Rep. Eric Swalwell: Countering Republicans' "Rule or Ruin" Mindset
"Do you believe in the rule of law or do you believe in violence? That's the battle in Washington now."
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I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who has represented California’s Fifteenth Congressional District since 2012. Congressman Swalwell serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Judiciary Committee, and the House Homeland Security Committee. He also chairs the Intelligence Modernization and Readiness Subcommittee and is co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. Our conversation took place on Jan. 19, 2022, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): You were a key part of the House Democratic team that sponsored the Protecting Our Democracy Act. It places limitations on presidential powers, such as the ability to self-pardon or declare states of emergency without Congressional oversight. It builds on anti-corruption measures you introduced earlier into Congress, like the Duty to Report Act (2019).
So the House has been busy addressing threats to our freedoms and bolstering accountability in politics. And yet there is a degree of public impatience with the Democratic leadership, including in progressive circles, and the perception that not enough is being done to push back against Republicans. What do you say to this?
Rep. Eric Swalwell (ES): I would say that the House is doing everything in our power to make sure that we hold Donald Trump accountable for what he did on Jan. 6th. And also to make sure that [Jan. 6] is not repeated. I would say that, like many Americans, I am frustrated with the Senate, in particular with the use of the filibuster that seems to protect the minority party from having to embrace accountability.
So, I share the frustration, but I want to make sure that it's aimed in the right place. And when the filibuster is weaponized in a way that stops voting reforms and stops government transparency and accountability measures, that is where I would send my frustration.
RBG: You've been in Congress for a decade. So, you've lived through years of governing in a bipartisan system. And now the Republicans are withdrawing from that bipartisan system and adopting a totally different political culture--an authoritarian political culture that does not recognize the norms of democracy. I'm wondering how that affects your day-to-day work as a legislator.
ES: Well, I went to Congress as a collaborator, and now I'm in an environment where the Republicans want to rule or ruin-- that's the mindset. There's no room for collaboration. Look at Dan Crenshaw (R-TX). He is, I think by almost everyone's account, a very conservative Republican. Well, he has the crazy idea that Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) is a fraud and should have nothing to do with the party, that she's kind of a grifter. And now that people like Greene are increasingly the prevailing element in the party, many have turned on him [for example, for suggesting that FEMA aid with Covid-19 testing, which goes against Greene’s claim that Covid-19 is not a serious health threat]. That's the environment we're in right now.
RBG: Yes, look at how many people who broke the law by participating in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol are now running for GOP offices.
ES: Yes. But I think that "rule or ruin" is really the best way to describe what we're undergoing right now. I mean, that's how the Republicans see it: as a zero-sum game. There's no collaboration for the common good.
RBG: I imagine that it's very difficult to work in that environment.
ES: A lot of us went to Congress with the idea that our job is to solve problems and get things done. And you work with whoever wants to work with you to do that. But now you have this environment that doesn’t allow for that.
I would love to return to the days when we debated policies with Republicans, and had exchanges over the size of government, the role of government and education, and what the tax rates should be, but we're not there right now. Do you believe in rule of law or do you believe in violence? That's the battle in Washington right now.
So that's why I get a little frustrated when people want to castigate Liz Cheney (R-WY) or Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). You know, I would love to have a debate with them about a woman's right to choose, but that means you have a country where you can actually have a debate, and right now, that's what's at risk. And so if they're on our side wanting to fight for accountability and democracy, then let's take their support and table the other debates for another day.
RBG: Do you think that Americans, a people with no experience with national dictatorship, will get this message in time? Do they understand what's at stake if we don't all pull together?
ES: I think we need to be very clear about joining with everyone who wants to be in the fight with us. Because the most important question is: are we a democracy or are we not? Are you going to stand up to Donald Trump or will you cave to Donald Trump? I don't want us to be so absolutist about who is in that fight with us, or we risk alienating people who would otherwise join.
RBG: If you study propaganda you know that Republicans have been able to make the Big Lie stick because they have unified messaging. Trump imposed a kind of authoritarian party discipline that Democrats will never have. Democratic messaging is about pluralism. Yet we need to unify our messaging more to convey what's at stake for our democracy, and we have to do that in the next months to get ready for the midterms.
ES: I agree. That messaging has to make sure that people understand what we mean when we say we're saving democracy. We're saving your freedom of speech, your freedom to vote, your freedom to worship, and, just as important, your freedom to dream. That's what we have to communicate.