The Magazine

The Great Disappointment of 2013

What happens when a political messiah fails?

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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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. 

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