What Happens When A Political Messiah Fails?

In the Weekly Standard, professor James W. Ceaser of the University of Virginia has an excellent piece on messianism, cognitive dissonance, and the coping mechanism true believers use when they discover that they have been hoodwinked. He explains that there are now three classes of people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012: Deniers, deflectors, and accepters. As usual, you should read the whole article, but we would like to draw your attention to the last paragraph, quoted here in full:

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.”

The upshot is that many of Obama’s supporters never really liked him. Or rather, the only found him “likeable enough”. That is, they liked the idea of Obama, and they liked themselves for supporting him, but not the man himself. They had much less emotional investment in their support for Obama than detractors did in their disdain. Now that Obama has been shown for the snake-oil salesman that he is, the reaction of these “accepters” has been, “Meh, all politicians are liars anyways. I knew from the beginning that he was a fraud, but he was still better than Bush.” Thus, they can attempt to avoid taking responsibility for what has transpired, and have given themselves an excuse to continue clinging to the failed policies of a failed political movement and president.

This creates some danger for the GOP in the 2016 general election. A nominee who is triumphalist in his or her approach to campaigning and who exults in schadenfreude will no doubt get a lot of support from conservatives and even many independents, but will turn off Obama voters. This does not mean that someone such as Ted Cruz or Rand Paul will necessarily lose the election, as likely these voters will simply stay home on election day. However, it means that unless things get radically worse between now and election day (a possibility), we should not expect to see a sea change in the electorate as we did in 1980 given the appeal of candidates now expected to be in the race. The political polarization and instability that the US has suffering is thus likely to continue past the 2016 election, and may indeed get worse.

Sobering thoughts.

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