American Political Humor

American political humor can be traced back to the political satires Benjamin Franklin and others wrote to protest British rule in the 1700s. As newspapers and other printed materials proliferated in the 1800s, they came to include political cartoons. Thomas Nast (1840—1902) became nationally known for his caricatures of politicians and for developing the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant as symbols of those political parties. The history of political buttons goes back as far as George Washington when actual buttons were produced to be sewn on clothing. Political buttons as pins came later. The first mass production of metal buttons with pins dates to the 1896 William McKinley campaign.

This exhibit surveys the use of humor in an array of objects produced for American political campaigns, 1896 to 2016. Some of the humor is light-hearted and good-natured. But from a contemporary vantage point, some of it is quite dark, having misogynist, homophobic, and even violent sexual overtones. It is a hopeful sign of the times that we now recognize when—from some Americans’ perspectives—political campaign materials meant to be funny in their day, were perhaps not all that funny. Still, as the old saying goes, “Laughter is the best medicine.” And in the face of an anxiety-producing, international pandemic, we offer these objects from the museum’s collection as comic relief.

When Everyone’s a Comedian…

Television ushered in the golden age of modern political satire in the 1950s. Comedians on primetime shows, and late-night talk shows satirized major party candidates , and sometimes nominated and campaigned for unlikely or outlandish candidates. During the 1960s, Pat Paulsen, a comedian who appeared on the Smothers Brothers Hour, launched his campaign for president with a gun control platform saying: “You can keep all your guns but we will lock up all the bullets.” In 1969, American singer and ukulele player Tiny Tim, who was an American singer and ukulele player was nominated for president.

The popular 1970s tv show All in the Family featured patriarch Archie Bunker as an uneducated, uncouth, working-class bigot. Bunker became fodder for political humorists who would nominate him for president.

Social media has become the latest platform for political humorists. Yet whereas politicians, journalists, publishers and tv producers once held sway as gatekeepers of this realm of public expression and civic engagement, the internet has effectively eliminated gatekeepers.