“Look at nothing contrary to ritual; listen to nothing contrary to ritual; say nothing contrary to ritual; do nothing contrary to ritual.” 

Confucius realized the importance of the “rules of play” which keep us constant. If a job is to be done, doing it by these rules shows that our conduct is spotless. If there is a disagreement to be resolved, resolving it by these rules shows concerned parties that they are being heard out in good faith.

And in a new and shameful tradition, this procedural ideal is nowhere to be found on Capitol Hill. Confucius’ focus on ritual propriety, called li, has its own name in the American political vernacular: regular order. For years, regular order was the vaguely-if-at-all-codified, but respected, set of rules and relationships which enabled Congress to achieve bipartisanship or something very close to it. More than a set of rules, it was an institutional disposition which guided Congress toward cooperation and working bottom-up rather than top-down.

Regular order isn’t merely a civic myth, the paragraph in a high school history textbook thrown in for aesthetic value. It is something we once had and now desperately need. It is John Adams handing his Federalist government over to Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans, achieving a world historic transition of power without battle or bloodshed. It is Abraham Lincoln building his cabinet from every viewpoint under the sun to lead a young democracy through four years of civil war. It is President Ronald Reagan, Republican and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Democrat putting aside their differences for a funny little thing called the common good.

But even these facts seem mythical in our current state. Never mind the climate of polarization. Right or wrong, both parties, both Republicans and Democrats, have disregarded regular order for the sake of political gain. This is a story with history; this is a story with consequences.

We may just as well begin in 2010, when then-Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell pledged to make Barack Obama a one-term president on the eve of the midterm elections. McConnell did walk his statement back, did promise to cooperate with Democrats if Democrats cooperated too, but the statement’s timing was dubious. And a six-year war of attrition against Republican Enemy No. 1 didn’t much help things.

This gave the Democrats justification for their own non-cooperation. The Republicans announced (and were performing) a strategy of obstruction, so what were Democrats supposed to do? President Obama responded to one party’s recalcitrance with the executive order. He committed the future of everything from immigration reform to climate policy to executive fiat.

But the problem of governing with signatures is that every president has one.

What Democrats built with executive orders, what they built outside of regular order, Trump is just as easily tearing down. What about DACA, the umbrella program that protected the futures of some 800,000 undocumented immigrants? Gone. What about climate change policies at home and abroad designed to keep the planet from suffocating? Gone. What one party builds, another can destroy. And when we don’t work together, everyone suffers.

I am not pointing fingers; I am only pointing out that our current abandonment of regular order has had disastrous consequences. When we abandon regular order, we abandon regularity. We abandon any hope that what is built today will stand tomorrow. We abandon hope of progress and security in our future. But when we create something together, when many people hold a stake in the outcome, of course we all hope for success. This is why government is often glacial. It takes a while to get everyone on board, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of procedural nicety; but once most of them are, they are something close to unstoppable.

Our inability or lack of will to enact regular order jeopardizes the very fitness of our institutions to turn ideals into reality. Think of all the damage that has been done, of all the unwritten and sacrosanct rules of the executive branch that have been broken. How can we expect these rules to be followed again, or the powers of the executive to be trusted, when they have been so utterly abused? Thankfully we have a Congress, we have state legislatures and city councils, we have innumerable other bodies which can work to counterbalance one man’s abuse of the world’s oldest democracy. But if we allow these other bodies to sacrifice the longevity of good government for the glister of quick gain, how can we expect any progress to be made at all?     

Of course, this cannot happen overnight: wounds of distrust run deep. Of course, this cannot occur seamlessly: there will be issues which need to be addressed by assembly, by demonstration, and by grassroots activism. But if we refuse to begin rehabilitating our government, our history yet unwritten will tell how a pendulum swung violently, crashing to one side and then the other and always harming Americans.

This is a fact of democracy: there comes a time when our party is not around, or not in full force, to make our ideals a reality. But common rules of play give those who come after us a fighting chance to achieve something more than we left them. Winston Churchill said it best: “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” And that is for Democrat and Republican alike to make government more than a spitting match. 

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity junior. His column, "the academy matters," runs on alternate Thursdays.