For the record, in case you were wondering, the term “carpetbagger” comes to us from the period in American history known as Reconstruction, when northern entrepreneurs and political appointees came South in order to make their fortunes or careers off the backs of their vanquished foes. They often carried their belongings in carpetbags, because apparently that was the Tumi tote bag of its day.
I raise this now because later Thursday, if reports can be believed, Scott Brown, the Republican who used to represent Massachusetts in the Senate, will announce that he is now running for a Senate seat across the border in New Hampshire — which, in geographic terms, is sort of like a state senator from San Diego deciding he wants to represent Los Angeles. The collective response of the political media, not to mention Brown’s avid critics on both the left and right, will be to reflexively suggest that such blatant carpetbagger status could doom his candidacy.
And I suppose it might — along, perhaps, with Brown’s views on expanding suffrage or disarming the Choctaw nation or whatever else seemed to matter in 1865. More likely, though, being a carpetbagger is one of these antiquated issues that sound a lot more relevant to political analysts than to the people who actually vote.
The real reason modern politics so often seems to surprise those of us who practice or follow it closely isn’t because we lack for reams of granular data culled from the research of political scientists, or because we’re locked away in Washington and have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the country. It’s because we apply the wrong context to the question.
That is, strategists and commentators almost always begin by asking themselves what’s historically been true in politics, rather than considering the more relevant question, which is what’s true in the broader society now and how that might affect what we think we know about politics.
Yes, historically speaking, widespread perceptions of being a carpetbagger were likely to derail a politician, even if no one knew what the word meant. The issue was surmountable for a celebrity candidate like Robert Kennedy, who won a Senate seat in New York in 1964, right around the same time that Richard Nixon, having effectively exiled himself from California, relocated there himself. (Nixon actually ran for president as a candidate from New York, although he moved back west immediately after winning.)
For most of American history, though, your average politician — and Brown certainly qualifies as that – couldn’t just pack up after losing an election and strike out in search of a willing constituency. The age-old ideal of American politics held that you were supposed to represent the interests of the people and the places closest to your heart, rather than the closest place with an open seat.
But Americans have undergone a pretty fundamental transition in the way we identify ourselves geographically. Once we were a country of cities and rural counties, where most people could navigate their way through life using the same battered road atlas, and where they read the same local paper in old age that they delivered as children. Then, with the industrial boom and the advent of highways and suburbs, we became a more regional country, where your political outlook was more likely to be defined by whether you were a New Englander or a Southerner.
And now, increasingly, we’re just a big country, where the economic and social challenges are as ubiquitous, with some minor variations, as the vast array of Walmarts and Subway sandwich shops that stretch from one coast clear to the other. The globalization and technological shift you keep hearing about hasn’t just changed us economically, throwing us into competition against other countries where we used to compete with each other; it’s also nationalized our daily experience, so that we use the same vernacular and hang around at the same malls. We may be more divided by dueling worldviews then ever before, or more fragmented in the media we consume, but we’re far less apt to cling to local allegiance. We find our families spread across multiple states and regions, which we traverse with little sense of unease or alienation.
Constituency-shopping now isn’t only viable for a glamorous candidate like Hillary Clinton, an Arkansan by way of Illinois who followed RFK’s path to a Senate seat from New York. In a sense, most of our leading politicians now are carpetbaggers of one kind or another. Barack Obama is from Hawaii or Illinois or even Kansas, depending on how you look at it. Mitt Romney was a Massachusetts governor with a political base in Utah. The Bushes are from Maine and Texas and Florida.
Politically, it’s harder now to do what Bob Kerrey (once of Nebraska) or Liz Cheney (formerly of Wyoming) tried to do, which is to return home after an absence and act like you never left, than it is to pick a new home altogether. Dennis Kucinich lost his Ohio House seat in 2012 and then openly explored running from another district in, of all places, Oregon — an idea he abandoned but that didn’t seem nearly as crazy as some of his others. It’s not where you’re from that matters so much now. It’s where you decide to end up.
This may be especially true for a Massachusetts politician in New Hampshire, which is probably more in the orbit of Boston now than it’s ever been, thanks to the northward drift of high-tech jobs and the consolidation of local media (not to mention the traditional Red Sox fanaticism, which has itself become, disturbingly, something of an urban trend around the country). And New Hampshire, don’t forget, is a state with an established habit of taking in political outsiders every four years and integrating them into its big, loud, dysfunctional family. Bill Clinton and John McCain probably know more New Hampshire voters than either of the state’s congresswomen. Why shouldn’t Brown, who fits nicely in New Hampshire’s traditional cast of defiant moderation, get a hearing, too?
None of this is to suggest that Brown won’t face some added obstacles. Although the instant-reaction poll numbers were encouraging for him, you can bet that conservatives, who aren’t fans of Brown’s pro-Wall Street and bipartisan tilt, will make sure he earns his political residency. If Brown doesn’t study up on the state’s quirks and show some humility for what he doesn’t know — the model here is Hillary’s much imitated “listening tour” in 2000 — then you could certainly see him losing a low-turnout primary. Even if he wins the nomination, unseating Jeanne Shaheen, a former two-term governor, would be a tough assignment for anyone.
But of all the reasons Brown’s New Hampshire reinvention might fail, some dated sense of voters’ parochialism probably isn’t high on the list. Americans haven’t packed their things in carpetbags for a very long time. Maybe it’s time we retired the term.