Politicians are masters at defining issues in black and white terms. As political operatives from Karl Rove to Brian Topp are aware, the ability to define an issue in a way that presents your party in stark contrast with the other (your party being on the side of angels, of course) is a winning formula.
Whether it is aimed at electoral success, control of the legislative process, or control of popular opinion, this way of framing issues is a means to acquire or maintain power. In each case, the morphing of a problem from a complex problem with a variety of different solutions to a binary choice between two options is motivated by questions of power.
This is not to say it's only about power, or that power makes such questions entirely illegitimate, but it does help us understand the unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object politics of the recent U.S. government shutdown.
When we're trying to understand those types of disputes, it's also helpful to ask whether power—and the brinksmanship associated with it—totally encapsulates what politics is all about.
There is a long tradition of understanding politics in terms of power. We're not prone to read Plato much these days, but a brief glance at HBO's Game of Thrones shows that it's still a tradition that's alive and well. It's not just Thrasymachus; Queen Cersei also notes that all this talk about justice is well and good, but at the end of the day: "power is power."
But power is not the only tradition.
Others, and here I'm thinking about Hannah Arendt, suggest that insofar as we understand politics only in terms of power we actually demean ourselves and become less human.
When we come to political solutions, it is important to note that it could be done otherwise. Even if we agree on the end of a particular political issue—public education or the accountability of trade unions, for instance—there are almost always multiple ways to address and achieve that end. The most basic negotiating exercises still allow for a wide variety of solutions.
Politics, according to Arendt, is something done by free human beings. Insofar as we shape our political institutions to limit our freedom to binary choices, we become more like animals who have to decide to fight or fly; eat or sleep. Or, perhaps more appropriately, we become like a piece of technology—a light switch—rather than masters of technology.
Looking back at the standoff in the U.S., we can see that it is not only a fight to attain power—there are principles at play here—but a classic failure of politics. We like to disdain it, but the horse-trading, the negotiations in the background, the concessions are all part of what it means to do democratic politics. Politics, even when it gets beastly, might be one of the key things that makes us human.