The election (and re-election) of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party both reflected and deepened a growing polarization in American society and political life. The recent government shutdown and debt-ceiling crises are only the latest and perhaps most serious manifestations of these trends. According to their advocates, the right and the left seem to have not simply different policy preferences, but also different values, worldviews, and visions of America’s future—differences that have deepened to the point where the legitimacy of the other side is questioned and a basic understanding of the opposing view barely exists. Finding ways to reduce this polarization, and the governmental dysfunction and societal animosity that accompany it, is thus a crucial concern.
Walking into this minefield is Yuval Levin, a well-known conservative intellectual and a regular combatant in contemporary policy debates. In his new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Levin argues for approaching these contemporary debates through the back door, by looking at what he considers to have been their genesis more than two centuries ago. Levin steps back from discussions of health care, entitlement reform, and fiscal policy into the realm of ideas, engaging two canonical thinkers from the late eighteenth century. It makes sense to do so, he believes, because “Burke and Paine laid out the beginnings of the right and left, respectively.” Both conservatives and liberals are often ignorant of the history of political thought, he notes, and so a reconsideration of Burke and Paine can help both sides understand their own and opposing arguments and improve the ability of Americans of all political persuasions to participate usefully in political debate.
Levin’s suggestion has some promise, not least because Burke and Paine are so often caricatured rather than carefully considered. Progressives often focus on little more than Burke’s traditionalism and defense of monarchy, social hierarchies, and other odious and anachronistic institutions, while conservatives often scorn Paine as a radical revolutionary and Enlightenment extremist, opposed to religion, tradition, and much else they hold dear. The Great Debate avoids these pitfalls, providing a judicious, nuanced, and accessible précis that reveals both Burke and Paine to be complicated and compelling thinkers. This sympathetic treatment of the two men, in turn, allows Levin to paint an intellectual picture of right and left that is more gray than black and white, something all too rare today. The only problem with such nuance is that rather than clarifying contemporary American political divides, The Great Debate may leave readers more confused than ever about what separates and unites us.
Yuval Levin has become an important figure on the American right over the past few years, penning numerous articles in a variety of publications, serving on the White House domestic policy staff, acting as an outside adviser to Paul Ryan, and editing National Affairs, a conservative (and occasionally heterodox) policy journal. He’s a winner of the Bradley Prize, a prestigious award on the intellectual right, and has been referred to as “probably the preeminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.
In addition to his contemporary political and policy work, Levin also holds a Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and that background comes through clearly in The Great Debate. Burke and Paine remain figures of great interest to political theorists and intellectual historians not only because each addressed so many of the central issues of the modern era, but also because they confronted each other directly over these issues, particularly in the context of what was perhaps the defining event of their day: the French Revolution. Alongside the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution created the modern era. As was the case with the capitalist economic era ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, the political era ushered in by the French Revolution was accompanied by immense social violence, dislocation, and instability. The Revolution aimed to overthrow a dictatorial and repressive order based upon social hierarchy and legal inequality and replace it with a new democratic order committed to liberty, fraternity, and equality. Despite these progressive goals, the Revolution descended into terror, tyranny, and chaos. The role played by the French Revolution in bringing an end to one era and ushering in a new one, and its complicated and even contradictory nature and outcomes, spurred Burke and Paine (as well as innumerable thinkers and commentators after them) to debate its value and implications.
Levin structures his analysis of Burke and Paine around the recognition that although these thinkers disagreed about many issues and events, their Great Debate focused on two crucial relationships—between the past and the present, and between the individual and the community. Central to Paine’s worldview, Levin stresses, was a firm belief in the power of reason. Reason, for Paine, was a profoundly liberating force that could allow individuals to go beyond their prejudices and habits and help them understand the true nature of the world and their place in it.
Paine’s political analysis followed this same logic. He argued that if we want to understand the rationale and principles underlying our political institutions, we need to go beyond current contexts and conditions and back to their deepest roots. And once we consider a world where political institutions do not yet exist—the state of nature—Paine believes it becomes clear that humans originally existed as equal and autonomous individuals. From this clear, simple, and universal assumption Paine derives a deeply individualist and egalitarian worldview. Given their originally equal and autonomous state, people would come together to form governments only to achieve what they could not on their own—namely, freedom and security. The ensuring of freedom and security is thus the basic principle underlying all social and political institutions; those that do not adhere to or apply these principles are thus inherently unjust, and individuals have no obligation to obey or abide by them. This would apply, for example, to unelected governments, which by definition deny individuals’ freedom to choose, as well as inherited hierarchies or social privileges, which limit the freedom of choice of each new generation.
