The received wisdom of the day is that Washington is broken. Depending on who you ask, the exact nature of the breakage varies. However, there is a general agreement that Washington is mired in gridlock and a swamp of corruption. Members of both parties have run on the promise of repairs. Obama promised hope and change while he was on the campaign trail. However, when the trailed ended in Washington, one can only say that while he came, things stayed just about the same. After Obama arose the Tea Party. This subset of the Republican Party gave rise to a surge of candidates who swore to run for office by running against the broken government and promised to drain the swamp. Once elected, however, they seemed to find that the swamp water was even more delicious than tea, so the swamp was sipped but not drained.
These results are not surprising. As the anarchist Emma Goldman contended, people who run for office on an honest promise of fixing the system and doing right either do not get elected or end up being ineffective. Those who are not so honest simply slide comfortably into the swamp and get busy locking up those grids. Because of this, it certainly makes sense that Washington is seen as broken. However, I contend that Washington is not broken and will make a case for this seemingly ludicrous claim.
Sorting out whether something is broken or not involves determining the purpose of the thing. After all, unless you know what something is supposed to do, then you will probably not know if it is working properly or not. In some cases, it is quite possible to err in regards to purpose. I will illustrate this with an analogy.
Many years ago I was at a track meet which had the javelin throw as one of the event. People tended to pay attention to this event, if only to avoid taking a javelin to the face. During the competition, a paper plate blew out onto the field and landed in a way that made it look like a target. Shortly after this, an athlete threw his javelin way past the plate, causing a recently arrived spectator to comment that the throw was bad because the javelin was way away from the “target.” I corrected the spectator, pointing out that the javelin throw is for distance rather than for accuracy (you just need to keep it in the rather large designated area). Given this purpose, the throw was actually quite good.
In the case of Washington, people who say it is broken are like the spectator: they see the politicians relentlessly missing the target that the spectators think they should be hitting (such as solving the problems faced by the general population). However, the spectators are in error: the politicians are not doing a bad job hitting that target. Rather, they are doing a good job at achieving other objectives. One of these objectives is, obviously enough, accumulating wealth. Politicians can (and often do) cash in on their offices via insider information, lobbying gifts, connections and so on in order to accumulate significant amounts of money. It is thus no shock that Obama is a millionaire—as are most of the folks in congress. While some politicians elect to be re-elected, some move into other lucrative careers, such as lobbying their former colleagues or taking top jobs in the industries they used to regulate.
Looking at Washington in terms of this objective, it is not broke. Far from it: about half of congress (and about 67% of senators) are millionaires. By this measure, Washington is working just fine for Democrats and Republicans alike. There are other objectives aside from the accumulation of wealth, but this should suffice to indicate that Washington is not broke from the perspective of many of the politicians embedded there.
The obvious counter to this view is to argue that Washington is broke because it is not working as it should be working. That is, although it is working to achieve the goals of most of those running the show, these are not the goals that they should be aiming for. That is, the politicians should be acting for the general good of the country rather than their own private goods in ways that are damaging to the public good. This is not to say that both cannot occur—after all, what is good for the country might be good for a senator. However, the current tendency seems to be in favor of those in Washington and against the rest of us.
Given the catastrophically low approval rating for Congress and low approval ratings for other politicians, it seems evident that people do get that while Washington is working for some it is certainly not working for all. Despite this, the incumbents have generally managed to win re-election after re-election, although there have been some upsets and there seems to be an ever increasing willingness to challenge the old guard. However, what is needed is not just a swapping of the dwellers of the swamp, but the long promised draining of the swamp.
While it is tempting to yield to cynicism and apathy, this sort of situation is not a new one for America. In the past, Americans have managed to clean things up and at least get some solid islands protruding from the swamp. If we can do this again, we can repair the damage that has been done. However, there is also another lesson of history: when an empire’s rulers are focused on their own enrichment and act contrary to the good of the nation, then the fall of the empire is surely approaching.
While I retain optimism, the fact that the sort of people who are needed in Washington are now refusing to slog into the vile swamp. But, the fact that such people do exist and are willing to lead in a principled way on the state and local level means that hope still remains.