A symbol is a visual communication tool that stands for or is representative of a group, an idea, an object, or a person. Symbols are usually displayed graphically, as in a cross, to represent The Red Cross Society. The human figure of Uncle Sam represents all that makes up the United States of America. Symbols may be simple letters like K to indicate the chemical Potassium. They could also be arbitrarily representative of a construct, such as $ for dollar and the greater than symbol in mathematics (>). In the opinion of a British philosopher, Andrew Whitehead, a symbol is a metaphor that represents a quality in reality.
Every society on the planet has evolved some kind of symbolism or the other. Usually, an object stands for a belief or an ideology. A system of symbols has reference to its capacity to communicate information, but in a subtle way. In the field of politics, political symbols, typically stand for or mean, what the political ideology and agenda of a politician or a political party is. On examining symbols on a global scale, some symbols may be related to an ideology that has relevance throughout the world. They may be used by parties or groups that adhere to that ideology. Many that we come across, are specific to a country or the political parties or groups within a country.
Ideally, colors pertaining to a particular community or religion should not be associated with political ideas, and consequently, political symbols. Nonetheless, there is a thin line between the colors used in political symbols and religious sentiments of the members of groups. What we do usually see are the colors of flags used in varied political parties of a single country. For instance, the colors of the US Flag are red, white and blue. Normally, political parties there, such as the Republicans and the Democrats, have either one, two or all three of these flag colors in their political symbols.
In a country as diverse as India is, in terms of political groups and religious communities, the flag has four colors. You will see that many political parties adopt those in their symbols. This is especially true for the color, orange or saffron. Nonetheless, the color orange also represents the tenets of Hinduism, so here it is inevitably tied to politics. Blue is generally tied to a quality, such as honesty or truth. A political group that wants to convey that message will use the color to do so.
Icons used worldwide
In a very generalized way, for the purpose of propaganda and to “spread a message” there are certain political symbols that have been used the world over. These may be archaic now, but some prevail, and have been used effectively in the past. Let’s see what the objects (icons) are with their meanings:
Bird flying – Liberalism
Black flag/sail – anarchy and pirates
Celtic cross – neo-Nazi
Christian cross – Christian groups
Crown – monarchy
Dove – pacifism
Sickle and hammer – Leninism and Marxism, communism
Red flag – communism, socialistic ideology
Runic letters – neo-Nazi
Swastika – Nazi Party (WW II Germany); originally a symbol of Hinduism and Jainism
Weighing scales – Justice
Worldwide, political symbols are related to different political parties in their respective countries. To understand their significance, a country-wise list may be helpful, with the main political parties listed with their symbols.
Political symbols in the United States of America
Red is the defining color of the Republican Party, and blue is symbolic of the Democratic Party.
Abraham Lincoln – A symbol of Abraham Lincoln is at the forefront of the Republican Party in America. The Declaration of Independence, signed by him, was called the “sheet anchor” and its importance lay in the fact of it stressing freedom and equality for all Americans. He stated that the Republic must come first. Republican values such as extreme nationalism, liberty for all, and conservatism have been adopted by the Republican Party. Staunch Republican values such as an extreme devotion to the Founding Fathers of the USA, have been adhered to by the party.
Eagle – The symbol of the eagle is used on Republican ballots in the state of New York. It is symbolic of strength and power.
GOP in white on a red rectangle background – This is the main abbreviation symbolic of the Republican Party of the USA. In the corner, there is a tiny elephant. The elephant, as a political symbol (with three white stars on its back) of the Republican Party, represents gallantry and upholding republican values.
Donkey – A donkey in red, white and blue is the Democratic Party’s symbol in the USA. Rather than having a derogatory connotation, it is symbolic of the common man and democratic values associated with citizens.
Political symbols in India
India has many political parties and factions, too many to enumerate. Here are the main ones.
Broom – This is the political symbol of the Aam Aadmi Party or AAP as it’s called. It was formed by a visionary called Arvind Kejriwal. The broom as a symbol is representative of the common citizen of India, and meeting his/her needs. This political party interprets the concept of Swaraj, adopting Gandhian principles. AAP seeks to attain accountability from leaders to improve citizens’ lives.
Lotus – The Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP was formed in 1980, with a clear philosophy that is integrally humanistic. It believes in Hindutva, upholding nationalism with culture taking center stage. Though India is a democratic nation in more ways than one, the BJP favors Indian tradition over western ideals. The saffron lotus is symbolic of this, being the national flower of India.
Hand – From 2014, the political symbol of the Indian National Congress is an icon of a right hand, palm facing to the front. It was the same symbol used by Indira Gandhi when she created a new faction of the earlier congress party. The hand symbolizes the rights of the individual and civil liberty. It upholds democracy to its highest sense and encourages free trade, western and Indian collaboration, and freedom.
Political symbols of the United Kingdom
Oak tree – The blue scribbled oak tree is a symbol of the Conservative Party of the UK. Famously known as the Tories, the political symbol of the hardy oak tree is representative of growth and a sustainable economic policy. This stable economy, grown by reducing taxes and increasing GDP, has proved successful in the UK.
White rose on red square – This is a political symbol of the Labour Party in the UK. Initially formed as a movement of trade unionists, it gathered storm in the 1900s. It sought political representation at Westminister and achieved it. It is a party that stands by the socialist ideals of common good for all, wanting to wipe out any hints of an unequal society. The white rose has long since stood as a sign of democratic socialism.
Political symbols of Ireland
Map of Ireland – Originally founded in 1905, this is the political symbol of the Sinn Fein Party of Ireland. The party’s symbol is the map of Ireland in green as it strives to create a united Ireland. It is a democratic socialist party. It has age-old links with the IRA or Irish Republican Army.
Harp – The green harp stands for peace and unity, and this is the symbol of the party of Fianna Fáil of Ireland. The ideology of the party is all about conservatism and Christian democracy.
Political symbols of Canada
Maple leaf – The red maple leaf, the national symbol of Canada, is the political symbol of the Liberal Party of Canada. The logo is actually the word “Liberal” with a red maple leaf on top. It promotes liberal ideals with a view to making improvements in the lives of all Canadians. Consequently, it has adopted the maple leaf as its symbol as it stands for each citizen of the country.
Letter C with red maple leaf – The Conservative Party of Canada, popularly called the Tories, espouses Canadian federalism with elected senate members. It stands for a unified Canada and so uses the red maple leaf enclosed in the letter “C” for its conservative ideals.
Political symbols of France
France has a multi-party system in government. Many political parties form the government through coalitions. In the French National Assembly, it would be hard for any one party to have a majority and form a government. There are two major governing coalitions since the 1980s. One of them is a group of right-wing parties, and the other is a left-wing coalition. La Republique en Marche is a political movement that gained momentum in recent years and the current French president, Emmanuel Macron is from this group.
Right-wing parties – These are the National Rally and the Republican Party. The National Rally is a Conservative party with nationalist ideals. They have a far-right attitude. The political symbol is a red, white and blue flame, representing the fire of the burning nationalistic spirit. The Republicans are also Conservative, but more liberal than the National Rally members.
Left-wing parties – These are the Socialist Democratic Party and the French Communist Party. Both promote democratic socialism.