The nothingburger. A made-up word originally coined in the 1950s to describe someone, or something, that is a whole lot of nothing. A friend who works at another media outlet tipped me off to this word and fortunately – or unfortunately depending on your perspective– it has become part of my vocabulary.
Since its definition in the 1950s, the nothingburger has evolved – or elevated if you will – to its use in politics. The nothingburger now describes political appointments that are empty, political announcements that are empty, and even policy statements that are empty. Note the use of the word ‘empty’ above. The emptiness comes from the knowledge that as soon as an announcement is made, we know there will be no follow through. Not all announcements, appointments, or even policy statements are empty. But we’re all getting pretty good at picking out the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff out there.
Some of these announcements are empty because the substance really is the politican making the announcement. The photo-op and 20 second sound bite is the real goal here. In 2021, it’s also the Instagram selfie, the Tiktok post, the Zoom conference, and the Twitter #hashtag that’s important.
To be seen doing, instead of actually doing is the real point. That’s the nothingburger with cheese (for the camera of course). For those elected politicians without real power, that is a double nothingburger with cheese.
Other political nothingburgers are about reassuring the people that a politician’s plans are working. Meanwhile the underlings behind the scenes are still trying to figure it all out, and hope it works out. Fake it until you make it! That’s the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nothingburger. The past two years have been a constant diet of those nothingburgers.
Nothingburgers are not satisfying, they aren’t supposed to be. They’re empty. And I think that is what is leading to more and more people feeling upset by all this uncertainty around us. A spending announcement about a project five years from now gives little comfort when you’re worried if your spouse will get sick at work tomorrow. Knowing that someday you may have reliable internet for remote-schooling doesn’t help you when your child can’t connect to class today. People are focused on right now.
Perhaps I am looking through the rose-coloured glasses of history or nostalgia, but I am tired of nothingburgers. I remember, and have read about (I’m not that old thank you) times where there was substantive leadership. A plan if you will. A real plan to fix a crisis, fight an enemy, or solve a problem. We did have those. I’ve looked through old newspapers and there are few, if any, nothingburgers to be seen of those times. Have a war, throw everything you have at it to defeat the enemy. The economy crashes into depression, you throw everything you have at it to solve it and make things better after it’s over. Discover an issue, solve it, move forward.
Maybe that is the real problem, moving forward. Politicians, and even some people, would rather talk about the problems, than do the work to solve them. Moving forward is scary, its unknown. The nothingburger is about self preservation more than anything. If a problem is solved, and we can move forward, will we still need that politician? Food for thought. Remember to order some fries with that nothingburger.