Some time ago, Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis interviewed Charles Kesler about his book on Barack Obama. Kesler laid out the broad areas of conservative grievance with regard to liberal progressivism. In return, Mathis (a man of the left) posed an exceptionally revealing question. He noted that conservatives complain endlessly about liberals trying to bring about the peak of human history through their enlightened ideas. “But isn’t it the case,” he wondered (to paraphrase) “that conservatives think the millennium already came and that the magical year was 1787?” In other words, Mathis suggested that while liberals may be guilty of romanticizing the future, conservatives are surely guilty of romanticizing the past.
Mathis’ question is an excellent one. If I were him, I would feel that I had set forth a small destroyer capable of denting the hull of the S.S. Conservative. However, the premise of the question is faulty. Conservatives do look with great fondness upon the founding generation and the constitution it successfully ratified. However, this fondness is not out of some belief that the world at that time was perfect, but rather endures because conservatives perceive in the political philosophy of that time an understanding that the world is not and will not be perfect. What they see when they look back through those golden mists is not the object of their dreams, but rather a bracing modesty about the appropriate aims of politics. Unlike so many who fought over who would wield power, they wisely looked to limit its use rather than merely to redistribute it. They understood that power should be divided, checked, balanced, and contained because while it has the potential to achieve the dreams of progressives, it may actually be more likely to give rise to nightmares.