Drawing Liberalism: A Macroanalysis of Herblock’s Political Cartoons, 1946–76

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Simon Appleford, Creighton University
Herbert Block–better known by his nom de plume “Herblock”–was one of the most prominent voices of liberalism in the post World War two era. In his role as political cartoonist for the Washington Post, he articulated the values of liberalism to a broad national audience surpassing that reached by the writings of other liberal writers and intellectuals. As a result, Herblock played a critical role in shaping public discourse and opinion across a wide-range of political and social issues throughout the nation regardless of region. His cartoons spoke not only to current events, but also regularly supported causes–such as environmentalism, gun control, and, especially, civil liberties–that he viewed as critical to ensure and maintain the continued quality of life to which Americans should aspire. The longevity of his career and his unstinting and unapologetic support for his particular liberal agenda therefore affords a unique lens through which to interpret and understand the shifts and contours of twentieth century American political culture.

Traditional discussions of Block’s cartoons pick and choose examples from a small subset of his total output to highlight the specific point that the scholar or commentator is trying to make. This poster, however, presents the results of a digital analysis that explores the nature of Block’s liberalism and, in particular, how his choice of cartoons in response to political events would vary depending on which party held the presidency. Instead of relying on a close reading of a sample of hand-selected cartoons that are extrapolated to draw broad conclusions about the nature of his liberalism, I analyze Block’s body of work from 1946 to 1976 in its entirety–some 8,500 cartoons.

The poster will feature six visualizations, highlighting four different digital methodologies, that illuminate the longer-scale trends present in Block’s output that are otherwise obfuscated by the day-to-day nature of his working schedule and the micro-reading generally utilized when exploring his work. I demonstrate how Block was not as even-handed in his depiction of each political party as he liked his reading public to believe and that his cartoons consistently featured one political party over the other, regardless of his self-stated commitment to political neutrality. I also explore Block’s long-term depiction of specific political actors and themes and illuminate gaps in his coverage of specific parts of American society. As a result, my analysis reveals new insights into how a prominent member of the liberal mainstream interpreted and presented the events of the day and suggests new methodologies that can be deployed by other researchers to interrogate large corpora of visual artifacts.

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