We too often assume that the left and right divide began with the eruptions of the ’60s or with the presidency of FDR. It is in fact much older — ancient, even, for it is not out of the question to assume that Greece and Rome faced similar questions. So Yuval Levin, with his The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, has done modern American political discourse an incredible service by reminding us to always consider the historical context.
Levin takes the reader on a guided tour of the Enlightenment-drenched late 18th century and demonstrates how Burke and Paine, who serve as Levin’s representatives for conservative liberalism and progressive liberalism, respectively, adapted the thinking of the age to their approach to political questions. He draws from both their letters and published works — which make for great reading, by the way. Both, after all, were wonderful rhetoricians.
Their two defining moments? The French and American Revolutions. Paine supported both, because he viewed them as serious expressions of Enlightenment liberalism — the crushing of institutions and traditions, the releasing of the individual from various constraints, the basis of all things on reason. As Levin notes, Burke, though he supported the American Revolution, was horrified by the French Revolution, viewing it as a “mortal threat to liberty” (29). He of course believed that good, free regimes were based upon habit, sentiment, and communal association — with the dead, the living, and the yet to be born.
If you are familiar with political philosophy, then neither of their positions will come as a surprise. What I think is most important about Levin’s book is this: he reminds us that the United States is not really heir to a truly conservative tradition. For instance: Burke was a conservative Whig. This is why a strong, objective sense of history is important. As Levin writes:
The revolutionaries who adopted Paine as their own would too often infuse his historical memory with socialist sensibilities that would have been largely foreign to Paine himself. And a great deal of the commentary (and even the scholarship) regarding Burke, particularly over the past century, has seemed to want to make him (even) more temperamentally conservative than he was, in the process overlooking important strains in his thinking (225).
Our nation was founded by a revolution, which, as Levin notes, is why many modern conservatives tend to sound like Paine in denouncing the excesses of the state while triumphing the individual. But they are also quite willing to craft policy that closely resembles the communal, tradition-based conservatism that Burke articulated (228-229).
The questions that so plagued many late 18th century thinkers remain: Was America, like Burke thought, a separation from England, but maintaining a form of its institutions? Or was it, as Paine would imagine, a total break, a completely new, reason-based nation (225)?