It has become a fad recently to find echoes of America’s religious past in its current politics. Well, the last fortnight has reminded me of nothing so much as the event known as “The Great Disappointment.”
On October 22, 1844, a major movement known as the Millerites — after William Miller, a Baptist preacher with a flair for prophecy — expected Jesus Christ to return to earth and usher in the end times. When this did not come to pass, most Millerites grew disillusioned and drifted away. Some, however, remained in the fold.
One subgroup insisted that, actually, Christ did return — but in a changed form. So the expected Age of Sabbath really was underway. Another group decided the timing of the prophecy had been wrong, that the calculations were off. But they continued to anticipate the second coming soon.
The most creative response, though, was an Ohio pastor’s suggestion that the savior was actually still there waiting in the clouds, and that given enough prayer, he might be persuaded to finish his descent.
The aftermath of last week’s presidential election has seemed to confirm that America’s warring political tribes now treat every defeat as a Great Disappointment. When the anticipated victory fails to materialize, there is a desperate search for mitigating explanations and theories that suggest hopes were not misplaced. There is a longing to hear that something can still be done.
In fairness, we have yet to see how much purchase Donald Trump’s claims of electoral fraud will have with his supporters. But it looks likely that Joe Biden’s presidency will, like Trump’s, be dogged by accusations of illegitimacy from his opponents. Already there is a standard line Trump supporters are giving about what justifies their election skepticism: we’re merely doing what the Democrats did to Trump for four years.
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An Ipsos survey published this week doesn’t provide much insight, since many of its respondents were polled before the election was called for Biden. But it’s telling that one headline figure — 60 percent of Republicans think Biden won — is being reported as though it’s surprisingly high.
This suggests Trump was not alone in anticipating that his base would be receptive to suggestions the election was rigged. It likewise comes as no surprise to see tenuous stories of voter fraud flourishing on social media, or Republican politicians humoring Trump’s wildly inflated claims. That some portion of Americans will be unwilling to accept defeat is now taken for granted.
As David Greenberg points out in The Atlantic, accusations of illegitimacy have been a growing part of presidential elections since George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Trump himself garnered attention during the Barack Obama administration by indulging in birther conspiracy theories. And this isn’t just an issue for the GOP: according to a 2018 survey which has been making the rounds again, fully two-thirds of Democrats believed Russia interfered directly with vote counts in 2016 — an allegation as baseless as Trump’s recent charge of widespread election fraud.
It’s difficult to compete with the U.S. when it comes to this kind of suspicion, but it isn’t entirely absent elsewhere. In the U.K., a cloud of rumor has hung over the results of the Brexit referendum. Social media and parts of the press have been rife with insinuations that illegal activity by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica — working in unison with Russia, of course — had stolen that vote. This year an exhaustive enquiry concluded there was no evidence of such wrongdoing.
There’s nothing wrong with being alert to the danger of electoral corruption. Modern democracies are hardly so virtuous that this can be ruled out in advance, particularly when so much power has accrued to the shady realm of big tech. But apart from the ultra-skeptics who latch onto every whiff of conspiracy, it is always the losers of bitter contests that gravitate towards these nefarious possibilities — especially when they offer hope that a disappointing outcome might be declared illegitimate and overturned.
Such bitterness only grows in the years following a hard-fought election. Voters have often been cocooned in partisan media narratives that feed their hopes of victory. As the initial shock of defeat gives way to the reality of one’s opponents holding power, it becomes tempting to wonder if the savior might not still be waiting in the clouds after all. The result is a steady stream of insinuation and doubt, usually from the same information sources that raised expectations of success in the first place. If this pattern plays out again, the theme of Biden’s illegitimacy has hardly begun.
But maybe there is more to it than this. When various Millerites sought to revive their hopes after the Great Disappointment, they were not just refusing to acknowledge a misplaced hope. They were trying to keep their movement alive, and to claim for themselves the agency to bring about what the course of events had denied them.
Likewise, partisans might be reluctant to accept defeat because doing so would imply the failure of their cause and the convictions it provided them with. In this sense, treating elections or candidates as illegitimate is not an isolated phenomenon; it’s just one way the defeated strive to avoid the conclusion that their movement is bust. Thus we often see losers claiming that in some sense they actually won, or that a given defeat merely shows the importance of continuing the good fight.
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But this is really the most optimistic, or possibly naïve, explanation for why people reject election results. It assumes that sore losers still consider democracy the basis for political legitimacy — they just don’t want to accept the outcomes of actual votes. It’s possible that what is happening is really much more postmodern.
Perhaps the doubters know full well they have lost, but have on some level absorbed the belief that politics is ultimately just a battle of narratives, so that only a fool would let the electoral process stand in the way of an effective rhetorical strategy. If this is the case, then the trend of skepticism towards elections is a more ominous sign than we have yet acknowledged.