September 6, 2014

Transplant politicians in status-striving times

When the popular mindset switches from trying to accommodate others to advancing the self, people's pursuits resemble one or another kind of a get-rich-quick scheme. (Or get famous quick, or get fashionable quick, or get erudite quick, etc. if they are pursuing non-financial status contests.)

One consequence of restless ambition is leaving behind the place where you have roots to head off for greener pastures. Aside from your own neck of the woods not being the most likely place to dominate some career, strivers are drawn to places where they won't be recognized by those they're aiming to profit from. Everyone back home may know you're the used car salesman type, but not the naive folks who just met you yesterday. They must also want a place where shame cannot be brought down upon them — talk about a major brake on doing whatever it takes. Shame only stings when it comes from those who you're tied to deep down — some transplant could give a shit if his adoptive community tried to shame him.

And of course, it's not just the politicians but the potential voters who are more likely to be transplants in status-striving times. How could Colorado and Virginia vote for a liberal President? Simple: nowadays hardly anyone from Virginia is from Virginia. Transplant voters are going to be more open to a transplant politician not only because of their shared status as newcomers, but because shared values and goals have drawn them both away from their places of origin.

Climbing the corporate ladder and worshiping big business, for one thing. Or maybe the newcomers are immigrants looking to get rich quick by re-locating to America for work. Although these groups are striving within opposite poles of the class spectrum, they are guided by the same mindset nonetheless. Not to mention the natural love that profit-maximizers have for cheap immigrant labor.

I've been looking through current federal elected officials to see how rooted they are within the place whose voters elected them. I've put together the data on Senators, and am working on the Governors (members of the House of Representatives will take a lot longer to investigate). But for now, how about just looking at the highest elected official of all, President Obama?

Half of his family is not only unrooted in America but in all of Europe and broader Indo-European culture. It's rooted in Africa, and not even the part of Africa that has had some influence in America via the West African slaves. His step-father is equally unrooted in America, Europe, or Indo-European culture. Worse yet, he's not rooted in the same place that Obama Sr. is from — it's a different remote part of the world.

His mother's side is rooted around Kansas, but she went chasing after high status in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, and Indonesia. Indonesia goes without saying, but Hawaii is not a core American region either. He might as well have been born and raised in Guam or Puerto Rico. Hawaii was not even a full state of the union two years before he was born there. And even after it did become a state, it was full of other transplants, unlike if he'd been raised back near Wichita where his mother's family is from.

Going to college "on the mainland" doesn't root you there, anymore than it would for a Puerto Rican who left the island for college in New York.

So we have a President who is not rooted in the country he controls. It's no wonder he doesn't really seem to give a damn what happens to it, one way or another. He's not intent on laying waste to it, just wholly apathetic — "Whatever, let it burn, as long as the fire doesn't reach the golf course." It's worse to think about what his double election says about the voters — so transient themselves that they don't even recognize how foreign he is. Although they wouldn't care if they did, and might award him bonus points for being on the same wavelength.

Was there a previous time when the President was weakly rooted in this country, compared to his countrymen, perhaps having a father who came from abroad? If the link is with status-striving, then we ought to look into the long Gilded Age, from roughly 1830 to 1920.

I started with Grant, only on the basis of how corrupt his administration was. But no dice there. A few clicks later into the 1880s, and there he is — Chester A. Arthur, who assumed office after Garfield was assassinated, but who was well liked enough by the end of his term that he could have been elected to a second term, if he hadn't retired and died soon after completing his first.

Arthur's father was a man from the Ulster region in Ireland who had moved to Canada as an adult. Arthur's mother was from just across the border in Vermont. However, he did not move to America on her behalf; rather, they wed in Canada, and their first child was born there as well. Arthur's parents only moved back to America six or seven years before he was born (although at least it wasn't in Hawaii).

As a young adult, Arthur made a display of supporting the Irish nationalist cause, not unlike Obama's black political awareness that hit in young adulthood.

Both came from leading political machines of their day, Arthur from New York and Obama from Chicago.

And in one of the most uncanny passages I've read on Wikipedia, we learn that Arthur's obscure family and national origins and upbringing led many of his opponents to spread rumors about him not being a natural-born citizen, and therefore ineligible to serve as President. Plus ca change...

