Media and the 2020 Presidential Election

In fall 2020, prior to – and in the immediate aftermath of – the 2020 presidential election, students in COMM 461 (Media and the 2020 Presidential Election), a course within the School of Communication (COLA), conducted textual analysis of political cartoons as a way to engage with media events. Students were tasked with conducting textual analyses of cartoons from the 2020 presidential election, and then a group of cartoons from this exhibition. The process was guided by the book by Alan McKee, Textual Analysis and taught by Dr. Hinda Mandell.

Textural Analysis of John Scott Clubb Cartoons

By Alexandra Brandt

What drew me to the two historical cartoons I found in this exhibit was their relatability. Even though the issues and settings of the times presented were very different from what I am used to, I could relate a lot to the feelings that come from these cartoons. John Scott Clubb, the artist, has a great way of portraying a very relatable feeling when elections come around that is valuable to most people. 

Going into this, I knew very little about the contemporaneous issues raised in these cartoons, I’ve never been too much of a history buff, but I could definitely see a high level of emotional intelligence based on their unique presentations of stress. Of course, there’s some words and phrases that I can’t recognize, but I believe that most people of voting age can relate to these cartoons. 

My textual analysis question for these political cartoons was: How is the election period presented as stressful in historical political cartoons illustrated by John Scott Clubb?

For some background, I am a 21-year-old left-leaning person who grew up in a rural town in New Hampshire. Until this year I had never really paid too much attention to politics, nor was I able to vote in any beforehand, so this year brings a new experience for me. I have been very decisive on who I wish to vote for, but I do feel a sense of urgency in wanting this election to go as quickly as possible so things might quiet down a little. I am a bit cynical towards administration, so I am sure this will influence my interpretations a bit, but I will try to remain fair as much as I can. I chose this analysis questions because I am a person that thrives in peace and routine, and the sudden onslaught of decision-making and shouting from politics can be incredibly disruptful. I know quite a few people who feel the same, so these cartoons will definitely benefit those. 

As an introduction to these cartoons, I’ll give a little analysis. John Scott Club is the creator, and he has a very creative and expressive style that oftentimes relies on themes presented as characters to deliver the main point of his message. For example this cartoon from the "Epidemics, Economics, and Elections" digital exhibit showing the Democrats and Republicans vying for the female vote as physical characters, a donkey and an elephant trying desperately to be gentlemanly. Clubb has an eye for the bizarre and it really benefits his messages. 

The genre of these texts are political cartoons, a drawing or caricature made to provide commentary on politics, politicians, and historical events. These cartoons are most popularly consumed in news media, and are usually highly opinionated to cater to the political affiliation of the audience. Oftentimes, they are a light-hearted medium to poke fun at a situation or person, and use metaphorical or satirical imagery to convey the point of the cartoon. 

There are not many intertexts available about these cartoons, since they seem to be under the ownership of RIT Archives, though it is likely to imagine that they would be published in a political or local newspaper in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s that they were created. 

For some historical context the first cartoon I will analyze, “Moving In, Bag and Baggage” was illustrated for the 1932 presidential election, which was a very tumultuous one due to it being right in the middle of the Great Depression. The main candidates were Franklin D. Roosevelt of the Democratic Party and Herbert Hoover of the Republican Party. Hoover did not have the advantage of being the previously elected president up for reelection, as the economic turmoil had tainted his presidency as the “do-nothing” president. Roosevelt, however, had been the Governor of New York and had been a figurehead for the government aiding the impoverished, a very appealing image for people during this time. Roosevelt won with 57.4% of the votes. Ultimately, it was a strategy that required Roosevelt to merely stay reserved as Hoover’s many failings would be the main focus. (Sources: 12)

Moving In, Bag and Baggage!

John Scott Clubb, "Moving In, Bag and Baggage!," 1932

In this image we see a man sitting in a chair, his head turned and his mouth open, exclamation points coming off of him. He is turned to look at a very large man standing in his doorway, holding many bags and things under his arms. He is smoking a cigar and has a very wide smile, a speech bubble saying “Well, I’m here!” Behind him just beyond the doorway is another man carrying a huge trunk and a few scattered bags. There are many labels in this image, most notably the chair the smaller man is sitting in labeled “We the people” in quotation marks, “presidential campaign” across the large man’s chest, “Dem Politics” and “GOP Politics” on two of the bags. There are also papers scattered around the man in the chair, with labels like “unemployment relief,” “business revival,” “summer plans.”

My interpretation of this cartoon is that it is an illustration of the huge obstruction and added stress that the election can pose on everyday citizens. The man sitting in the chair is likely the owner of the home, who has been sitting and going over some papers labeled about his personal concerns. These range from bigger economic worries such as business revival and unemployment to smaller things such as a floral planting guide for the spring and vacation plans for the coming summer. The man barging in the doorway and bringing in a ton of bags is a very literal representation of the baggage that election times bring. The warring sides of the Democratic and Republican parties being the two big bags under the man’s arms, the two main parties that likely everyone will be hearing from. All the baggage and stress of this time is literally being parked in this man’s home, like a visit from an annoying relative.

