Law in Contemporary Society

Plunkitt and the Art of Dual Display

-- By AndrewHerink - 10 Feb 2008

George Washington Plunkitt, whose musings are documented in William Riordon’s Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (1905), was a long-time State Senator and Tammany Hall’s most outspoken politician. What can Plunkitt’s ruminations reveal? Above all, Riordin’s documentary shows a leader influenced by the culture of pecuniary emulation but, concomitantly, able to adapt this culture to his own needs.

Plunkitt and the Culture of Pecuniary Emulation

On one level, Plunkitt is a politician immersed in the culture of pecuniary emulation. Whereas Republican politicians make “indignant denials” about their plunders, Plunkitt candidly embraces the amounts of wealth his “honest graft” brings him. William Riordon, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, September 2001, Plunkitt proclaims: “Everybody knows what figure I cut in the greatest organization on earth, and if you hear people say that I’ve laid away a million or so since I was a butcher’s boy in Washington Market, don’t come to me for an indignant denial I’m pretty comfortable, thank you.” Riordon, supra, at Ch. 2. Not only, then, does Plunkitt claim to have obscene amounts of money; he also asserts that he is so conspicuous in his consumption that “everybody knows” exactly how much he makes. Moreover, Plunkitt believes that his conspicuous consumption equates with success. Prior to explaining his habits of indulgence, he states, “I don’t think you can easily find a better example than I am of success in politics.” Riordon, supra, at Ch. 2.

Plunkitt’s view of politics also reflects his immersion in the culture of pecuniary emulation. He claims that he and other Tammany politicians “have always stood […] for reward – in the men that won the victory. They call that the spoils system.” Riordon, supra, at Ch. 3. For Plunkitt, politics is another way to achieve conspicuous aggrandizement, not a way to create a better society. In contrast, he portrays his Republican rivals as foreigners to this culture, people who are more concerned with rights and abstract justice for the community than material gain for themselves. According to Plunkitt, Tammany’s opponents “cram” the “letterboxes” of constituents with fliers representing their high-minded ideals. Riordon, supra, at Ch. 6. Plunkitt makes it clear that he has no tolerance for “politics from books” and other “sorts of college rot.” Riordon, supra, at Ch. 2. These things do not yield spoils and thus are not worthwhile.

Plunkitt’s Dual Display

Yet Plunkitt does not adopt the culture of pecuniary emulation in its purest form. Indeed, he spends a whole chapter admonishing future politicians on the “Dangers of the Dress Suit in Politics.” Riordon, supra, at Ch 12. He tells these politicians to “[l]ive like your neighbors even if you have the means to live better” and to “[m]ake the poorest man in your district feel that he is your equal, or even a bit superior to you.” Id. Indeed, Plunkitt himself claims to wear the simplest of clothing.

In one sense, Plunkitt’s aversion to the dress suit can be seen as a rejection of the “pure” pecuniary emulation culture, in which one’s sole objective is to transform his wealth into conspicuous display. Yet in another, more important sense, his aversion is an adaptation of the pecuniary emulation culture to his own political needs. If Plunkitt were merely a wealthy private individual he would have no incentive to avoid a dress suit, for his wealth and his display of it would be the sole base of his power. Yet, Plunkitt, to retain his level of influence, has to do more than show that he is a rich man; he has to display himself as a capable leader for his constituents.

To show himself as a viable leader, Plunkitt attempts to perform a “dual display.” On one hand, Plunkitt has to make clear that he is “better” than his constituents. If they see him as an equal, they will not accept him as any more capable than they are of leading their lives. In turn, Plunkitt, as seen above, makes clear to his voters that he has massive amounts of wealth. Although his voters are not successful in the conspicuous consumption sweepstakes, they are constantly exposed to the culture of pecuniary emulation by their richer peers. Plunkitt, therefore, gambles that his voters will buy into the pecuniary emulation culture and, in turn, translate his conspicuous display of wealth into an assumption that he is superior.

Yet, paradoxically, Plunkitt also must communicate that he, although superior, is in essence identical to his voters. If his voters view him as an outsider, they may fear that he will not look out for their interests, and in turn they may be less likely to support him. Plunkitt, therefore, attempts to make a second, more populistic type of conspicuous display: he openly refuses to wear a dress suit and ridicules those who do. In effect, in order to communicate an affinity with his largely indigent voters, Plunkitt makes conspicuous his refusal to use his clothing for conspicuous consumption. Again, Plunkitt takes a risk: he gambles that his voters will understand his dual display of superiority and similarity.

It is unclear whether or not Plunkitt’s voters were actually convinced by Plunkitt’s duel display. His political longevity may have had more to do with his ability to provide jobs and pay raises for his voters. Yet, nonetheless, his attempt to display himself in a certain light in order to aggrandize his power shows his acceptance of the communicative mode of conspicuous consumption.


Plunkitt was influenced by the pecuniary emulation culture, as his attempt at “duel display” reveals. Yet I do not mean to suggest that Plunkitt was merely a function of this culture. He was a complicated figure with many influences, only one of which was the predominant leisure class culture of his (and our) time.

-- AndrewHerink - 04 Apr 2008


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r4 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:55:53 - IanSullivan
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