The Great Disappointment of 2013
What happens when a political messiah fails?
James W. Ceaser
March 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24
Every student of American religious history has heard of the event known as “the Great Disappointment.” In 1818 William Miller, a former naval captain turned lay Baptist preacher, developed a new method for calculating biblical chronology to arrive at the conclusion that the millennium would take place sometime between 1842 and 1844. Finally published in 1832, Miller’s thesis quickly drew attention. A sect began to form, spreading from Miller’s home region in Eastern New York to New England and beyond. Millerism was born. The time was drawing nigh, Miller preached, when a dreadful cataclysm would occur, to be followed by a wondrous splendor: “The heavens appear, the great white throne is in sight, amazement fills the universe with awe.” Pressed by followers for an exact date—people wished to settle their affairs before going up to heaven—Miller, after some hesitation and a few unmet deadlines, settled on October 22, 1844. The fateful day came and then went without any visible sign of the Advent, leaving the Millerites disheartened and perplexed.
And what of the Great Disappointment of 2013? In the promiscuous blending of politics and culture that characterizes our age, the launch of the Obama campaign in 2007 marked the beginning of a politico-spiritual movement that promised a new beginning and a transformation of the nation. It was to be the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . . [when we] restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” Faith in the leader knew no bounds. Obamaism spilled out from the college campuses and tony enclaves of Manhattan and San Francisco into the mass public to become first an American and then a worldwide phenomenon. The legion of believers included not only the youth in their T-shirts emblazoned with the silk-screen Obama image, but also many of the nation’s most experienced political observers. By early 2009, the five wise persons from Oslo had come bearing the gift of the Nobel Peace Prize. No date was fixed for the fulfillment of all the hopes and promises—extensions were continually asked for under the excuse that “change would never be easy”—but enough time had transpired by the end of 2013 for people to sense that the deadline had come and gone. Like October 22, 1844, the appointed time passed with no visible sign of the advent of a new era.
How believers cope with the trauma of disappointment has long been a theme in the field of social psychology. Modern, positivist research on this topic began with the publication in 1956 of Leon Festinger’s celebrated work When Prophecy Fails, in which Festinger and his colleagues first introduced the theory of “cognitive dissonance.” This theory explores how people deal with the discomfort of confronting conflicting ideas and opposing sentiments (“dissonance”). The model holds that individuals will look for mechanisms to reduce dissonance, be it by avoiding contact with conflicting sources of information (as when readers of The Weekly Standard surf with their remotes past MSNBC) or by restructuring their worldview to reduce or eliminate clashing positions. Three general responses are possible: acceptance, denial, and deflection.
Accepters are those who conclude that they have succumbed to an error or perhaps been victims of a hoax. In the psychologists’ jargon, they admit to “disconfirmation.” Such recognition may come with powerful feelings of pain—a sense of emptiness, the despair of lost hope, or the embarrassment of having been “had” by a confidence man. It is poignant to read the reaction of one of the Millerites in the wake of the Great Disappointment: “Is there no God, no heaven, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable?” Yet with acceptance, difficult as it may be, individuals eliminate dissonance and can at least hope to establish a new equilibrium. According to Festinger, who made Millerism one of his main case studies, acceptance turned out to be the Millerites’ predominant, and likely the best, response. “In spite of their overwhelming commitments,” Festinger writes, “Miller’s followers gave up their beliefs and the movement quickly disintegrated. . . . By the late spring of 1845 it had virtually disappeared.”
In the case of the Great Disappointment of 2013, at the elite level there appear to be at least a few individuals who have managed to reboot psychologically and go on to lead normal and productive lives. The most prominent is Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama’s former press secretary, who is now pursuing his own business career. While he still supports Obama’s political program, Gibbs has recently appeared on television admitting that “2013 was a lost year for the president,” and that the people doubt that Obama’s team is “remotely capable of solving those problems.” He no longer frequents the White House. On the level of the mass public, poll data show a stunning loss of confidence in the leader, as more and more erstwhile followers have come to accept that “the change” was pure fiction. While there are signs of a mild and pervasive depression—nearly two-thirds of the public think the nation is on the wrong track—many seem to be adjusting to life after Obamaism.
Deniers are those who refuse to accept disconfirmation and go on believing. The explanation for deniability, a reaction that seems counterintuitive, is the pride of Festinger’s study. By his account, some followers have invested so much in their adherence that they cannot eliminate the dissonance by adjusting to reality. They instead “effectively blind themselves to the facts” and band together, fortifying their beliefs by the support of others who agree. “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct.” In brief, to quote another expert, they cling to religion.