Certainly he was not as disconnected from American society growing up as Obama was, but Arthur's parents were also limited by the state of technology in the 1820s — no railroads traversing the country — and by the size of the American territory within which they could have traveled in pursuit of just the right spot. In the 1820s, "going west" meant out to Buffalo, not to the plains, the mountains, or the Pacific. Who knows where his family would have roamed around to, if his footloose Scotch-Irish father had a wide open continent to choose from, and affordable airfare?

And his case was still in contrast to just about every other President before him. James Buchanan and Andrew Jackson also had one or both parents who came to America from Ulster, although they were born 40 to 60 years before Arthur, when more Americans would've been recent transplants. Their presidencies fall within the long Gilded Age anyway.

In the first Gilded Age and the second, most of the carpet-bagger behavior happens below the national level, like moving from one state to another in pursuit of becoming a Senator or a Governor. The natural-born citizen requirement rules this out for nation-hopping into the Oval Office.

And yet look at how unrooted the President may still be, provided that the citizens are too busy trying to get rich quick to care about what outside loyalties their national leader may have. Hey, as long as he helps us get ours, then let him do whatever he wants on the side (see also: Bill and Monica).


  1. Great blog. One of the things that annoys me most about Obama is that he was a community organizer in Chicago. If the job title means anything(probably not) couldn't he have done that sort of thing in Hawaii are at least, Southern California. I wonder how many people grow up in Hawaii and end up in Chicago. Nothing wrong with Chicago but I would have assumed that they have their own organizers there before I showed up. Then again, I'm not President and at least, Obama will probably go back to Chicago unlike the Clinton's and Arkansas. Bi partisan shot George W. Bush going back to Texas is vague too. If W. actually went back to the town he grew up, I would give him points but Texas is too large.

  2. This is why I read this blog.

  3. Plopping down where you have no roots in order to organize someone else's community is like showing up as a guest to a party in order to re-structure the music playlist, switch out a different variety of drinks, and stir the pot in the group dynamics.

    But in striving times, the voters are eager for the highest-status symbol they can get to affiliate with. No different than residents wanting the local college or pro football team to hire players from across the country in order to WIN. Or the students, parents, etc. of a university wanting to recruit star faculty members to win bragging rights over their rivals, even if the stars have little or no roots.

  4. Great post, but I have a question about it. Are there more transplants during cacooning times than in outgoing times? Given the number of threads about cacooning vs. outgoing, I can't help if there's a link.

  5. I hadn't looked too much into migration before, but there was a good presentation of it at the Upshot blog on the NYT website. Living in a different state than the on you were born in was clearly following the status-striving / inequality cycle, and not the cocooning / crime cycle.

    It crept upward toward circa 1920 or '30, fell during the Great Compression, and has been rising again for the past several decades.

    Migration at that scale -- from one state to another -- is driven by economic differences (the pursuit of greener pastures). Most folks aren't going to move across state lines just because the crime rate has been going up -- it's not that big of a deal, and is something that the community can deal with while staying put.

  6. The Manhattan building in which Chester Arthur died is now a popular Middle Eastern spice store. That would make it the second most unusual re-use of a house in which a president died. The most unusual re-use is the Washington mansion in which William Howard Taft died. Today it's the Syrian embassy.


  7. Rising equality causes the exploration of and settlement of new territory. The Space Age took place during a time of rising equality, for instance.

    So did the settlement of California and the Old West( as we know, equality and inequality cycle every 50 years. if equality started in 1920, the cycle of inequality before it ran from 1820-1870. This was the era of "Transportation Revolution" when railroads opened up the West. The rush to California started in 1849 with the gold rush.

    during rising equality, communities are closed to immigrants. there isn't a lot of internal migration, so if you are living in a hostile community, you have to go settle new land.

  8. or invade a foreign land. Rising equality is more likely to have foreign wars where large armies occupy a foreign country or land - Vietnam, WWII, the Civil War(1820-1870 period), Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Though, of course, we didn't colonize any of those areas, except for the Southwest.

  9. Very interesting about Chester Arthur. He is one of those presidents that tends to get skipped in high school history class. My biggest frustration with Obama has always been that he doesn't seem to have any conception of American values beyond liberal idols of racial equality, decreased poverty, etc. I can't see that former New York senator Hillary Clinton is much better. At any rate, I'm looking forward to your full results.

  10. "That would make it the second most unusual re-use of a house in which a president died."

    (1) How the hell did you find this out?
    (2) What is the least unusual use of a house where a president died?