The historical context of the second cartoon is of a smaller election, the 1926 New York State elections. It was held to elect quite a few positions such as Governor and U.S. Senator. Democrat Al Smith was reelected as Governor of New York, in fact almost the entire ballot showed a Democratic sweep except for a Republican Attorney General. Robert F. Wagner was elected the Senator for New York. This is during the years leading up to the Great Depression, President Calvin Coolidge was in office and next in line would be Herbert Hoover. (Sources: 12

About Run Down

John Scott Clubb, "About Run Down," 1926

In this cartoon the center of the image is a man sitting on a stool, holding a large clock. The man is smoking, with his head supported by one of his hands, his knees tucked up with feet resting on the stool rungs. He is surrounded by papers, and lines of text are spreading out from the center of the page. The man is labeled as “voter,” and the clock has a tag labeled “the campaign.” The text spiraling out from the center is a variety of phrases about the campaign, with little interwoven phrases of “tick tock.” The clock’s face shows it is labeled by weeks, starting with “1st week” at the 1:00 position and “4th week” at the 11:00 position. The hands of the clock are at the 11:00 position. The man has a speech bubble stating “C’mon- hurry up!” The papers littered on the ground are a variety of newspapers, records, campaign posters, letters, registration documents, and there is also a spilled box of campaign buttons. 

My interpretation of this cartoon is that it is a representation of the stress induced during election times. The clock the man is holding is ticking loudly, spouting out phrases of the campaigning candidates. The man holding the clock is watching it closely, saying “c’mon, hurry up” to urge the clock to reach the end of its cycle and cease its noise. The man is also surrounded by papers with information about the election all over them, likely research the man has done or things he has received due to the election. Overall it’s a cluttered, overwhelming setting that crowds the senses. His body is almost in a defensive position, his knees tucked up towards himself as he stares intently at the large, loud election clock. 

Alexandra Brandt

Alex Brandt is an Industrial designer graduating in spring 2021. Alex has a love for cartoons and comics and the occasional political banter. Alex is from the snowy mountains of New Hampshire and loves to ski and look after animals. 

Textual Analyses of 1920 Political Cartoons Covering US Presidential Elections

By Edward Brydalski
Bringing Up Warren

John Scott Clubb, "Bringing Up Warren," 1920

Bringing Up Warren,” depicts Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding as a child, sitting on the floor amongst shreds of paper while ripping out pages from a book labeled “League of Nations.” Harding is wearing a young boy’s outfit, complete with a ribbon.

Former president William Howard Taft watches with raised eyebrows, an open mouth, and sweat flying off his head from Harding’s side. He is holding a hand on his head and a hand outstretched toward Harding while shouting “WARREN!!” He is depicted as a large and round man; wearing a suit, tie, slacks, and dress shoes.

From Taft’s side, Californian senator, failed Liberal Republican presidential candidate, and Harding’s near-running mate, Hiram Johnson is wiping a plate with a cloth. He is looking at Taft and scowling with a furrowed brow while stating “AW! LEAVE THE CHILD ALONE! THAT THING IS OF NO ACCOUNT, ANYHOW!” Beside Johnson, a large, steaming bowl sits on a table while a shattered cup rests beside his feet. He is wearing glasses, a dotted shirt, an apron, a skirt, and shoes.

My interpretation of this cartoon is that the artist, John Scott Clubb, saw Harding’s 1919 anti-US-Joining-the-League of Nations speech as detrimental to the League; essentially ripping up essential qualities of it. However, Harding’s depiction as a child gives the action the connotations of carelessness, frivolity, and thoughtlessness.

Taft’s exasperated reaction most likely comes from the fact that he was a founding member and the president of The League to Enforce Peace, which was a pro-League of Nations and pro-world peace international league. This affiliation may be further represented by the ribbon pinned to his jacket, which vaguely resembles the LEP’s official ribbon. Harding ripping up the League book would be a direct assault on Taft’s values and affiliations.

Johnson’s anti-League of Nations statement is based on statements he made during his national speaking tour, where he denounced the League of Nations and sought to keep the US from ever joining it. However, this cartoon’s depiction of this sentiment does not seem to be done in reverence. The broken cup next to Johnson’s feet suggests that he is just as careless as the juvenile Harding, just in a different manner.

However, to the bigger picture of this cartoon, all three of its characters must be seen in relation to each other. Taft wears a suit, Johnson wears a skirt, and Harding wears boy’s wear. Taft is yelling, Johnson is washing and complaining, and Harding is acting careless. Even the name of the cartoon is “Bringing up Warren,” with “bringing up” being a synonym for raising or rearing.

It seems that Clubb saw these three politicians as a dysfunctional family; brought together by the Republican party but becoming discordant when addressing the topic of League of Nations.

