By and large the Athenian example was one from which the founding fathers wished to dissociate themselves. Madison made a point of distinguishing the American republic from the 'turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern [i.e. Rensaissance] Italy....In the representative principle he saw the remedy for the inherent turbulence of democracy, which, he argued, was a bad thing in ancient Athens. 'In all very numerous assemblies,' he insisted, 'of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates,' he maintained, 'every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.'
Madison and other Founders identified democracy with government by an assembly that constituted itself as "the people" but consisted of whatever (presumably qualified) people were motivated or could be induced to show up. The Americans insisted on democracy delegating power to representatives through elections, and demanded the extra safeguard of a Senate whose members sat for longer terms and were chosen by state legislatures, not directly by the people. Legislators in either house were presumed capable of deliberation in place of "passion," with the Senate under less immediate pressure from the rank and file. Obama, by comparison, equates "democracy" with "democratic republic," and trusts in the deliberative capacity of the people themselves. For him, democracy's redeeming virtue -- the thing that makes it, in Churchillian terms, the least worst form of government, is its self-correcting quality. In a speech today, he equated democracy with the scientific method, claiming that it's more responsive to facts than any other form of government. When you consider how both the electoral and the popular vote turned out last week, you may be tempted to laugh at his idealism. There's no room for ideology in the scientific method, the President observed, but there's no bar to ideology or other prejudices at the polls. Were the Founders here, they'd probably conclude that the 2016 election was waged with undiluted passion on both sides -- by the candidates if not the voters -- but they'd hope that the people elected, the legislators in particular, will govern more dispassionately. That seems unlikely, though there is still room for hope that Donald Trump is not as thoroughly governed by ideology or passion (go ahead and scoff!) as his party.
Modern American politics -- and, some might argue, Greek politics as well -- may only demonstrate the bankruptcy of political philosophy as a method for recommending or guaranteeing ideal forms of government. Every form of government ultimately depends on the character of the people who govern. That's just as true for the American model of a constitutional democratic republic as it is for any authoritarian model. Any model might work with the right people in it, and all will fail, through abuse or decrepitude, without the right people. No model can guarantee a consistent supply of "right people" across generations; no amount or quality of education can perfectly immunize people from the temptations of power or the temptations of surrender. No mechanism of ideal government can be set in place and left to operate on its own. Obama's panegyrics to democracy ring hollow after a generation of American efforts to spread democracy by the sword, even as he repeats the old saw about the peacefulness of democracies. The world has had too much of political theorizing in recent centuries, whether from a passion to make omelets or a zeal to protect every egg. We might be better off thinking practically rather than theoretically, about solving problems as they come rather than the right way to solve every problem. Our goal should be to say that we are governed not right but well. There is a difference.