Having used the Millerites to illustrate acceptance, Festinger turns to the followers of Sabbatai Zevi to explore deniability. Unknown to most, Zevi represents a remarkable case in religious history. The first half of the seventeenth century was a period of widespread belief among Jews that the Messiah would come—in 1648—and the world would be transformed. Zevi, a student of Kabbalah from Smyrna, proclaimed himself the One to his group of disciples. The appointed year came and went without visible change, but faith in Zevi did not waver. Based on recalculations, acolytes proposed later dates for the Messiah’s arrival. Zevi’s following continued to grow, attracting adherents throughout the whole world of Jewry. Pursuing his mission to go to the Holy Land, Zevi made his way toward Constantinople, where he was arrested by the Turkish authorities. The sultan sought to convert him to Islam, perhaps deploying the threat of death as an inducement. Zevi chose conversion over martyrdom. Yet even this supreme heresy did not entirely squelch the movement. Some followed Zevi into conversion (the Dönmeh), while secretly practicing their old Jewish rituals. Remnants of that group exist to this day.
Evidence of deniability inside of Obamaism is strong. Deniers can still be regularly encountered on college campuses and in many sections of the nation’s capital. Even the revelation of Obama’s famous deception about keeping your insurance—a moment worthy of Festingerian “disconfirmation” if ever there was one—was dismissed by HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the grounds that it applied to just “5 percent of Americans,” or about twice the population of New York City. The face of the deniers, shaven or unshaven, is Jay Carney, who gives every indication that he is already beginning to form a Dönmeh sect of his own. Of course, Carney has the excuse of being paid for his services, making his deniability plausible. Quite different and more admirable are those who deny with no ulterior motive, out of a pure and abiding faith, like the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick.
Deflection is the most interesting of the responses to a crisis of disappointment. Dissonance, according to Festinger, can be reduced if not entirely limited by the mechanism of “inventing ingenious arguments,” of which the “but for” line of reasoning has enjoyed the greatest success. Deflectors admit that the anticipated outcome did not actually occur, which is their concession to reality. But they go on to say that the failure was not the result of a falsehood or a hoax. The prophecy would have been fulfilled but for the existence of a countervailing force that canceled it out. The promise in a sense was kept, only its effects were nullified. Where deflection is ably executed, it can serve to strengthen belief among the faithful, who now conceive of themselves as saints in an implacable struggle with the sinners.
Among the remaining Obamaites, deflectors seem to outnumber deniers, though the overlap between the two groups makes measurement difficult. Deflection began early on, when the movement was still growing, as a hedge against the possibility of failure. In the full flush of enthusiasm, deflectors began to caution that the great change might be thwarted by the racism of the American public. Deflection was later perfected by political scientists, who added the authority of supposedly neutral analysis. The failure of the advent, it is now said, has been the result of “polarization” and “dysfunctionality.” Polarization is the label assigned to the fact that people strongly disagree today about political matters and have sorted themselves into different parties to express that disagreement. This condition has been artfully turned into a sinister cause, able to act on its own. The inadequacy of such an argument was recognized even by deflectors, who moved on to shore it up by the addition of the theme of dysfunctional government. This term sounds objective, only deflectors have successfully managed to define it as a condition brought on solely by the Republican party. Republicans who oppose the president and his party produce dysfunctionality; Democrats who pass a law fundamentally changing the health care system without reading it are functional. Dysfunctionality is treated as the great alien force; but for it, Obamaism would have succeeded. Here is a faith that can never die.
Social psychologists have concentrated their attention on the followers of false prophets and failed messiahs, not on the principals themselves. Applying to them the same logic of cognitive dissonance, these discredited leaders, having invested so much in their beliefs, should in all probability end up as deniers or deflectors. Such was the case with William Miller. Although he retired from active evangelizing after October 22, 1844, Miller continued to hold out for an imminent Advent and to urge patience among the dwindling number of the faithful. He also offered the excuse that previous biblical scholarship had led him astray, and that the bad results were the product of “forces over which I could have no control.” Sabbatai Zevi’s case is harder to judge, as his post-disappointment activities, like so much else about the career of this enigmatic figure, remain shrouded in mystery. Zevi’s renunciation of his faith might have indicated acceptance that his messianic claims were delusional. Or, as some believe, he might have continued to preach underground his disruptive message, which might explain his banishment to Albania, a most unlikely place for a messiah to end his days on earth.
