Governing and Calvinball

For Christmas, I received the complete boxed set of Calvin and Hobbes, the great newspaper comic strip by Bill Watterson that ran from 1985 to 1995. This was easily my favorite comic strip growing up (its only serious competition being Gary Larson’s The Far Side) and many of its ideas have stuck with me: the wagon rolling down a hill at breakneck speeds, Spaceman Spiff, the transmogrifier…

…and Calvinball.

Calvinball, if you’re not familiar with the comic strip, is a game where players make up the rules as they go along. Except for the rule that rules cannot be used twice, rules cannot be used twice, so every game of Calvinball is different.

To Calvin and Hobbes, the point of Calvinball is to have fun, unhampered by the rules of formal sports. In real life, there are people who play Calvinball for the same reason. But in a lot of areas of our lives, the principles of Calvinball are used for another reason: we change the rules of the games we’re playing so that, whatever we do, we win.

Lately, this is how the principles of Calvinball have been applied to government.

Last week, Elizabeth Warren was sanctioned for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King regarding the nomination of Jeff Sessions. The original letter was written in 1986 in response to Sessions’s nomination to Federal District Court Judge for the Southern District of Alabama. Warren, of course, was using it as an argument against his nomination to United States Attorney General.

Mitch McConnell invoked the rarely used Rule XIX.2: “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” It’s a rule used so rarely – usually, senators just threaten to invoke it as a warning to another senator – that it’s easier to find examples of times when it probably should have been used than times when actually has been.

But this isn’t the only recent example of the rules (suddenly) being used or changed to suit those in power.

The Republican-controlled legislature of North Carolina, for example, moved to severely limit the power of the governor after a Democrat won the election. A court recently blocked this legislation, but that doesn’t change the attempt or the motive: to change the rules so that Republicans could keep their power.

Similarly, when senate Democrats boycotted the Finance Committee’s votes on cabinet nominees, the committee abandoned the rule that said members of both parties had to be present. The Democrats insist that they would have been happy to move forward once certain questions were answered, but Republicans preferred to change the rules to suit their desires.

I don’t mean to pick on Republicans here. I’m sure both sides play Calvinball to some degree. But this kind of rule-changing (or highly selective rule enforcement) creates serious challenges for responsible governance. Changing the rules so that one side of the debate has always already won undermines democracy: it ensures that the minority voice can never be heard.

So how about we make a deal for both parties to follow: no more Calvinball.