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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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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.

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