With the talk of Obama’s election being something that could only happen in America, it’s no surprise to find people pointing out that, well, not only could “it” – meaning a similar electoral victory, of course – happen elsewhere, but “it” has in some cases already happened elsewhere. But this piece in Slate is a bit confused about what “it” is.
On one side, there are some good examples*:
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.
To them you could probably add Evo Morales in Bolivia. And going back to the 19th century, there’s Benjamin Disraeli’s selection as Prime Minister of the UK.
But on the other side are the poor examples:
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.
Desolé, cher collegues, 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.
I guess Napoleon did win a lot of campaigns.
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.
And the Greens, being the ruling party of Germany, must make their leader the Chancellor, right? At least that example is still within the realm of electoral politics. Unlike, say,
Stalin, of course, wasn’t Russian.
Stalin vetted his advisers very thoroughly, it should be noted. And he rose from being just a humble secretary too.
It’s a matter of some debate whether Alexander the Great was ethnically Greek.
Some said he was too Greek; others, not Greek enough. And Greece was the birthplace of democracy, so he must have been elected.
That not enough for you? The path of liberty soon turned west from Greece. And what do we find?
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).
Hey, did you know that the Mongols weren’t Chinese, and yet they ruled China for a while? And the Qing ruled China for even longer, and they weren’t Chinese either! And yet we call their emperors emperors of China.
But why stop there? What about Carl XIV Johan, King of Sweden and Norway, born Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and once Marshal of France (more French than Napoleon, who appointed him)? And the 19th century Greek monarchy had not just the House of Wittelsbach but the House of Glücksburg (in fairness, the later monarchs seem to have been Greece-born).
Or maybe it would be a good idea to just stop with the good examples, give a bit more depth to the comparisons, and acknowledge that Obama’s victory was not unique, but still quite rare.
*Unfortunately, many of these leaders were more successful in elections than in governing.