The transition from one year to the next prompts reflections on how our relation to the past constitutes the politics of the present. Before the 1700s politics was wholly oriented toward the past. As Robert Tombs puts it in his brilliant new book, The English and Their History: “Legitimacy came from the past: rights, status, property, laws—all were inherited. So desirable changes were conceptualized as a return to a pristine past. The idea was of a stable ordered hierarchy in which all knew and accepted their place.” In that world the culture made political arguments naturally conservative. Public ideals had to be put in the categories created by past practices.
The hierarchy described by Tombs started to break down with the rise of capitalism. But the nature of political legitimacy persisted, as the memory of the people still preserved an idealized past. Thus, even in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century political arguments were almost entirely founded on continuity with past political settlements, real or imagined. The American Revolution was fought on the basis that the British government was violating what they understood as the ancient prerogatives of Englishmen, which were then codified as the Bill of Rights.
But as technology created one new revolutionary invention after another and the market broadly delivered these benefits, the culture necessarily became focused on the future.