In American myth, swamps are threatening places whose stagnant waters conceal alligators and snakes, if not slimy monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In Hollywood westerns, by contrast, the desert represents a hard, honest purity, a moral ground that tests the souls of individuals. In the desert, you can see for miles, everything is clear, but a swamp closes in around you. In southern chain gang escape movies, the swamp is something you fall into and can’t escape. The swamp is a popular image of the unknowable, the mysterious, and the corrupt. It’s imagined as messy, dirty, infested with biting insects, dangerous, and above all, useless or counterproductive. This is why people believe that the best thing to do with a swamp is to drain it or filled it in.
And the swamp has become a powerful political metaphor for corruption. People who dislike bureaucracy, tax laws, lobbyists, and the messy and confusing process of legislating in a diverse country, see the swamp as the image of what disgusts them about government.
You should visit a real swamp, like the Okeefenokee in southern Georgia. It isn’t all water. The lush landscape supports diverse wildlife. If anything, trees dominate. There are alligators in the streams and shallow lakes, but they mind their own business. Old homesteads remain, and you can see how people have lived happily amid swampland. Their main benefit is to surrounding regions by taking in excess water, preventing floods. Coastal swamps and tidal marshes absorb storm surges.
Rethinking the swamp metaphor also involves remembering how swamps clean the environment. A functioning swamp is an immense water filtering system, a place where harmful sediments settle and where nutrients get absorbed before they can pass through to open waters and cause algae blooms. The swamp is actually the perfect image for an anti-corruption campaign.
A swamp is beautiful inside and out. Bureaucracy, too, has its own peculiar beauty. Its seemingly stagnant waters slow down the rapacious activities of corrupt executives. Legislatures and courts perform a similar function. What looks like corruption is just the messiness of disagreement. Americans claim to dislike Congress, but we express support for our own representatives; we just don’t like other people’s representatives. Likewise, I like the lobbyists for my cause, but I dislike yours. I view my representatives as a necessary counter to yours.
Like committees in the workplace, Congress spreads responsibility around, sharing information and reducing the power of the executive. The desire for quick, direct action is understandable. It’s frustrating to have to work out agreements with other people whose experiences and views differ from ours. We could create a leaner organization, but the only way to get totally free of the bureaucratic swamp is to abdicate our sovereignty to a central power. Kingships worked this way. One man and his family and their group of favorites controlled everything, and the king could act decisively on a moment’s notice; but the side-effect of that system was a thoroughly corrupt society in which ordinary people felt no ownership and no responsibility for the country. The Founders lived through that nightmare.
Legislatures and bureaucracies can’t be perfect. They’ll never satisfy our desire for a rational, seamlessly functional system of government. But the thing is, they belong to us. They are the good swamp—messy, yes, and a bit dangerous and hard to navigate, but also beautiful, and better and safer than a political landscape dredged and flattened and ruled over by one very imperfect dictator. Don’t drain the swamp. Maybe you’ll never love it—but, my fellow swamp-creatures, it is ours, and it is good.
Music: "Jaw Harp Blues" by Railroad Tycoon 3