Washington Isn't a Swamp to Be Drained, It's Something More Dangerous

It’s become totally cliche to equate fixing the mess in Washington with “draining the swamp” but if you think about it, this is an entirely inappropriate metaphor.


At the risk of sounding like a whacko environmentalist “wetlands” zealot, a fully watered swamp is not a particularly good symbol for a federal government hidebound by corruption, cronyism, and incompetence.

A swamp full of water may not be a place you personally would like to spend a lot of time, but it is very much an ecosystem that is performing as it should. Draining a swamp actually takes a successful system and turns it into a dysfunctional mess.

“Drain the swamp!” is a completely bassackwards slogan. It literally means ruining something that is working properly.

If we want to use an environmental metaphor for the state of modern politics, I think we need to look to drier climes—not as dry as a desert which, like a swamp, seems like a bad place because it isn’t particularly hospitable to our kind but is still an environment that works. Washington isn’t comparable to an environment left to itself to function in its primal state.

Washington has been made into the mess that it is by generations of arrogant people thinking—or at least claiming—that they’re doing something good. The best natural analogy I can think of s is a badly managed forest.

Fire is a natural part of the cycle of a forest. It’s necessary to burn out the dead wood and the choking underbrush so that new trees can grow. In recent years we humans have gotten better about this but in the past forests were viciously “protected” by environmentalists who not only opposed harvesting timber, but also any effort to clean forests of debris, brush, and dead trees. All of these things made forests into major fire hazards. Then when fires did occur people made huge efforts to put the fires out, even if they were of no immediate threat to people or homes. All this made the forests even more overgrown and more of a firetrap.


This is Washington. For years and years choking undergrowth and dead wood have piled up. The natural cycle has been thwarted for too long. Instead of clearing out dead wood, we reelect it. Instead of pruning out thickets and thorned vines, we plant more in an attempt to combat the existing ones. We try to fertilize some and poison others but in the end all of them keep growing and make the forest completely unnavigable for anyone without a team of chainsaw-wielding lumberjacks. Washington is an unhealthily packed forest every bit as menacing and unnatural as Tolkien’s Mirkwood.

Most of the people we equate with being part of “the swamp” are really part of the flammable detritus piled up on the forest floor. Taking down a few of them every couple of years doesn’t even make a dent in the real problem. Harry Reid is gone but Chuck Schumer grew to fill that role. If angry Republicans manage to take Mitch McConnell down as Senate Majority leader, he’ll only be replaced with someone equally bad or who will become equally bad in short order. Chopping out briars one at a time is as pointless as any proposal to balance the budget in five to ten years.

Instead of a swamp draining, what we need is a real honest to goodness forest fire. People were shocked decades ago when officials decided not to put out forest fires in Yellowstone National Park and to allow the fires to run their course. What seemed to many like certain disaster actually cleaned out all the crap that was preventing new growth. Fire isn’t always a destructor. It’s a cleanser. That’s what Washington needs.


I don’t know what that fire should look like. No doubt many of the faithful will say that Donald Trump is that fire. They’re wrong. He is just the Republican’s latest attempt to rearrange the tinder while hoping not to make sparks in the process. We need wholesale change like the kind that may come on the other side of the continent as Hollywood’s perverts and users get exposed and (hopefully) forever ruined. That may not even be enough heat to finish the job, but it will burn a lot of the garbage.

In Washington we have too many firefighters putting in countless man hours to keep the underwood from combusting

Journalists, lobbyists, consultants, spin doctors, and flacks all spend their time on constant fire watch, trying to prevent the cleansing that Washington so desperately needs. At some point though, nature will inevitably take its course.

The longer it takes to happen, the more catastrophic it will be.


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