So, shocker of shockers: turns out that when Donald Trump led crowds in the chant of “drain the swamp” during the campaign, he forgot to add the “JK” part: just kidding.
First, Trump proposed a set of reforms that were a mix of unfeasible, unenforceable, and ill-advised. But there was one thing in his proposed program that seemed at least somewhat serious: restricting former lobbyists from working in his administration.
But then, lest anybody was foolish enough to take Trump at his word, his team filled agencies with industry lobbyists, First, the waivers were kept secret. Then, under pressure, his team gave in. The extent of the waivers further clarifying just how deadly unserious Trump was. Drain the Swamp? JK.
First, let’s take an appropriate moment of moral outrage for all this, assuming we have any outrage left in us anymore.
Okay, done? Great. Let’s now zoom out and ask a larger question: Why do Americans keep falling for this kind of rhetoric in the first place? The whole premise of “draining the swamp” is silly. It ignores the realities of governing in a complex, modern society, and assumes you can just somehow start from scratch again (think about the verb “to drain”).
The very use of the slogan “drain the swamp” should be shorthand for “just kidding, I don’t take governing seriously.”
But Trump is now the third time in modern political history that politicians have used this slogan. Each time, it’s conjured up something different — a different fever dream of Washington gone awry. And each time, little has changed.
Here, then, is my recounting of the three fever dreams, and why they’ve failed.
Ronald Reagan’s anti-government fever dream: government is the problem
As far as I can gather, the first politician to use the phrase “drain the swamp” was Ronald Reagan.
By “swamp,” Reagan meant the federal government. In the “drain the swamp” fever dream he channeled, the federal government acts like a tremendous leech on the country, siphoning off tax dollars from hard-working Americans to pay soulless, greedy bureaucrats excessive salaries.
These bureaucrats then spend their days dreaming up new regulations that will make it harder for businesses and other job creators to create jobs. They do it because they can, because it makes them feel powerful, and they somehow profit off it.
Thus, to “drain the swamp,” would mean shrinking government.
Reagan never got all that far in actually shrinking government because it turns out that government bureaucrats perform some pretty important and popular oversight functions. Most people actually value things like clean air and clean water and safe food and not getting ripped off by banks.
Nancy Pelosi’s good-government fever dream: lobbying is the problem
The next politician to employ the phrase “drain the swamp” was Nancy Pelosi, who used it to cheerlead the Democrats back into control of the House in the 2006 elections.
She promised to “break the link between lobbyists and legislation." And Democrats enacted the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA). HLOGA enhanced lobbying disclosure requirements, banned lobbying “gifts,” and tightened revolving-door rules.
But the legislation definitively did not break the link between lobbyists and legislation. Lobbyists have generally become more, not less, powerful in the decade since the bill was passed.
What has changed is that lobbying has become less transparent, as more lobbyists have decided it’s better not to bother with registration, given all the hassles associated with it.
In a similar vein, Barack Obama used his first day in office to sign an executive order prohibiting registered lobbyists from serving in his administration. Again, the effect was all symbolism. Obama let in some lobbyists under waivers, and lobbyists continued to have plenty of influence.
In the good-government “drain the swamp” fever dream, “lobbyists” are nefarious villains. If you’ve been registered as a lobbyist, and especially if you have registered as a lobbyist for a corporation or industry group, you acquire a demonic power. Members of Congress and their staffers will be somehow helpless before these powers. And if you ever go back into government, it is impossible for you to work as a public servant. You are forever tarnished with the scarlet L, and the only reason you could possibly want to work in government is to serve your previous clients and then, after a few years, go back to lobbying and earn even more money.
Under this thinking, the only way to deal with lobbying is through strict rules that wall off and protect government decision-makers from lobbyists.
But there are two problems with these rules. The first is that these rules are difficult to enforce, because the definition of “lobbyist” is squirrelly and those who wish to can evade registering can and generally will do so. The second, and most fundamental, is that it treats “lobbying” itself as the problem, rather than the policies these lobbyists advocate for.