  11. I got that tidbit of trivia from this interesting report:

    As for the least unusual use of the house in which a president died, it's hard to say in that most died in their retirement residences, including the two most recent to die, Reagan and Ford. Only four died in hospitals (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon), while William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were the only two to die in the White House. Warren Harding came the closest to dying outside the United States, suffering what probably was a heart attack while playing golf in Canada; he died a few days later in a San Francisco hotel.


  12. I'm still flabbergasted a guy with Obama's roots could get elected. Mulatto. Hussein. Unabashed user of drugs. The socialist angle. His mysterious birth circumstances.

    Just as amazing, bringing this stuff up is a big no-no in our PC society.

  13. Brought to you by Carl's Jr.9/18/14, 3:38 PM

    "Hey, as long as he helps us get ours, then let him do whatever he wants on the side (see also: Bill and Monica)."

    I recently overheard a drunken barroom gossip mention in passing that the rootless, transplanted governor of my state is keeping a mistress on the side. Normally I'd be dismissive of unfounded gossip, but a different high-level elected official stopped in for a drink while I was there, and he and the barfly stopped and chatted for a minute as if they were old acquaintances, so I'm pretty sure the guy has some surprising connections to people with the inside scoop.

    In any case, I did a web search to see if any of the online rumor mills mentioned it. Nothing- not even a peep on some obscure, last-ranked social media site. Nobody cares, so nobody knows.

  14. The Carl's Jr. reference puts it somewhere out west. Only one transplant governor out there: Hickenlooper in Colorado. Wikipedia says he and his wife separated a few years ago, after 10 years together. She must have found out.

  15. Redneck Esq.9/23/14, 9:30 AM

    Presidents probably tell a similar story. Woodrow Wilson was quite the carptebagger. Born in Virginia in 1856, went to college mostly in NJ, came back to VA for a year of law school before moving to NC to finish, then to GA to practice law, then to MD for graduate work, then to college teaching jobs in NY, PA and CT before finally going back to Princeton at age 34 in 1890, toward the tail end of the Gilded Age. Once back in NJ, he became president of Princeton, governor of NJ and then President.

    The reaction to him (and the war he got reelected by keeping us out of) was local Ohio boy Warren Harding and neighborhood boy Calvin Coolidge (born in VT, moved to nearby Northampton, MA to go to college and law school, stayed to become mayor, state senator and MA governor).

    At the height of the Roaring 20s came the globe-trotting Herbert Hoover (born in IA, moved to OR at age 2, went to college in CA, then went into the mining business in Australia and China for decades, then to Europe to organize humanitarian relief after WWI, then to Washington as Commerce Secretary for the Harding and Coolidge administrations).

    And in the great compression that followed: FDR, from one of NY's oldest families, went to neighboring MA for boarding school and college, then back to NY for law school, practice, and political career; Truman, never left the KC / Independence area except for military service; the anomalous career military man Eisenhower, northeastern (wannabe) elite JFK, Texas boy LBJ, southern California boy Nixon (went to college within 20 miles of his birthplace, left to go to law school at Duke and to serve in the Navy, then came back to go into practice and politics), Michigan boy Ford (born in NE, lived in IL for a while, but graduated high school in Grand Rapids, went to U of Michigan, then to Yale Law and the military, then back to Grand Rapids to practice), and maybe Carter (old Georgia family, left to join the Navy, stayed in for several years after WWII, but eventually came back home to run the family farm after his father died).

    Then came the 80s: Reagan moved from IL to CA in his 20s to become an actor. Bush was the son of a senator from CT, spent his youth in the northeast plus the Navy, then went into the oil business in West Texas in his 20s, then moved to Houston to go into politics in his 40s.

    Clinton expanded on the Nixon and Ford pattern, minus the military part. Grew up in Arkansas, graduated high school there, then went away to a series of northeastern and European elite schools, then came back home and pretty much immediately started bucking to become one of the local elite. So did GW Bush, though he grew up in the northeastern elite world more than Clinton did -- Philips Andover, Yale and a Harvard MBA, then back to the town where he'd gone to elementary school to make his first run for public office at age 32.

    Then there's Obama.

    One could tell a similar story about recent losing candidates: Romney the Hoover-like corporate raider, McCain the son of an admiral who settled in Arizona in his 40s, Kerry the wannabe Yankee elite who turned against his own people after his experience in Vietnam, Gore the son of a senator. Not a lot of existential loyalty to one's people in that lot. Before that, the losers' picture looks a little better -- Kansas boy Bob Dole, Massachusetts ethnic local boy Michael Dukakis, Minnesota boy Walter Mondale.


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