it, let’s peer through the style of presentation to see if there are any holes in the logical argument this cartoon is trying to make.

To begin with, it’s safe to say that a sequence anchored by Inequality at one end and Justice on the other is meant to imply progress. This means the cartoon is asking you to accept that Equality is superior to Inequality (which is hard to argue against), but also that Equity is superior to Equality, a point reinforced by the fact that images for Inequality and Equality are identical, implying visually that the two are equivalent, and inferior to other options (Equity and Justice) in which the Giving Tree is giving to all.

But if the superiority of equity over equality is the conclusion we are being asked to draw from this argument rendered in cartoon format, having that conclusion as one of the premises represents the classic fallacy of Begging the Question.

I could also quibble with other elements of the artist’s metaphor (for example, I see no reasons – just or unjust – that the kid on the right can’t simply move over to the left where apples are more numerous and, supposedly, less firmly held to the tree). But a bigger issue is that the imagery in the cartoon does not address the most pertinent issue regarding equality vs. equity: how to deal with the distribution of scarce vs. abundant goods.

There are only so many high-paying jobs, after all, or admissions slots at Harvard and Yale. If we were to build these situations into the Giving Tree metaphor, the tree in all four images would contain just one apple, in which case Equity and Justice would do nothing to answer the question of who gets a scarce good, other than giving each kid a ladder (Equity) or ladder and a two-by-four (Justice) to beat each other with in a fight to the death over that single apple.

I let this decidedly un-Silversteinish image end my analysis, in hope that readers understand how much a political cartoon smuggles into an argument, for good and ill. And the best way to discover if such smuggling is designed to enlighten vs. manipulate is to know how to peer through a visually persuasive presentation to discover and analyze the logical argument that presentation is built upon.


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