“Bringing up Warren” follows many of the standard traits of political cartoons. It uses humor, satire, and stereotype and filters them through the lens of the artist’s opinions in order to provide a critique on contemporary political issues. It also incorporates certain tropes of the era, such as plentiful and direct labeling of people and items and a commitment to the representation of traditional gender and family roles.

This cartoon was drawn in 1920; before that year’s presidential election. This was drawn in a post-World War I America where there was great contention on whether the US should join the League of Nations. America had limited involvement in the war, but knew of the devastation it wrought in Europe. Thus, joining the League in the name of world peace seemed an invaluable decision to some; most likely, Clubb agreed with this sentiment. This could be why he depicts Harding’s negative views on America’s prospects in the League in such a negative light.

Admiration

John Scott Clubb, 
"Admiration," 1920

"Admiration,” depicts presidential candidate Warren G. Harding as a bird, yet he still has his regular human head. He is standing on a rolled-paper-shaped perch labeled “G.O.P. PLATFORM.” There is a chain tethering Harding to the perch’s stand.

Beside him are two people. One is depicted as a large man labeled “BIG BUSINESS.” He is sitting in a chair with a dollar sign drawn on the side while smiling with his eyebrows raised and staring at Harding while stating “IT WILL BE GREAT SPORT TEACHING HIM TO TALK!”He is wearing glasses, a hat, a suit, a button-up shirt, a bow tie, slacks, and dress shoes. He is holding a cigar in his right hand. A spittoon holding three cigar butts with one more on the floor beside it is sitting on the floor near his chair.

The other man is to the right of Business. He is depicted as a semi-large man labeled “THE ‘OLD GUARD.’” He is leaning on an empty cage labeled “FROM MARION, OHIO,” which rests on a large table with crate papers resting beside it. He too is staring at Harding while smiling with his eyebrows raised and with a cigar in his mouth. He is wearing glasses, a top hat, a suit coat, a button-up shirt, and a bow tie. His lower half is obscured by the table and by Business.

My interpretation of this cartoon is that the artist, John Scott Clubb, drew Harding as a literal representation of the term “political parrot.” This term specifically espouses the thoughtless propagation of the right-wing agenda, but alone, the verb “parrot” fits just as well, meaning “repeat by rote, mechanically and without understanding." This is evidenced by “G.O.P. Platform” labeled perch Harding sits atop.

Furthermore, the owners of this parrot lend credence to my interpretation. “Big business” is generally Republican leaning, as the GOP favors private enterprise and minimal government interference in business. “The ‘Old Guard’” is in reference to the elder faction within the Republican Party; a fact evidenced by a New York Times paper from the time. “The "elder statesmen" in the Republican Party who are determined at all hazards to defeat Major Gen. Leonard Wood as a candidate for the Presidential nomination' just now are using Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio as their principal stalking horse to attain that end,” the Times wrote.

In addition, Clubb paints Business and Old Guard as greedy and lethargic by way of their poses and actions. Business is sitting in a chair, staring at Harding, not engaging physically at all. Old Guard is also resting, by way of leaning on the cage. Both have cigars lit with previous butts scattered about and across the spittoon. Neither of these men are doing any kind of physical action or work; representing them as hands-off or plausibly unaffiliated.

Their surroundings further match their characters. In addition to the liberal amount of cigars, the chair and table look quite expensive. The chair is finely crafted with four arcing legs fastened to a center pole. The table is thick and long with fat, intricately carved legs. Even the perch seems high-end with a wide base and a tall, slender shaft. It all fits within the image of excess that I feel Clubb was trying to associate with these groups of people.  

Finally, the cartoon’s wording cements the values and actions of the groups represented. The title, “Admiration,” serves to represent the GOP as self-serving and self-congratulating. Clubb seems to be suggesting that members of big business and the Republican old guard primarily, or perhaps only, admire political candidates that parrot exactly what they want to hear. Big Business’ phrase “It will be great sport teaching him to talk,” implies that, with the help of Old Guard, they are making Harding repeat, or parrot, whatever they want him to say.

Just like “Bringing Up Warren,” this cartoon was drawn in the same post-World War 1 1920. Unlike “Bringing Up Warren’s” focus on the League of Nations, “Admiration” explores the role of the GOP in creating self-serving political parrots. Up to this point, Harding, as the 28th governor of Ohio, had already allied himself with the Old Guard members of the GOP, taking a generally business-friendly approach to his legislatures. This initial relationship is most likely what Clubb is referencing in “Bringing Up Warren,” as taking that affiliation further into the presidency would have made Harding a prime candidate for being a GOP parrot.

Edward Brydalski

Edward Robert Brydalski is a Journalism major in RIT's class of 2022. A Dean's List scholar, Ed has led coverage of a major sporting event, worked with a Pulitzer Prise winning journalist, and is the current student journalist representative on RIT's Student Advisory Board. Native to Buffalo, New York, Ed enjoys collecting video game memorabilia and overanalyzing bad movies.

Student Work
Media and the 2020 Presidential Election