Nancy Pelosi isn’t the leader whom the Democrats should run out of town on a rail. It’s Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. While Pelosi tried to get a word in edgewise, Schumer had the unmitigated gall to parrot Barack Obama in a meeting with President Trump:
Ha, no. Get me a minority leader who knows what the hell’s going on. In just the weeks since the election, Republicans have done these things:
- Initiated coups against incoming Democratic governors and attorneys general in Michigan and Wisconsin
- Refused to follow the will of the voters in Florida by attempting to scuttle a law that restores voting rights to felons
- Attempted to seat a candidate accused of voter fraud in North Carolina
- Appointed the loser of the Arizona Senate race to John McCain’s Senate seat
- Stated directly that they don’t care about actual crimes committed by the President of the United States
- Threatened to shut down the government they just lost control of
Elections don’t have consequences if Republicans win. They only have consequences if people who respect the rule of law win. And since we are heading toward the gerrymandering battle of 2020—when Republicans will probably have their last chance ever to have a majority of white voters in many crucial areas—the stakes are enormously high. Disenfranchising minority voters is the only winning strategy for the GOP, and they’ve embraced it wholeheartedly. So it’s all dirty tricks from hereon in.
This all seems kinda new, right? Like, okay, maybe you can vaguely recall attempts to limit power on both sides, but you can’t remember a time when an incoming state legislature just refused to follow a law approved by voters? Was there ever a time when the GOP seemed so … desperate? Did it ever just attempt to cast aside all the old rules when it won?
If you’re a board gamer, this might sound familiar to you, even if you can’t quite place it. The concept of playing on an amorphous, constantly changing landscape came into vogue with the rise of the collectible card game in the 1990s, introducing the golden rule that the cards overrule the rulebook. This continued with the modular board game in the 2000s, then the adventure card game in the 2010s. (Disclaimer: I made a lot of these.)
But one trend of the last decade has been even more alien than those, and might even end up being more influential: the legacy game. My buddy Rob Daviau came up with this concept while at Hasbro, introducing it in print with Risk Legacy. His later games Seafall, Pandemic Legacy, and Betrayal Legacy all followed a similar pattern: The game changes dependent on the results of your previous actions. I’m not talking about small consequences: Areas of the board would be stickered over or crossed out and renamed. Characters would die and return. New pieces would come into play and others would be destroyed forever. Entire sections of the rulebook would be papered over with new sections. Legacy games were inherently unstable, and gamers loved it.
To play a legacy game, you must be willing to suspend your definition of the game, without knowledge of what it might become. This is hard for some gamers, but thrilling for others. Imagine if a movie ticket came with a copy of the film’s script. You can read it before going to the theater. Would you do so? Did you just say “Of course not!”
Now imagine you’re flipping over a newly purchased copy of the pirate-themed Seafall for the first time. There’s a board pictured, and some cards, and some nice ships, and this all looks normal and … um, wait…
… the text on the bottom says, “This game contains 3 x 15V alkaline manganese batteries, which are required for the game.”
There’s nothing on the box that should need batteries. Your mind goes wild: Is it a wind fan? A ship that moves on its own? Maybe a slowly sinking island? You don’t know. I mean, you could know. You could just rip open the box and search it for things that have battery slots. But where’s the fun in that? You’re willing to give up something all gamers look forward to doing (inspecting the pieces before play) for something better (being shocked by new revelations). That’s the difference between being told Darth Vader is Luke’s father and watching it happen for the first time. (Oh, hey, sorry if I spoiled that for you.)
Here’s the development that you aren’t prepared for when you play your first legacy game: changing the rules as you go along is fun. It’s the best, actually. You aren’t a slave to the rules; you’re an active participant in making them evolve. If you don’t like what’s happening, just play more and you’ll like it soon enough.
And Seafall teaches us something else too. Most of these legacy games are cooperative. You change the rules together, and suffer the consequences as a team. But Seafall is different. Seafall is a competitive game. When you change the rules, the game tilts permanently toward those who are winning so far. That means losing one game means more losing in the future.
We liberals don’t give Republicans enough credit for seeing this. We think that they’re dour and mean, sitting in Brian Kemp’s office tight-fistedly mapping out ways to screw over minority voters because they have no choice. No, they’re enjoying this. Meanwhile, we’re slavishly adhering to the rules, and grumpily mandating everyone else do so. Who in your life do you picture when I describe it that way? Your boss? The referee of your basketball game? The DMV representative? Are these the people you want to hang out with? The GOP is playing the game to win it, not to get participation trophies.
The legacy game teaches us that in a period of evolution, we need to evolve. You do believe in evolution, right? We need to embrace that our democracy is changing, and we have to be a part of reshaping it too.
The gerrymandering battle isn’t about banning gerrymandering anymore; that’s just creating a level playing field, and if we lose on that, the GOP will still rewrite all the rules. It’s about reshaping the districts so that those who disenfranchise voters can never be elected again. Retaliatory gerrymandering is the only way our democracy survives. If you got tired of 2018 being called “the most consequential election of our lifetime,” you ain’t seen anything yet.
In the next two years, if we’re not creative with the rules—if we’re not as ruthless as they are—we could lose the very principle of elective democracy. We’re seeing the effects of it now. Because Republicans aren’t content to lose and fight the next election. They don’t want the next election to happen. The rules say they can’t stop it, for now. But their legacy is this: Rules can be changed. And they will be. What do you want to change them to?
This is the twenty-fifth installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Nancy Pelosi, and lame ducks. Essays like these are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.