Paine’s belief in the primacy of freedom and choice led to his support for rebellions, uprisings, and even revolutions: They were sometimes not merely necessary but salutary because they facilitated the replacement of unjust regimes with just ones. This, of course, is why Paine famously defended the French Revolution against Burke and others. Since the ancien régime was a hereditary monarchy supported by inherited privileges and entrenched social hierarchies, it was inherently unjust; the French, therefore, had the right to topple it and rebuild their society and government on an improved foundation.
It is important to note, however (as Levin does), that Paine does not simply praise revolutions for their destructive capacity; a “good” revolution in Paine’s view does not merely eliminate an old, bad regime, but helps to create a new, better one. More generally, Paine saw no inherent value or authority in the past; institutions were to be judged not on the basis of whether their “principles are new or old, but whether they are right or wrong.” Such views made Paine a revolutionary as well as an optimist: Not only did he believe it unjust to keep in place institutions that violated individual freedom, he believed it was unnecessary since people unbridled by those institutions had the capacity to dramatically improve the world around them.
Burke, as Levin shows, differed from Paine almost every step of the way. Unlike Paine, Burke was skeptical of the power and applicability of reason. He believed emotion was a critical and indelible part of human nature and that humans were not autonomous, equal individuals but inherently social creatures, defined by bonds they are born into rather than choose. For Burke, therefore, the “state of nature”—i.e., one where social bonds or cohesion did not exist—is a frightening and chaotic rather than liberating condition. Indeed, for Burke, the point of politics was to avoid a reversion to such a condition at all costs. More generally, since individuals are defined by and need society for their well-being, it is society rather than the individual that governments are tasked with protecting. So whereas for Paine individuals are primary and their rights ineradicable, for Burke society is primary and individuals have obligations to protect and nurture it.
The need to protect social unity and continuity led Burke to focus attention on those institutions and practices that furthered stability. And although each society’s characteristics and histories were different, this generally meant ensuring a reverence for the past and tradition since such things tied individuals together across time and space. These concerns motivated Burke’s defense of monarchy and the hereditary principle, since he viewed both as (in Levin’s words) “cross-generational institutions” that “offer a real solution to the challenge of establishing arrangements that will outlive their founders.” Moreover, the nobility, as Burke wrote, “form[ed] the chain that connects the ages of a nation which otherwise…would soon be taught that no generation can bind another.”
This same logic led to Burke’s revulsion against dramatic breaks with the past such as the French Revolution. By aiming to destroy a society’s past and start completely from scratch, revolutionaries were engaging in a naÏve and dangerous endeavor that was likely to end in chaos and violence rather than a new and better order. It should be noted, however (as Levin does), that although opposed to revolutionary upheaval, Burke was not opposed to change or progress. Burke believed in both and was himself an active participant in many reform efforts. He believed, however, that successful change had to happen gradually, and build upon and respect a society’s particular traditions and character.
So where does Levin’s reconsideration of Burke and Paine’s Great Debate leave us? Certainly with a renewed appreciation for the contributions of these two figures, and a sense that the world would be a better place if more of the participants in contemporary debates combined the intellectual heft and political engagement of Burke and Paine. Levin studiously refuses to declare a “winner” in the Great Debate, and he makes few judgments about the ultimate value or validity of each thinker’s views. The reader is left to tote up the pluses and minuses of each. At least for this reader, Paine emerges as the more convincing of the two. His focus on reason as the best tool for understanding and analyzing the political world seems indisputable; his egalitarianism and libertarianism are at the heart of democracy, capitalism, and liberalism; and his belief that unjust governments and social institutions are unworthy of support and obedience seems uncontroversial today. Burke, on the other hand, comes off primarily as a useful corrective to the excesses of an overconfident liberalism: His recognition of the limits of reason, focus on the importance of social cohesion and identity, and concern with overly idealistic and radical political experiments are all worthwhile checks, but much else of what he argued for seems anachronistic or overtaken by events.
But Levin wants to do more than merely remind us of the value and insights of these two great thinkers; he wants to illuminate and inform contemporary political debate as well—and here The Great Debate ends up confusing more than clarifying. If Levin aims to show that at the heart of the contemporary right and left are the same insights and principles championed by Burke and Paine, he is surely mistaken. The American right has always been less influenced by Burkean-style conservatism than have its European counterparts and has long contained powerful populist and libertarian strains that Burke would probably have disdained. While it is certainly true that we have had a more moderate right at times in the past, our right has never been primarily or even largely defined by Burke’s thought, with its focus on preserving the past, disdain for radicalism, and support for a certain type of communitarianism.
