Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Is This an Accurate Description?

Edward J. Larson suggests that conservative and liberal politicians generally view history differently:

Liberal Democrats have always looked to the future with hope and embraced marginalized groups. When they look back, even to the deeds of their own former leaders, they see trails of tears like the one over which Andrew Jackson drove out the Cherokee. Blemishes on past presidents, even those who pointed the way toward future progress, tend to stain them wholly for at least some key elements within the Democratic coalition.

In contrast, conservative Republicans look to the past for inspiration but often to the future with trepidation. Originalists at heart, they tend to see only the shining city on a hill of earlier times and not its darker neighborhoods. George Washington's slaves are forgotten along with Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. For some Republicans, both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee become models of Christian virtue as if they never ordered millions of men into battle against the other. As his letter to me suggests, even Mr. Bush can embrace Jefferson by selecting aspects of the third president's character and career.

That characterization is consistent with my own view that a common liberal flaw is utopianism, while conservatives are more likely to be overly nostalgic. Utopianism leads one to heightened resentment of the failures of the past while being overly optimistic about the future. Nostalgic impulses tug a person in the opposite direction.

With regard to history, Mr. Larson argues that all sides would benefit from recognizing and appreciating the complexity of history.

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