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Political Satire: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores varieties of political satire throughout American history. We will look at film and television, illustrations, and print media in their historical and political context. We will examine Colonial, Progressive-era, and contemporary examples.

Caricature and Allusion

Whether you're conservative or liberal, political commentary covers the spectrum of political views. The variety of news outlets broadcasting today cater to both sides of the aisle. While newspapers and the nightly news aim for journalistic integrity and objectivity, sometimes it's easier to swallow the reality of American politics when it's delivered with a little bit of humor.

These days political satire takes many forms: television programs like The Daily Show, cartoons like South Park and The Simpsons, films like Dr. Strangelove and Wag the Dog, and Internet channels like The Onion and Youtube's Autotune the News are notable examples in different mediums. Recent memorable examples include Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's 2010 'Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear', Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live (2008), and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo controversy in Paris, France.

These satires succeed when mixing the realities of political debate with a grain of humor. Whether in an illustration or television comedy show, political satirists enlighten our understanding of a debate by warping the reality ever so slightly. They can reveal the insanity underlying a political controversy and show us the banality of political discourse. In cases when they're not all that insightful, they're just plain funny.

Since Colonial times, political satire has played an important role in American popular culture. A form of comedic political commentary, it integrates two elements: caricature and allusion. Caricatures parody a public figure by warping their appearance. This can include animalistic qualities or other exaggerated features. The second important element of a political cartoon is allusion, or a reference to a real world situation or context. It's important that caricaturists hint at the meaning of their cartoon without making an overt connection. Political satire can be a tricky form because it aims at a fine line between journalism and humor.

Let's look at some examples of American political satire to gain a better grasp of the form.

Join or Die

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is widely recognized as America's first political satirist. One of America's Founding Fathers, he was also an author, newspaper publisher, inventor, scientist, and politician. He recognized that humor was a powerful vehicle to engage the public in political issues. As literacy was also a barrier, Franklin pioneered the use of political cartoons and caricatures as a way to reach the American public.

Benjamin Franklin, Join or Die, 1754
join or die

The cartoon that gained him infamy was printed in The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. It depicts the individual colonies as segments of a rattlesnake. The caption, 'Join, or Die' suggests the importance of American colonists banding together for a common cause. The rattlesnake later became an important symbol in the American Revolution.

Elephant and Donkey

In the late 19th century, advancements in printing made it possible for magazines and newspapers to reconfigure their layout to include more illustrations. The late 19th century saw a burgeoning of periodicals in the United States, some of which are still in circulation today: Harper's (1852), Putnam's (1853), Frank Leslie's (1855), Atlantic (1857), Scribner's (1870), and Century (1881) were created in this era. The illustrated magazine was a sensation. It garnered national audiences and made politics and storytelling accessible to the illiterate. They integrated news, short stories, and full page illustrations.

During this period, political cartoons experienced their first heyday. Harper's cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is recognized as America's most prolific political satirist from this period. Most notably, he introduced the symbols for the Republican and Democratic political parties that are still used today: the elephant and the donkey.

Thomas Nast, The Third-Term Panic, Harpers Magazine, 1874
Nast Satire

Nast's 1874 illustration The Third-Term Panic depicted the political controversy around Ulysses S. Grant's potential run for a third term as president. While there were no laws against it at the time, it was controversial because of the precedent set by the two-term presidency of George Washington.

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