The wrongheaded American belief that Barack Obama could only happen here.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Nov. 17 2008 4:23 PM

Only in America?

The wrongheaded American belief that Barack Obama could only happen here.

Benjamin Disraeli.
Benjamin Disraeli

People are still amazed he won. In a country where more than a few white folks would still say outright that one of "them'' shouldn't be in charge, here was a politician who didn't downplay his ethnicity, his foreign-sounding name, or his father who wasn't even a Christian. And he wasn't just ethnically atypical. He'd made himself a member of the country's meritocratic elite. He wrote real books that really sold. That blend of outsider detachment and obvious ambition drove his earnest enemies crazy.

So they attacked him as doubly strange, both "not like us'' and elite. They claimed you could not trust this man, that he was unknowable, unreliable, a snob, and a toff. They ridiculed the seal he'd contrived for himself, with its Latin motto meaning, roughly, "yes, we can.'' These same rhetorical ploys did not keep Benjamin Disraeli (motto: "forti nihil difficle''; literally "nothing is difficult to the brave'') from twice becoming prime minister of Great Britain during the reign of his good friend Queen Victoria. So could we Americans stop patting ourselves on the back about the supposed uniqueness of our electing Barack Obama president?

Last week, the New York Times told us Europe would not soon—indeed might never—see a political triumph like Obama's. It described British politics as though Disraeli had never existed and painted a similar picture of mono-ethnic France.

Désolé, chers collègues, but one year after the far-off, sunny isle of Corsica was acquired by France in 1768, there was born there one Napoleon Bonaparte, whose heavy Italian accent made him seem even more exotic to la France profonde than his strange name. At least our president-elect, born on the far-off, sunny isle of Oahu two years after it became a U.S. state, pronounces English without the marked accent of, oh, the governor of California. And speaking of German accents, the Times thumb-sucker also foresaw that there would be no German Obama any time soon. Bad timing for them: Three days later, Germany's Greens elected Cem Ozdemir, an ethnic Turk, as their new leader.

Americans, indulging this month in our national pastime of unparalleled exceptionalism, need to rejoin the reality-based community. Pride is one thing. But telling ourselves that the Obama story could only happen in our country, in our time? That's hooey.

The truth is that Obama-style chiefs of state—people who came out of stigmatized ethnic minorities or "foreign'' enclaves to lead their governments—are an uncommon but regularly recurring part of history. Alberto Fujimori, who held both Peruvian and Japanese citizenship, was elected president of Peru in 1990. Sonia Gandhi, born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino in northern Italy, led her Congress Party to a resounding victory in India's 2004 elections. Daniel arap Moi is from the Kalenjin people, not the Luo or Kikuyu who are the nation's largest ethnic groups and its centers of political gravity. But this did not bar him being president of Kenya from 1978 to 2002.

Of course, opponents of such candidates try the usual xenophobic rhetoric, only to find that this time, it falls flat. In India, when the opposition BJP screeched about Sonia Gandhi's European ethnicity and Christian faith, it ultimately provoked more hostility to the BJP than to her. She ended up declining the premiership, but it was clear the job was hers if she wanted it. Moreover, ethno-discordant leadership is not confined to nations that hold elections. Stalin, of course, wasn't Russian. It's a matter of some debate whether Alexander the Great was ethnically Greek. Quite a few rulers of the Roman Empire came from underprivileged, barbarian families in North Africa, Syria, and the Balkans. The Times' portrait of ethnically blinkered European politics would have surprised not only Disraeli and Napoleon, but also, inter alios, such second- and third-century Roman emperors as Philippus (known as Philip the Arab for his ethnicity), Septimius Severus (father Roman, mother North African), and Diocletian (humble stock from Dalmatia, present-day Croatia).

Instead of expecting, against the evidence, that people only want a leader who is ethnically, religiously, or culturally "like us,'' Americans ought to be examining how and why people decide that "like us'' can be based on criteria other than race or religion. If we stop congratulating ourselves for inventing what is, in fact, an ancient political phenomenon, we'd have a better idea of what we've just done. For all the obvious differences of time and place, there do seem to be some commonalities among such leaders.

For one thing, self-made, boundary-crossing leaders generally arise in times of upheaval, when it's clear familiar ways aren't working. Were it not for the French Revolution, after all, Napoleon's "supernatural energies might [have died] away without creating their miracles,'' as Disraeli himself observed. Disraeli's own career took place in a rapidly industrializing England. Fujimori's slogan, in a time of economic chaos, was "Cambio'' or "change.'' As for the Berber, Arab, and Balkan Roman emperors, they were Latin-speaking Colin Powells—outsiders who had entered politics' elite circles via military service.

About their atypical and unprivileged status, boundary-breaking leaders have, like Obama, usually been open, not shy—a second trait they often share. They make a loud, clear show of the fact that they aren't hiding or trimming their origins. Fujimori was happy to be called "El Chino.'' Napoleon took his emperor's crown from the pope and ostentatiously placed it on his head himself. Disraeli, though a Christian from age 13 on, never tried to hide his Jewish identity. "Yes, I am a Jew,'' he famously told a boorish opponent in parliamentary debate, "and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.''

At the same time, of course, Disraeli could not and would not be pigeonholed as the representative of a minority. Instead, he made an asset of his supposed liability in two ways, as Adam Kirsch lucidly explains in his recent book about Disraeli and Jewish identity. First, Disraeli argued, in word and in deed, that there was no need to choose between Jewishness and Britishness—he could have both. Second, he hinted that his complexities and ambiguities of identity, his supposedly troubling "foreignness,'' would be of service to the nation. His exotic traits added up to a feature, not a bug. He could be both a British gentleman and a conjuror with skills beyond the ken of mere gentlemen.

Of course, opponents could and did denounce these plenipotentiaries as blank, being all things to all people. Disraeli acknowledged this, writing, "I am new enough on the national political screen that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripe project their own views.'' Oh, wait. My bad. That was Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope. Disraeli's line, according to Kirsch, was, "I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.''

When charges of subterfuge fail to stick to a minority candidate, it is often because the target has made them ridiculous by showing a strong, sincere strain of don't-rock-the-boat conservatism. That surprising appeal to tradition is a third theme that repeats in their stories. Many such leaders have a reverence for, as Larissa MacFarquhar wrote of Obama, "the constriction of tradition, the weight of history, the provincial smallness of community, settling for your whole life in one place with one group of people.'' Napoleon, who once said "there is no good morality without religion,'' reconciled France with the Catholic Church and restored monarchy. Disraeli, of course, spent three decades as a Tory defending England's status quo against any and all newfangled assaults. Even as he wrought political changes beyond the imagining even of his Liberal adversaries, he spoke of preserving the good old ways of yore. A politician who offers this kind of outlook can make exotic facts paradoxically reassuring. It's as if the jolt of their minority identity is a kind of promise that the surprises have been covered, that the rest of the show will be safe.

The lesson to be gleaned, then, from the hardly new success of "outsider'' leaders is that, in troubled times, people want leaderly reassurance. But it's not necessarily ethnic/religious/one-of-us reassurance. Rather, they want something new and brave to address their fears, without effacing what they love most about their country. In other words, they want society to be new and old, changed and restored, familiar and unfamiliar. Anyone can say the right things about those contradictory desires, but it's much more convincing to elect a person who by birth embodies them.

Barack Obama addressed that need and so accomplished a great and surprising political feat. It takes nothing away from his achievement to recall that he wasn't the first national leader to do so. After all, it means he also won't be the last.

David Berreby, author of Us and Them: The Science of Identity, has been a Slate contributor since 1996.