Opinion

Opinion | Diane Hessan

The muck and mud in Washington — how voters see it

Bald Cypress Trees in southern Louisiana swamp at Cypress Island Preserve
Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/Associated Press

‘I hated almost everything about Donald Trump during election season,” said John from Nevada. “There was only one exception, and that was his slogan about draining the swamp. I thought that was really important.”

In my conversations with diverse and divided voters, there is one issue that Americans agree on more than any other: the need to drain the swamp. Politicians from Ronald Reagan to Nancy Pelosi have used that term to decry the Washington morass; and both Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders made fixing the rigged system a central message of their campaigns. Voters from across the political spectrum describe Washington as rife with greed, grift, and bureaucracy, reminiscent of a bog full of disease-carrying mosquitoes. They believe it’s time to drain that swamp, and they all want pretty much the same thing when they say that.

“To me, draining the swamp is about taking big money out of congressional decisions,” said Maria, a Democrat from South Carolina. “We need to take away this web of deceit, eye-winking, handshaking, and you-scratch-my-back/I’ll-scratch yours.” Nearly 80 percent of voters in my panel bemoan the outsize influence of the rich, the NRA, pharmaceutical companies, and especially lobbyists, whose activity surged to $3.34 billion last year.

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Voters also believe that our government is bureaucratic and wasteful, no longer responsive to the needs of constituents. As Desiree, a millennial Democrat from New Hampshire, told me, “The idea that D.C. has many people that are just there for power and not for the people rings so true for me!” Jasmine, a Republican from Maine, agreed: “The people who are in government should be there for the people, and not be career politicians that cozy up to lobbyists, line their pockets, and make deals to further their careers. They should do what is really right rather than what is right for them personally.”

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Voters cited dozens of examples. Lisa, a Republican from Georgia, talked about the waste and power plays she sees daily in her government job. Lynn, an Independent from North Carolina, shared stories of FEMA giving people $500 after a Category One storm, simply because they claimed they lost a freezer full of groceries. Others cited Bob Corker, who entered Congress deeply in debt and is now worth nearly $70 million, allegedly because he traded on inside information while serving on the Senate Banking Committee. Said Robert, a Republican from Mississippi, “I don’t think our Founding Fathers ever intended anyone to be in office for 30 or 40 years or to become millionaires in the process.”

And most Democratic and Republican voters also agree on one other thing: Trump not only hasn’t drained the swamp, he may be making things worse.

“I am a Trump supporter for sure,” said Jose, a Republican from California, “but on a scale of 1 to 10, I give him a 2 for draining the swamp. It was compelling to me to have an outsider go in and blow everything up, but the only progress in that area so far is in sexual harassment and assault, and we obviously can’t give him credit for that.” Added Joseph, a Republican from Arizona, “I am happy to have more money in my paycheck, but the people who are really benefitting are the rich people. I mean, they didn’t even change the tax rate on carried interest [in the recently passed tax plan].”

Many perceive Trump’s Cabinet appointments as making the swamp even more corrupt. “Trump thought that draining the swamp was about bringing in new blood, and instead we got a bunch of Goldman Sachs executives and other rich people who are adding to the goo,” said Jenny, a Democrat from Iowa. Voters reminded me of the stories about expensive flights taken by cabinet secretaries, and bemoan what they believe is just a new group of cronies who are beholden to new special interests.

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For now, the swamp drama continues. Democrats will decry Trump’s unwillingness to divest his business interests or implement Congress’s sanctions on Russia. Republicans will hold up the recently declassified Devin Nunes memo as evidence that even the FBI is tainted. What Trump has shown voters — at least so far — is that just because he is a blustering outsider, it doesn’t mean he has the competence to take on the distrust people have for Washington. The hunger for brave and unsullied candidates with both the guts and the intelligence to change the system has not died. This is an opportunity for new leaders who, knowing that we are up to our necks in alligators, can bring back confidence in our democracy.

Clarification: The voters in this column were given pseudonyms to protect their identity.

Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 400 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.