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Carpetbagger is a term given to a person who moves from one distinct geographic area to another for the purposes of predatory and personal opportunism in the midst of chaos and disaster.
Origins of the term
The term originated after the United States Civil War, when the federal government could not legally expropriate former-slaveowners' land outright to redistribute to former slaves. Carpetbaggers came from the North with the intention to buy up land for pennies on the dollar and resell it to the federal government at a profit for its 40 acres and a mule program. Many plantation owners had been wiped out with the loss of their slaves, and struggled to pay heavy taxes imposed on them by the federal occupation government, pressuring them to sell. Most former slaveowners were deprived of the vote and viewed this as unamerican — taxation without representation. Carpetbaggers offered cash to bail them out, for a pittance of its value, land that had been in a family for generations. Alternatively, if they refused, they risked outright seizure for back taxes.
Some came as charitable workers or federal bureaucrats, but the term stuck to them as well. They came to set up schools and help with civil rights work. The "Freedmen's Bureau" was especially important, trying to teach both general education and political understanding to African-Americans after the abolition of slavery.
The Southern political cartoons of the time depicted all of the Northerners as failures back home, too poor to afford real luggage, thus bringing everything in bags made of cheap carpet. The Southern whites assumed that all of the Northerners had come to oppress them and set up "Negro government", and waged an insurrection to force them back out. Once Reconstruction ended, so did the "carpetbaggers."
An associated term was "scalawag," which referred to any Southerner who supported the "carpetbaggers".
Reverse carpetbaggers are southerners desperate to move to someplace sane as soon as possible. They have only started to appear recently, usually being college students. Increasingly "someplace sane" can actually be within the South as long as it is a big city.
The term can also refer to a politician moving to a jurisdiction that they had never lived in before for the express purpose of running for office. For example, the term was applied to Hillary Clinton when she moved to New York to run for the Senate.
Meaning in the UK
In the United Kingdom the term was widely used in the mid/late 1990s, at a time when many building societies became banks, meaning their members received a lump sum payment when the society went public. Many people took out accounts with a building society that was expected to turn into a bank in anticipation of such payments, becoming known as carpetbaggers, or, more often, as "greedy little shits" (or "Damnit, wish I'd got in there").
Meaning in Canada
Carpetbaggers (in the modern American usage) are generally known as parachute candidates in Canada, in the sense that they're parachuted into a specific district by a political party. Although each party's local chapter in each electoral district (or riding) holds nomination contests to choose the party's candidate in that riding, party headquarters (more specifically, the party leader) must sign the nomination papers to make the results official, thus giving them final say over who gets to run in which riding. Usually, they approve the nominated candidate, but this doesn't always happen.
Parties occasionally override their local chapters' choice of candidate to run a candidate of the party's choosing. This is usually done when a party wants to run a prominent figure as a candidate in a certain riding, the chosen candidate has done something that would embarrass the party and has to be replaced, or or when a party's leader needs a seat in Parliament (due to losing his/her original seat or being a newly elected leader without a seat to begin with) and wants to run in one of that party's safe ridings to increase the chance of victory. The last reason becomes more important if a party happens to be in government, as the party leader is also the Prime Minister, who needs to be in Parliament to lead the government and to answer to the House of Commons for the government's actions.
- The Civil War Confiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South, John Syrett, Fordham Univ Press, 2005
- The most well-known force for this was the original Ku Klux Klan.
- It Takes a… Carpetbagger by Michael Tomasky, New York Magazine