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HBO's 'The Swamp' misdiagnoses Congress. Republicans are the problem, not lobbyists.

The Democrats are imperfect in many ways, but the nation's main problem is not lobbyist-fueled gridlock. It's harmful GOP ideology.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in a still from "The Swamp" on HBO.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in a still from "The Swamp" on HBO.HBO

The new HBO documentary "The Swamp" believes Congress is broken because of the corrupting effects of money and a lack of bipartisan compromise. It's a familiar argument and one that, while well-intentioned, is wrong. The Democrats are imperfect in many ways, but the nation's main problem is not lobbyist-fueled gridlock. It's a GOP that has become far more focused on harming Americans than helping them. By arguing this is a bipartisan issue, the doc pushes talking points that will make it harder, not easier, to fix our multiple, overlapping political catastrophes.

By arguing this is a bipartisan issue, the doc pushes talking points that will make it harder, not easier, to fix our multiple, overlapping political catastrophes.

The protagonist of "The Swamp" is young Rep. Matt Gaetz of north Florida and his colleagues in the very conservative Freedom Caucus. Directors Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme follow these members of Congress starting with the 2019 Democratic House takeover and ending with President Donald Trump's impeachment in 2020. They show Gaetz admirably working with progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., as they try to give Congress more power to block war with Iran. But they also show Gaetz engaging in shameless partisan stunts, like storming secure House impeachment hearings. Even more embarrassing is video of his obsequious phone calls with Trump. Gaetz, the filmmakers suggest, is a principled opponent of the establishment status quo whose ideals are compromised by hyperpartisanship and the relentless need to raise funds.

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Gaetz and the filmmakers blame lobbyists and congressional leadership in the thrall of lobbyists for setting the agenda in Congress. These bad actors supposedly prevent representatives from embracing common-sense, popular solutions, like nonpartisan redistricting and an end to conflicts in Afghanistan and Yemen. But the evidence Gaetz and the filmmakers present for the corrupting power of money is thin.

For example, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a Freedom Caucus member, mostly refuses to kowtow to lobbyists. But he's also a climate change denier, who monologues about how carbon dioxide is good because it makes plants grow. His motivation for embracing this ignorant nonsense isn't corporate money. It's his constituents. He represents a Kentucky district, and while there are no mines in his area, support for the coal industry is strong.

Similarly, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., another Freedom Caucus member, insists that his strong support for gun rights is based on personal conviction, not National Rifle Association money. The film is skeptical, but there is, in fact, good evidence that NRA contributions have little effect on swaying legislators. Conservatives love guns because embracing guns has become central to white rural identity politics. No one needs to pay Buck to oppose common-sense, nationally popular gun control legislation. He does that for free.

Similarly, when Congress passes a massive military spending bill toward the end of the documentary, it's not because lawmakers have been paid off. It's because the bill includes an increase in military pay, and members are afraid to vote against such a popular measure. Leadership of both parties may be influenced by defense contractors and lobbyists, but they get their rank and file on board by putting things in the bill that constituents want, not corrupt payments.

Both Republicans and Democrats vote for the military appropriations bill. But Khanna, a Democrat who worked with Gaetz on an anti-war amendment that was removed, votes against it. Gaetz, who represents a heavily military district, votes for it. He also votes against HR 1, a sweeping reform bill that would expand voting rights and provide for public funding of elections — "the best hope" to limit the influence of money in politics, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center.

HR 1 was passed on a strict party-line vote; Democrats voted for it, and Republicans voted against it.

Anti-corruption activist Lawrence Lessig, one of the film's persistent talking heads, reluctantly acknowledges that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pressured her caucus to support the measure. Pelosi, as a party leader and big fundraiser, supposedly represents the dark money political establishment. Yet the vote on HR 1 suggests that the old-school Democratic speaker is much more committed to returning power to the people than are the self-declared populist heroes of the Freedom Caucus.

Political opposition to corruption, it turns out, is often opportunistic rather than principled. The filmmakers are at least somewhat aware of this. They know that Trump's promise to "drain the swamp!" was hypocritical, and they point out that he's staffed his presidency with an unprecedented number of lobbyists and cronies.

But "The Swamp" doesn't fully acknowledge the ways accusations of corruption are weaponized by bad actors, especially on the right. In his 2018 book, "How Fascism Works," Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley explains that "anticorruption campaigns are frequently at the heart of fascist political movements."

Take Gaetz's speculation in 2018 that billionaire George Soros was paying Central American immigrants to come to the United States — a grotesque anti-Semitic conspiracy theory referred to by the suspect in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. As a billionaire who supports Democratic causes, Soros is a common target for right-wing opponents of corruption, not because he's uniquely corrupt, but because he's a partisan enemy.

As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein points out, "'Drain the swamp' always meant 'Liquidate our enemies' and we shouldn't pretend otherwise." That Soros is Jewish and that Gaetz is demagoguing against immigrants and refugees underline that the enemies for Republicans often include marginalized people.

"The Swamp" ends with a brief onscreen text note about the coronavirus pandemic. It notes that the relief bills Congress passed included billions of dollars for corporations and special interests. This is supposed to underline the film's warnings about lobbyists' influence.

But in fact, this coda mostly demonstrates again how utterly the filmmakers misunderstand the crises we face. The problem with the relief bills isn't primarily that they gave out too much money to the wrong people. The problem was that they failed to provide enough money for anyone. With more than 150,000 dead from the virus and the economy in tatters, the Trump administration has catastrophically failed to provide leadership on testing, personal protective equipment or social distancing, haplessly allowing the pandemic to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, the GOP is blocking further aid for those who have lost their jobs or are in danger of being evicted.

The wealthy have an unjust and outsize influence on government, as lobbyists' influence on defense appropriation bills shows. It's important to limit the power of the wealthy in both parties. But the first step in returning democracy to the people is recognizing that the Democrats are consistently the party that is more willing to challenge the wealthy, while the GOP has become so committed to ideological extremism that it is incapable of responding to national disasters or economic crises.

The bog we are sinking in wasn't created mostly by partisanship and or even lobbying influence. It was created by right-wing cruelty and dysfunction. Matt Gaetz and "The Swamp" don't help us get out of the muck.