Nobody ‘Won’ the Shutdown

Politics is more than just sport.

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Thankfully, it's over. The "crisis vise" once again has forced a resolution and helped to avert a catastrophe. Relief appears palpable and widespread – inside and outside of Washington.

Unfortunately, given the terms of the deal, it seems this will only be a temporary reprieve from the partisan brinkmanship and the crisis governance that have come to characterize President Obama's relations with Congress. With the continuing resolution expiring on January 15 and the debt ceiling suspended until only February 7, we're sure to be back in the thick of this fiscal debate before we even have a chance to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.   

Beyond this sobering reality, it seems to be necessary to underline the fact that these last three weeks were not a "win." In fact, it is precisely this warped Beltway thinking (that democratic politics is about affecting a "complete capitulation" from the opposition party) that has led Americans to mistrust both parties, become dissatisfied with our system and long for some third party alternative.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

Don't get me wrong. It's true that "politics ain't bean-bag." But politics is also more than just sport.

Sport is about recreation – amusement and play. Politics involves these things; frankly, I happen to believe that it is the most exciting sport in the world because it is the only one where the players not only play the game, but also make the rules and call the fouls. This is what makes politics a fundamentally creative endeavor and why it is considered "the art of the possible."

Sadly, however, most of the today's players (partisans and politicians) seem to have lost sight of "why" we play the game of politics – the meaning and purpose behind the partisan engagement. When you win in sports, you win titles, trophies and banners, and you become known for excellence and achievement. But there is nothing that you produce other than skilled players and extraordinary teamwork. There is no larger outcome beyond the game.

And this is where politics is different. Politics is the process through which a society works through its differences in opinion and makes decisions about the laws under which all of its people will live. In this way, it is not about completely vanquishing the other side. Only dictators seek that outcome.  For, as James Madison so cogently explained in "Federalist 10":

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

There are … two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

In fewer, albeit less elegant words, to erase human differences, you either have to annihilate liberty or brainwash everyone. Notably, doing either creates a society that is not worth living in.

And this is precisely what's going on in our current political world. Intent on obliterating their partisan opposition and persuading all others of their ideological righteousness, today's partisans and politicians have made American politics truly awful. No wonder most Americans want to get rid of congressional incumbents (74 percent) and would like "their child to avoid a career in politics" (64 percent).

[Take the U.S. News poll: Was the Government Shutdown Politically Worth It for Republicans?]

Fixing our politics starts with one thing: humility. All around. Because in this game, no one won.

While I'm skeptical about anyone recognizing this anytime soon, I'm hopeful that the 2014 midterm elections will teach these incumbents that spiking the ball and dancing in the end zone when the economy lost $24 billion, the structural problems are not even close to being solved and the Affordable Care Act's implementation is a complete mess, is not an acceptable way to play at the game of politics.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: With the Shutdown Crisis Over, Let’s Get Rid of the Debt Ceiling
  • Read Pat Garofalo: Republicans and the Sequester: A Love Story
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now availableon iPad