16 November 2016

Obama in Athens

The President has taken advantage of his visit to Greece to pontificate a few times more on democracy in its cradle. At a press conference yesterday, he said, "The ideas of ancient Greece helped inspire America's founding fathers as they reached for democracy." That oversimplifies things a little. I don't want to sound like a conservative, but the Founders and Framers aspired to a republic, albeit a democratic republic within strict bounds, rather than democracy in the Athenian sense. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts has something to say about the Founders' perceptions of Athenian democracy in her book Athens on Trial:

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.


Anonymous said...

But tRump is the quintessential idiotologist. It's just that his 'ideology', like that of most Americans, is greed. Let's face it, the only real ideology any current American politician subscribes to is staying in office as long as possible and that requires lots and lots of cash. So they'll say whatever they feel their constituents want to hear, but they'll do whatever it takes, to whomever it takes, to keep that campaign coffer over-brimming.

Samuel Wilson said...

Clearly there are different kinds of "greed," or else our elections wouldn't be as close and contentious as they usually are. It often comes down to those who want more than they need or could ever use vs. those who want more than others think they deserve, with the greed of politicians exacerbating things further. The Founders, Madison in particular, hoped that all the bad impulses would cancel each other out in a large republic, but apparently he miscalculated.

Anonymous said...

Those elections are "contentious" in the same way professional wrestlers are contentious. It's all a show for the camera.

Anonymous said...

The founding fathers severely miscalculated on much. The eventual size of the population, the overall amount of wealth that would exist, the mass ignorance and intolerance. I think their worst sin was in underestimating human stupidity.