“Drain the swamp” suggests that all political corruption is the same. It isn’t, and the distinctions matter.
by Mark Schmitt
Consider two scenarios about how Washington works. In one, a local activist decides to run for Congress. A friend hosts a fund-raiser for her at his law firm, where 10 partners each give the maximum legal individual donation, $2,800. After she wins, the host asks her to meet with a client, a constituent whose business would be affected by legislation her committee will soon vote on. She agrees to hear the company’s case against the bill. She never hears from anyone on the other side, which has no lobbyists, and she votes for an amendment that weakens the bill.
In the second, a man elected to high office directs a meeting of foreign leaders to be held at a resort he owns. He ignores subpoenas, dangles pardons to staff members to encourage them to violate the law and to former employees to discourage them from cooperating with investigations. He appoints industry lobbyists to positions where they reverse regulations affecting their former employers. (This list could go on.)
Both of these are stories of corruption. In both, the public interest is distorted by money. But are they aspects of the same story, just different corners of a single big swamp, one deeper than the other? Or are they different in kind, and not just degree?
Donald Trump’s 2016 chant “Drain the swamp,” which most often seemed to refer to the independent institutions of government, has been embraced as a metaphor across the political spectrum and in the media to refer to the pervasiveness of corruption. In this version, the undifferentiated “swamp” matters more than the gradations along the wide scale from the new member of Congress desperate for campaign funds to the raw plunder of Mr. Trump, his family and allies.
In a recent MSNBC series, “American Swamp,” for example, stories like the scenarios above are just consecutive segments. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders talk about a “rigged system” in which Trumpian corruption is only the most extreme manifestation of the distortion of democracy by wealth. Search for the phrase “Donald Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’ but” and you’ll find dozens of mainstream articles that take seriously the idea that he actually set out to reform politics but, like naïve reformers before him, was dragged down into the fetid tide pool himself.
It’s certainly true that there’s corruption up and down American public life, and not just in campaign finance and lobbying. It also exists in think tanks, corporate governance, pharmaceutical marketing, higher education, the regulatory system, even philanthropy. The extraordinary concentration of wealth in this new Gilded Age, and the tilt of public policy in its favor, is itself evidence of corruption. It’s also true that Mr. Trump is not singular and that versions of his plunder can be found in more banal form across the spectrum of political vice — like the fact that two Republican members of Congress are under indictment.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the profound differences between the two scenarios above, and all the little corruptions that look more like the first case than the case of President Trump. The compromised behavior of legislators who have limited choices about how to raise money is built into the way we’ve structured elections. “Good people trapped in a bad system,” my old boss, former Senator Bill Bradley, used to say, with perhaps more generosity than was merited.
The key distinction is between systems that invite or encourage corruption — such as by making legislators dependent on donors — and individual acts in which politicians or regulators choose to elevate private interests, or their own, over the public interest. Failing to acknowledge that distinction will make it difficult to build the case against the extreme and unprecedented corruption of Mr. Trump and his allies.
We should expect and demand that politicians do all they can to avoid the first form of corruption: Pursue a base of small donors, avoid fund-raising events and “call time,” minimize meetings with professional lobbyists, seek out information on all sides of an issue. But that’s easier for some than others. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, nationally famous and in a safe Democratic district, can avoid active fund-raising and devote more time to constituents and committee work, her little-known colleagues from swing districts, facing tough races for re-election, have few alternatives but to attend those fund-raisers in law-firm conference rooms and fancy homes.
The solution to corruption of that kind involves making it easier for candidates to run and be heard without reaching out to megadonors, such as through public financing that matches small contributions. Lobbyists will be less influential if Congress and state legislatures have more resources to make their own decisions, including more independent, long-term staff members with issue expertise. Some of those ideas are found in the Democrats’ For the People Act — but campaigns, particularly Ms. Warren’s and Mr. Sanders’s, still seem to speak in the language of universal condemnation.
Solutions that might require expanding government and providing more support for politicians will be a hard sell in an atmosphere in which everyone in the system is perceived as corrupt. Indeed, for Mr. Trump, “drain the swamp” has in practice meant gutting those very sources of independent expertise and analysis, on issues from climate change to student loans. This further empowers lobbyists and the already powerful, continuing a trend started by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s when he eliminated sources of independent information such as the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
When corruption is perceived as universal, those in power can use investigations and allegations of corruption as a weapon. This has been the pattern in Brazil, for example, and Mr. Trump has followed the playbook as well, invoking his catchphrase again in recently calling for an investigation of former President Barack Obama.
American politics is in urgent need of repair, but the idea of the swamp feeds a cynicism that’s not only inaccurate but also makes it harder to distinguish between decent people who are trying to do the best they can in a difficult system and real malfeasance — and even allows the latter to flourish unchecked.
Mark Schmitt (@mschmitt9) is the director of the political reform program at the research organization New America.