“It Is What It Is”: The Politics of Despair
Often, certain phrases are filled with more meaning that we recognize. One such phrase is “It is what it is,’ which is often said when someone is confronting a political phenomenon, like corruption, that seems to be inevitable, even perhaps “natural.” “Such and such a politician is corrupt,” someone says. And then someone else, speaking as a realist, says: “It is what it is,’ which is usually and usually intended as conversation stopper, like “Life isn’t fair” or “So it goes.”
Mark Leibovich has written an interesting, enlightening book about Washington D.C. entitled This Town: Two Parties and A Funeral. In it, he posits that our two parties specialize in “organizing discontent.” That is, our elites play on our discontent, organizing it so as to maintain and enhance their power and authority. The sources of the discontent are not addressed or not addressed adequately while our reigning elites continue in power.
Leibovich writes about the use of phrase “It is what it is” as something of a cop-out, used by Washingtonians – politicians, lobbyists, journalists, the military, “the formers” - when they are confronted with their own peccadillos, their vanity, even their greed – or as they might euphemistically put it, “their skill at acquiring wealth and power.” This is enlightening – and seems all-too-true – but Leibovich’s description of what our elites do, “organizing discontent,” doesn’t quite reach deeply enough into the roots of the Washingtonians’ psyches.
It is not enough to say that our elites “organize discontent” because, in fact, they create, deliberately and with malice-aforethought, discontent. They also may be said to aim at creating not just discontent but also at creating despair. And they do this in order to maintain and fortify their power and authority.
How does this work? First, if our prevailing elites can cultivate despair in the rest of us, then the possibility of genuine change or reform looks chimerical, looks radical, looks like pie-in-the-sky dreaming. After all, “it is what it is” and “it” cannot be otherwise. And this mindset would apply to even relatively minor reforms, which can be made to look like significant changes when viewed through the realist lens of “It is what it is.” Hence, the very common phenomenon of some people being labeled “socialists” when in fact no genuine socialist would agree with that characterization.
Second, cultivating despair is well-served by what may be called “a politics of failure.” That is, those who accept the status quo may promise and even initiate significant changes, while knowing that when these initiatives fail – which the very same elites may facilitate – the status quo will be fortified or re-legitimated. Declaring a war on drugs or on poverty, for example, is one way to reinforce the status quo insofar as these wars are likely to be lost or never won. And those in power aren’t actually concerned with winning these wars because either way, won or never won, they win. Moreover, “endless” wars, which are actually “winless wars,” also reinforce the legitimacy of the status quo and the power and authority of the prevailing elites, which helps explain why such wars are fought over and over. “It is what it is.”
And this helps to explain why even long-tenured politicians may say over and over that “Washington is broken” without undermining their own power and authority. Because “it is what it is,” electing other politicians to replace the current ones won’t or can’t change the situation. And, of course, as everyone knows, “better the devil you know than the one you don’t know.” The system is broken, everyone agrees, but “it is what it is.”
Third, embracing “a politics of hope” is another way to cultivate a politics of despair insofar as that hope is not sustainable, as illustrated by the presidencies of Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. To embrace “the audacity of hope” is a set up on the road to a politics of despair. Hope followed by repeated failures leads to hopelessness, that is, to political despair. As a result, people turn away from politics because they view politics as futile: “It is what it is.” Reigning elites will even go to some lengths to convince people of the futility of politics by embracing hope while reconciling themselves to failure. “It is what it is.”