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….
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.
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. [.......]
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. [.......]
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.” [.......]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.