Barack Obama’s reaction to the Great Disappointment of 2013 remains a matter of much speculation, fueled in part by comments he has made recently in interviews. As is so often the case with this protean figure, his position seems to depend less on the day than the time of day. Many observers thought they detected a weariness, bordering on an attitude of acceptance, in his “small ball” State of the Union address. A readjustment of this kind would indeed be remarkable since the essence of “political messianism” is a program of deep transformation led by a person of destiny. These characteristics were exactly what attracted followers to the original movement in 2008. Yet here was Obama in one of his interviews seeking to backtrack, sounding almost Burkean in likening his task as president to that of “a relay swimmer in a river [that] is history,” and adding that “the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable.” In another interview, he told Bill O’Reilly flat out, “I don’t think we have to fundamentally transform the nation.” Messiahs are normally made of sterner stuff. Before taking such comments at face value, however, it is worth recalling that they are of a piece with a longstanding Obama tactic used to dismiss adversaries’ criticisms that he is too radical. The visionary language is dropped and the leader modestly professes to be just a country pragmatist. As he told David Remnick, repeating well-worn phrases, “I’m not a particularly ideological person, . . . I’m pretty pragmatic. . . . I am comfortable with complexity.”
For the most part, however, Obama follows the predicted model of resolving dissonance by being a denier and deflector. He is still asking followers to have patience, going to the extreme of fighting Providence with executive orders, a tool unavailable to Miller or Zevi, that extend crucial deadlines. Obama appears at his most natural and sincere in the role of deflector-in-chief. All the great things, he suggests, would have happened but for sinister forces working against the change. Even today, he told Remnick, he is being resisted because some “don’t like the idea of a black president.” Looming larger for him are Rush Limbaugh and the scoffers at Fox News. Obama has described his opponents—the disbelievers—as being in the grip of “a fever,” which is the source of the disease of dysfunctionality. For all of his self-analysis about his comfort with complexity, his preferred disposition appears to be Manichean.
Yet the time is quickly arriving when the thoughts and feelings of Barack Obama will matter little for American politics. As the full impact of the Great Disappointment sinks in—a process not yet completed—fascination with the leader of a dying sect is waning. To be sure, Obama remains president, pen in hand and phone in pocket, but Obamaism is now finished. The enthusiasm is gone. Many candidates for office from the former sect are aware of the messiah fatigue that is growing in their states and districts, and they have posted signs suggesting the leader proselytize elsewhere.
For political analysts, the post-disappointment conferences are already underway. Their central task now is to figure out what traces the collapse has left and what the aftermath will be. The landscape is complicated. A part of the American populace was dubious from the start of the Obama awakening, viewing its religious overtones as a dangerous aberration from normal politics. Some were willing to brand it as such, while others, from charity or prudence, chose to await the signs of failure before speaking out. Now these doubters have become bolder. Yet they fall short of a numerical national majority, as the outcome of the last presidential election showed. For victory, Republicans will need to win the votes of some of those who were previously adherents of the faith. Deniers and deflectors will not switch, which means the future of American politics is in the hands of accepters. It is accepters, more than independents, who form the critical swing group. A part of this group is angry enough that it will vote to punish the Democratic party, but a larger portion likely feels only mild dismay or sensitivity, wishing for nothing more than to move on.
Political analysts usually gauge politics in terms of positions, ideology, and reactions to performance. They are generally right to do so since the most important opportunities for electoral change derive from situations in which the incumbent president or party is judged to have badly mismanaged affairs. Yet as much as people make their voting decisions by taking account of these hard realities, it would be an error to dismiss the importance of the more nebulous dimension of the nation’s tenor or mood. Voters are often moved by vague inclinations, such as desire for normalcy, renewal, or stability. Moods are variable, even fickle, and what holds for one election cycle may be forgotten in the next.
Winning any particular election is a matter of a party finding the right fit between message, candidate, and mood. Republicans stand to be the natural beneficiaries of the Great Disappointment, but they paradoxically may be at greater risk than Democrats of mistaking the nation’s mood. The GOP’s champions are those whose judgments of Obamaism have been vindicated. Yet a celebration of vindication is unlikely to fit the temper of most accepters. The overriding sentiment in the post-disappointment period will be a yearning to be done with political messianism and to return politics to the political. Accessing this mood has nothing to do with disowning strong positions. It has everything to do with selecting a candidate in 2016 of steady disposition who has a track record of competently handling the public’s affairs. Republicans would do well to listen to a genuine prophet, Isaiah: “Be calm, have no fear, and do not be fainthearted.”
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.