The American left, for its part, is equally difficult to understand through the prism of Burke and Paine’s Great Debate. Marxism never made the same inroads into the American left as it did into its European counterparts, and neither did other radical ideologies bent on overthrowing the existing order. Instead, the American left has been dominated by reformists and progressives, committed for the most part to getting the United States to live up to its ideals and traditions rather than changing them. As was the case in Europe, an almost social-democratic tradition emerged during the late nineteenth century that was characterized by a belief in gradual reformism and the need to protect social unity and cohesion from the ravages of the capitalist system; principles and insights that would sit at least as comfortably with Burke as they would with Paine. Even during the devastation of the Great Depression, this pseudo or partial social-democratic tradition was never seriously threatened on the left by communists, Marxists, or other radicals, and it reached its apogee with Roosevelt’s New Deal, which did as much to stabilize American political life as it did to change the American welfare state or economic system.
Historically, in other words, the connections between the American right and Burke and the American left and Paine have been tenuous, and both sides of the political spectrum have drawn on a variety of traditions. But this is surely not news to Levin. So perhaps what Levin really aimed to do with The Great Debate was not to illuminate what the right and left actually are, but rather to suggest what they should be. But here too the book is somewhat confusing, particularly for the right—the part of the spectrum to which Levin is best positioned to preach.
With the demise of what remained of the patrician tradition, the American right is now dominated by the Tea Party and other radicals whose libertarianism, advocacy of revolutionary change, suspicion of government, and disdain for talk of social “cohesion” or unity would horrify Burke. Levin’s sympathetic treatment of Burke may have been intended to remind his fellow Republicans of the world they have lost and the importance of restraint, respect for the past, and the horrors of the “state of nature.” But if so, the message is rather too muffled here. Levin doesn’t really address contemporary politics explicitly, leaving the implications of his analysis to be interpreted or intuited. Given that the right is currently the radical and disruptive part of the political spectrum, Burke’s self-styled progeny should be far more focused on reining it in. But one sees precious little of this in the journals of the right, though we’ve seen hints of change lately with the Tea Party-induced political paralysis. Nor is there much attempt to give what is now truly a much-moderated Democratic Party its due. For those intellectuals on the right who see themselves as working in Burke’s tradition, this is surely a do-or-die time, an urgent fact that Levin’s book fails to convey.
And what of the left? Although Marxism never really took root in the United States, there was a time, in the 1960s and ’70s, when the left at least resided on the radical part of the political spectrum, believing in the necessity and desirability of dramatic, even revolutionary, change. But those days are long gone. Even in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, the mainstream American (and European) left is largely bereft of radical ideas or even critiques of the existing order, focused more on preserving past accomplishments than pushing forward new innovations. (And no, Occupy Wall Street did not succeed on that front; it made a lot of noise and all to the good, but it ultimately had little impact or lasting support.) Such “conservatism” would certainly be a grave disappointment to Paine but might receive nods of approval from Burke.
Indeed, Levin’s point is well taken for both sides. Perhaps American debate and politics would be more edifying and effective if right and left hewed more closely to their great progenitors. The American right desperately needs to be reminded of the dangers of radicalism, of the trouble that often emerges when utopian ideals trump practical concerns about the actual lives of ordinary citizens, and of the problems that come when social cohesion and unity decline precipitously. As the French Revolution made clear centuries ago, democracy cannot function when a significant sector of the population denies the legitimacy of the values, needs, and goals of the rest of society. When you believe apocalypse is around the corner, any tactic becomes justified.
The left, on the other hand, could do with a little radicalism. The muted critiques and lack of coherent alternatives offered by the American left have allowed dangerously disruptive features of contemporary capitalism to remain in place, and have hindered support for what should be understood as the most significant advance in social security and personal liberty of the past generation—the Affordable Care Act. The left’s kinder, gentler version of neoliberalism, moreover, has left those most dissatisfied with the existing order without a mainstream alternative on that part of the spectrum, and has driven many into the arms of extremists on both sides.
In this era, probably neither Burke nor Paine would know where he belonged on the political spectrum. As an ascendant conservative intellectual, Levin aspires to remind the Republican Party of the dangers of radicalism, disrespect for political institutions, and disintegrating social harmony. It’s a commendable goal. If only he would do so more loudly and clearly.