Just as the political right too often clings to the fantasy that shrinking government will solve all problems of our broken politics, the left too often clings to the fantasy that tougher and more complete regulation of lobbying will. “Lobbying” is simply the way in which various societal interests register their concerns with the government. This is part of a healthy, pluralistic democracy.
There are obviously problems with who gets heard and represented in the way lobbying operates (more on this shortly). But to treat “lobbying” itself as the problem is silly.
Donald Trump’s populist fever dream: everybody in Washington is corrupt
The third major politician to use the phrase “drain the swamp” was Donald Trump. In Trump’s parlance, the “swamp” came to encompass everyone in Washington. Not only the government bureaucrats but also Congress and the lobbyists.
This vision was merely the combination of the two previous iterations. It was the right-wing “swamp as government” fever dream plus the left-wing “swamp as lobbyists” fever dream, taking the worst of both.
The logical fallacy of the combined approach was that somebody has to make policy, and policy is complicated. If it’s not the lobbyists, and not the government bureaucrats, then that’s pretty much everybody with policy expertise.
Perhaps Trump assumed that it was all so simple because from the outside, he had it all figured out. But as he’s learned, everything (including “draining the swamp”) is more complicated when you’re actually responsible.
The alternative? Make the swamp a healthy ecosystem.
There is a simple reason that government in Washington is big, and that the town is filled with lobbyists. The United States is the largest, most complex economy in the history of the world. It is big and diverse society, in which a remarkable number of competing claims need to be adjudicated, and in which interests on all sides of those claims want to make sure their views are taken into account. Politics involves lots of trade-offs.
But from the outside it looks messy. And corrupt.
As political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse find in Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work, most Americans believe that “conflict is unnecessary and counterproductive" in politics. Americans have always viewed politicians as “fractious and greedy.” That’s why they don’t like politics.
Similarly, as political scientist Stephen Medvic argues in In Defense of Politicians: The Expectations Trap and Its Threat to Democracy, “part of the explanation for why Americans dislike politics and politicians is that people incorrectly believe there is a consensus, at least within the public, about how to handle the nation's business. ... All the squabbling that politicians do, therefore, must be based on something other than a genuine desire to solve problems.”
And this gets at the heart of the problem: All of these fevered dreams of “draining the swamp” are really dreams of a political system that is somehow “pure” and “not corrupt.” But what would that look like?
As Medvic notes, “The dream of political parties and politicians driven by nothing other than 'what is best for the country' is not realistic. Once we begin to define 'what’s best’, different perspectives will emerge. Those perspectives are rooted in ideologies."
They’re also rooted in interests. Factions, James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 10, are “sown into the nature of man.” Democracy is the messy process by which these factions compete and compromise.
And, yes, if your faction is losing, it sure looks like a swamp. And depending on who you are, it’s the fault of the government, the lobbyists, or both. But in politics there are winners, and losers. That’s the nature of the game.
To say we need to make peace with the swamp is not an endorsement of how Washington works now. I’ve written a book on the rise of corporate lobbying in Washington, and I’m deeply concerned about the disproportionate power of business lobbying.
But my solution is not to ban business lobbying. That would be both impractical and counterproductive. My solution is to balance the power of business lobbying by making sure other perspectives are equally represented, and to make sure lawmakers in Congress and federal agencies have more of their own resources to evaluate competing claims, not just simply defer to whichever side can marshal the most exhaustive lobbying blitz.
The solution can’t simply be more regulations and more restrictions and more enforcement. The solution has to be coming to peace with the reality that politics involves compromises. And if you lose, it’s not always because Washington is a corrupt swamp. Sometimes you just lose because the other side had a better argument or a more popular policy.
I’m pretty sure politicians will continue to promise to “drain the swamp,” because that’s what the public wants. But if that’s what people want, they’ll continue to be disappointed. Maybe writing this piece will break the fever dreams. But somehow I doubt it.