Reading The Great Debate, reminded me of the night I spoke at the Yale Political Union (YPU) in February 2009. I was invited to New Haven to advance the argument that “Americans Should Embrace Their Radical History”—that is, the history of our many popular struggles to enhance American democratic life and our exceptional achievements in the 1770s, 1860s, and 1930s and 40s in confronting and overcoming threats to the survival of the nation by actually doing so.
The nation’s oldest student debating society, the YPU is composed of seven distinct “parties” ranging from the right to the left. Of course, the young people on the progressive side of the hall supported my cause with gusto. And yet those of the parties of the right were especially entertaining, not only because they were enthusiastic opponents, but also because they were divided into two parties, one advancing the cause of liberty, free markets, and individualism, and the other, a “Burkean” politics that ardently and audaciously defended tradition, order, and elitism, to the point, it seemed, of retrospectively opposing even the American Revolution.
The author of The Great Debate, Yuval Levin, is no undergraduate however. A veteran of both the Bush White House and the GOP House staff, and now Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, editor of the conservative National Interest, and a regular contributor to the Weekly Standard and National Review, Levin is a rising star among rightwing public intellectuals. Indeed, New York Times columnist David Brooks has referred to him as “one of the two or three most influential young writers today.” Still, reviewing Levin’s book recalled my night with the YPU students because Levin himself champions the thought of the Irish-born British MP Edmund Burke against that of the English-born American Revolutionary Thomas Paine so fervently that at times I could not help but seriously wonder if Levin himself would not have opposed the American Revolution.
Saying that he wrote his book, which apparently began as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, because he wanted to know “Why is there a left and right in our politics?” Levin explains how his quest necessarily took him back to the late eighteenth century, the Age of Revolution and the days of American Independence, the French Revolution, and British Radicalism, and the “great debate” between Burke and Paine, most especially to Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and Paine’s two-part reply, Rights of Man (1791/92).
But Levin offers more than just a theoretical exegesis of Burke’s and Paine’s opposed views. After providing detailed philosophical discussions of their respective understandings of Nature and History, Justice and Order, Choice and Obligation, Reason and Prescription, and Revolution and Reform, in the course of which Levin makes it pretty clear that he thinks we would be better off adopting Burke’s thinking on politics and society rather than Paine’s, he closes by essentially arguing that we should prefer the Republican party over the Democratic party because the former best represents Burke’s “reformist conservatism” and the latter, a modern rendition of Paine’s “restorative progressivism” that necessarily threatens the legacy of generations and deeply-held values of ordinary Americans.
As Levin presents the Great Debate: Whereas Paine, the prophet of the Age of Revolution, championed universal “natural rights,” an ungrounded radical individualism and egalitarianism, and the “rights of the living” to make their own history, Burke, the prophet of modern conservatism, rejected Enlightenment utopianism and radicalism and urged respect for long-evolved and time-tested political and social institutions and practices and acceptance of the obligations that one generation necessarily has to another. And whereas, Paine sought to rally “the people” to turn the world upside down to restore the rights that monarchical and aristocratic rulers had suppressed, Burke called for preserving the prevailing political and social order and, when circumstances truly demanded it, instituting incremental reforms that would not destabilize it and jeopardize the good it afforded.
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