Split Identities

Depending on the rumors one believes, it appears somewhere between possible and likely that Scott Brown, the onetime Massachusetts senator who lost his reelection bid to Elizabeth Warren in 2012, will attempt to re-claim his seat in the midterms next year.

From New Hampshire.

Yup.  The very same Scott Brown who in 2010 famously and improbably became the first Republican to represent the Bay State in Congress’s upper house in more than three decades—and who ceased doing so less than 12 months ago—has rather abruptly decided that the Granite State to Massachusetts’s north is his true home after all.

A state that, conveniently enough, is looking to field a challenger to its possibly vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, less than 12 months from now.  And a state whose reputation for political independence would, unlike its reliably liberal neighbor, lay even odds for a Republican to prevail in almost any electoral contest.

The basis of Brown’s home state switcheroo is that he and his wife own a house in New Hampshire, which indeed is legally sufficient for him to take the aforementioned political plunge.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Brown’s family’s primary residence has long been in the Boston suburb of Wrentham (they possess three additional pieces of Massachusetts real estate as well), and so a great many of his former constituents were surprised to learn of his emotional migration northward.

Should he proceed with a New Hampshire Senate run, Brown would effectively be behaving as a “carpetbagger”—the Civil War-era smear for those who change home states for purely opportunistic reasons.

Both the word and the concept have been in continuous use since their coinage a century and a half ago, and lately have been equally cast in the direction of Liz Cheney, the former vice president’s elder daughter who is running for Senate in Wyoming despite having lived in Virginia for most of the last two decades.

The presumption, seemingly endorsed by everyone, is that such a practice—like countless other forms of cold political strategery—is intrinsically suspect and dishonorable, and that those who have succeeded in being elected in seemingly random locales have done so in spite of their pretensions of belonging, rather than because such overtures necessarily worked.

But this presumption is wrong, and I wish to rescue so-called carpetbaggery from its lowly reputation and position it somewhere within the realm of respectability.  For you see, dear reader, I have had considerable experience with conflicted hometown loyalty myself and understand how nebulous the notion of one’s “true” geographical center can be.

I was born in Massachusetts and lived there for eight years—just long enough, say, to acquire the soul of a bitter, tormented Red Sox fan—but then relocated to Westchester County, New York, where I remained for the duration of my adolescence and forged my strongest friendships, before ultimately returning to my state of birth upon entering college.  I still reside in Boston today, but periodically sojourn back to New York, where a sizeable chunk of my heart is firmly stowed.

Which place is my real home?  The answer is not entirely self-evident, and my geographical background is far simpler than that of countless people I know, some of whom have hopscotched from one end of the continent to the other and back, never hitching their tents to any one spot for long.

Indeed, in our highly mobile society, how many are left among us who, by choice or happenstance, have managed to stay put in the same place for their entire lives?

And more to the point, who cares if they have?

For all that distinguishes America’s many regions and geographical subcultures from each other, the United States is nonetheless fundamentally a single unit through which one is free and welcome to travel at one’s leisure throughout one’s life.

The supposed demand that one must “choose” one patch of it over the others, while necessary in a practical sense, is a highly overrated facet of our national character, and can lead to some highly unattractive (albeit sometimes amusing) jingoism in the process.

What, after all, does (or could) it mean to be a “true” New Yorker?  What set of characteristics—personal, cultural, political—might give someone a “Midwestern sensibility”?  Could someone be a “Californian at heart” without ever having actually lived in California?  To the subject at hand:  How do these questions shake out with respect to our representatives in Congress?

It seems to me that, whatever his political calculus might be, if Scott Brown opts to run in New Hampshire and the good folks there decide that he would make a fine ambassador of New Hampshire values—whatever those might be—then the subject is closed.

Carpetbagger or not, in politics, geographical identity is in the eye of the voter.


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