“Drain the Swamp”, a metaphor first credited to Winfield Gaylord in 1903 has since been recycled by politicians who want to shake things up but are just wolves in sheep’s clothing. (Wait, did I just change the metaphorical landscape of U.S. politics?) The latest of which happened to ride this phrase all the way to the White House. Because we are now all familiar with the phrase, and so many are so fond of it, I am begrudgingly using it as a metaphorical framework throughout this piece.
If you’re fond of this metaphor and me, I encourage you to stop reading now if you don’t want one or more of those things to change.
What are the roots of this metaphor?
In 1903, ole Winfield used this as a negative metaphor for what the Socialists wanted to do to the Capitalists: “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes, which come from the Capitalist swamp; they want to drain the swamp.”
It next surfaced in 1983 when Ronald Reagan used it to drag big government through the mud (did you catch that pun?) and we all know how that turned out.
After an 18 year hiatus, we were once again graced with it following 9/11, when Rumsfeld repurposed the phrase for foreign lands as he vowed to “drain the swamp where terrorists reside.”
Next up was Pelosi who, after 10 years of frustration with a Republican controlled house, used it as a threat to clean up Washington. She was yet another to enter the swamp only to find herself neck-deep in alligators; survival became paramount to draining the swamp.
Surprisingly, at least to me, the next influencer (said as facetiously as possible) to try the phrase on for size was Dr. Ben Carson who ran this TV ad in 2015.
Finally, on Oct. 17th 2016, an enthusiastic Donald Trump “borrowed” the term during this speech. He admits that this was the idea of one of his campaign advisors, but when the crowd reacted like WWE fans at the main event, it became a cornerstone of the campaign. Even he was surprised that it worked. This all quieted down once ballots were cast and the swamp was restocked with his favorite predators, but his supporters still boldly claim this is the man who is diligently working to #draintheswamp. Only time will tell…
So Who Inhabits the Swamp?
“The swamp” really is a good metaphor for U.S. Politics. It is a unique ecosystem containing a myriad of species who are all just trying to survive in a harsh environment they would rather not be in. The stagnant bog stretches so far beyond the horizon that rather than risk escaping, the inhabitants have adapted to survive.
The irony is that those who enter with the intent to “drain the swamp” quickly perish and become decaying matter to feed the inhabitants, or they quickly adapt to survive in the swamp and become the very thing they hated so much.
So What Created the Swamp?
We are past the days of democracy; that lasted less than 100 years. In the mid-1800s, corporate lobbyists began to build a dam to create their own ecosystem. The principles of democracy prevented this from swelling into a lake but the constant infusion of both monetary and human capital have kept it flooded and stagnant and no sane person wants to be part of it.
Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a democracy; we’ve been an oligarchy with a patriotic façade for the majority of our history, and this swamp is full of predators who don’t want that to change.
How Can We Drain the Swamp?
If one truly wanted to “drain the swamp,” all they need to do is redirect the water supply. If we take the money out of US politics and impose term limits on all elected positions, we can attract new leadership talent who are more interested in the citizens they serve than protecting their political career. In order to survive in this ecosystem, corporations will be forced to redirect the billions, historically used for lobbying, into the real economy for the sake of providing value to the people, not to the politicians.
Now, I understand this is really simple in concept and very difficult to accomplish. The system is impressively engineered to self-protect and purge out any threats to this “draining” as soon as they enter the swamp. I don’t have the exact answer on how we accomplish this; this is a piece to bring perspective, not save the world, but I would say that it has to be done outside of the swamp.
So far, the aforementioned have all been Drained by the Swamp rather than draining the swamp. History leaves clues, and we certainly know what won’t work.