Gorgeous George, Jim Traficant, and some thoughts on populism

On Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies explains why “Gorgeous” George Galloway was able to knock off a Labour incumbent and win a Parliamentary seat last week. For a long time, “Gorgeous” was an outrageous leftist Labour MP from Glasgow, famous for his successful libel lawsuits, his constant deep tan, his fancy clothes, his reputation for corruption, and his personal relationships with several dictators, including Saddam (to whom his last words before the invasion were: “Sir, I salute your courage, strength and indefatigability”). Galloway was expelled from Labour, which cost him his Glasgow seat; but last Thursday, he won a triumphant return to Westminster. He will represent Bethnal Green & Bow, once the very heart of Cockney England, a poor East-End district that now has a large Bangladeshi population.

America has had several Gorgeous Georges of its own: most recently, former Representative Jim Traficant (D-OH), who was renowned for his corruption trials, his blatant toupee and outrageous 70s clothes (worn well into the 1990s), his infamatory rhetoric (especially the one-minute House speeches punctuated with the phrase “beam me up”), and his unsavory friends–local mobsters, in this case, rather than Arab dictators. Just as “Gorgeous” was kicked out of Labour, Traficant was expelled from the Democratic caucus and then the U.S. House. Gallaway is a Marxist, and Traficant is an anti-tax populist, but they share almost eveything else (including precisely the same views on most social issues).

I happened to be in Youngstown, Ohio, Traficant’s home town and electoral base, when he faced his final trial. Youngstown is a very hard-hit former steel city. My host had deep Youngstown roots as the son of a former Steelworkers Local president; he introduced me to many acquaintances of diverse classes and backgrounds. I recall a guy who had done federal time for drug-smuggling, a straight-arrow assistant football coach, and others. Quite a few of these people were Traficant fans. They knew that Youngstown was an economic disaster and that Traficant was unlikely to make it any better. But they admired him for “sticking it” to the IRS and the Justice Department. This was a man who, when charged with taking bribes as sheriff, persuaded a local jury that he had been conducting an undocumented, independent sting operation. Many Youngstown people were rooting him to pull it off again.

Daniel Davies explains Gorgeous George’s victory in terms that could also describe Traficant’s long careeer:

They voted for Gorgeous George [in Bethnall Green & Bow] for the same reason that the Glaswegians voted for him again and again, with ever-increasing majorities. Because he puts on a bloody good show, and more importantly, because he gets right up in the faces of the people at the top of the tree.

You see, it?s entirely laudable and sensible to vote for someone [this is a reference to the defeated Labour incumbent] who will spend morning noon and night tirelessly plodding away making incremental gains on your behalf and trying to smooth over one or two of the little inconveniences that make life slightly, but tangibly and materially, more difficult to live. The sensible thing to do would be to continue to vote that way, and hope for gradual and marginal progress toward a better tomorrow for our grandchildren.

But that?s living small. Living small, in the sense of knuckling down and grinding away at a system which is based on a hierarchy that has you at the bottom of it, accepting your place in that hierarchy and beavering away at the task of making your position at the bottom of the pile as tolerable as possible. … But for the health of the soul today, sometimes you need to live large. And if the only way to live large is to vote for a George Galloway … from time to time, then so be it. The purpose of professional wrestlers is to provide a spectacle of grotesque chaos while laughing in the face of the normal order of things, and the purpose of a certain kind of socialist politician is very similar. It?s not grown up, it?s not sensible and it?s not constructive, but it is exactly the kind of impulse on which any hope of a genuinely different society has to rest.

If the Bangladeshis of Bethnal Green & Bow want to chuck away eight years of New Labour in order to give a good old ‘eff off’ to Tony Blair, then I say good luck to them. And furthermore, I say ‘bollocks’ to anyone on the ‘decent left’ who has the temerity to lecture the actually existing working class on what some imagined ‘decent working class’ of the mind should be hoping and dreaming.

I’m quite open to the charge that I’m just a bourgeous goo-goo (proponent of “good government”) from the “decent left” who can’t understand the need for emotional release in places like Youngstown and Bethnall Green. But let me suggest that poor communities need not choose between voting for humdrum professional politicians who make small positive changes, or else casting protest votes for outrageous blowhards. Even when the working class has no truly effective political leaders, a third route is open to them. That is to develop a civic culture in which large numbers of citizens are capable, individually and collectively, of improving their community in small but significant ways. Instead of voting for a professional to make things modestly better, people can improve matters themselves, thereby multiplying their power and gaining a much deeper kind of satisfaction that you can possibly get from watching George G. or Jim T. on TV.

Areas that are very poor also tend to have relatively weak “civic engagement”–few people feel capable of political action, there are not enough networks and associations, power is tightly controlled by a few. To some extent, surely, being poor hurts the political culture. But I suspect the reverse is true, as well. Although Youngstown is mainly suffering because of the collapse of the US steel industry, it would be better off if more residents felt that they were competent, responsible citizens. Tupelo, Mississippi is strikingly more prosperous than any other community in the region, and some serious analysts believe that the reason is a strong local tradition of civic engagement. Robert Putnam argued that the South of Italy was not less civic than the North because it was poorer, but vice-versa–the South had failed to develop economically because its civic culture was too weak. No amount of aid from the central government could help it to develop, because in the absence of a civic culture, the money just flowed to the mob.

In a place where people feel responsible and capable as citizens, they will never vote for a Gorgeous George or a Jim Traficant. Nor will they be satisfied with a mainstream politician as an alternative. They will see the job of economic development as a shared responsibility and opportunity. All this is easy for me to say, I know. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

2 thoughts on “Gorgeous George, Jim Traficant, and some thoughts on populism

  1. dsquared

    There are also wonderful old characters like Dennis Skinner and Tommy Sheridan who not only put on a good show but deliver the goods as well. But such saints are always in short supply …

  2. Pingback: Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown « Peter Levine

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