The Kenyan father. The anthropologist mother. First, middle, and last names that seem to give little hint of which goes where. The childhood spent on islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. One early question about Barack Obama’s candidacy was whether he would prove too exotic a taste for the American electoral palate. After more than two centuries of white men from white places occupying the White House, could Americans make a president of a biracial, globalized man with a lilting African name?
Exoticism, however, is in the beholder’s eye. In many suburbs where this presidential election will be decided, immigration has altered the population and globalization has increased the neighborhood’s engagement with the world. Which brings us to Sarah Palin. The Republican vice presidential candidate is often depicted as a pure American archetype, the pistol-packin’ frontier gal who can fell a moose, butcher it, and have steaks ready by supper time. It’s a powerful image. Yet in more than a few electoral precincts, Palin’s frontier mystique must seem a bit, well, exotic. After all, who more likely shows up at a suburban block party: an African-American lawyer or a moose-hunting female chief executive with five kids? Of course, given the rapid ascension of women to top political offices, and demographic shifts likely to render whites a minority by 2050, “exotic” is not just a relative concept, it’s a fast-changing one. For now, politicians like Joe Biden and John McCain are still the standard by which others are deemed a deviation. But the 21st century’s increasingly polyglot electorate promises to produce leaders in its own varied, multiethnic image. By century’s end, it may be difficult to find anyone who qualifies as exotic.

Francis Wilkinson