Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Yuval Levin’s Must-Read Primer on America’s Ideological Faultline

The great debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine---and what it means in the Age of Obama.
obama clinton boehner

Raise your hand if you’re a conservative who has cited Edmund Burke without actually having read him closely.


Really—you’re all scholars of the Irish-born MP and oft-celebrated “father of modern conservatism”?

Okay, what did Burke mean by the phrase “the little platoon”?



Yuval Levin explains in his wonderful new book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left:

The division of citizens into distinct groups and classes, Burke writes, “composes a strong barrier against the excesses of despotism,” by establishing habits and obligations of restraint in ruler and ruled alike grounded in the relations of groups or classes in society. To remove these traditional restraints, which hold in check both the individual and the state, would mean empowering only the state to restrain the individual, and in turn restraining the state with only principles and rules, or parchment barriers. Neither, Burke thought, could be stronger or more effective than the restraints of habit and custom that grow out of group identity and loyalty. Burke’s famous reference to the little platoon—“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections”—is often cited as an example of a case for local government or allegiance to place, but in its context in the Reflections, the passage is very clearly a reference to social class.

Still feeling Burkean? Ready to go the pipe-and-slippers, Brideshead cultist route and declare yourself a loyal subject of the queen?

Levin reminds us that the context in which Burke wrote those words was a long-running intellectual dispute with a European-born radical, a man who was cheering on the secular revolution in France—and, oh, by the way, also one of the forefathers of our own revolution, favored by none other than Ronald Reagan himself—the Common Sense and The Crisis pamphleteer Thomas Paine.

That the rivalry between Burke and Paine cuts both ways through our hearts—this is precisely the kind of dialectic, if you will, that Levin hopes to provoke in the reader.

Make no mistake, though; Levin is a Burkean. In fact, the most eloquent exponent of Burkean conservatism, properly understood, since George Will circa 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft.

While scholarly and measured in tone, The Great Debate is a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance.

Indeed, The Great Debate is the must-read book of the year for conservatives—especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party. How can America, these conservatives ask, the land of the rugged individual, the conquerors of the frontier, choose statism and collectivism over freedom and liberty?!

Levin’s book provides the answer: You’re looking at the Democratic Party all wrong. It’s just as individualist as you are—maybe more so.

And that is the problem!

If I may digress for a moment: Last month, Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen published a piece, a portion of which I wish I could plaster on the foreheads of every conservative who has been beguiled by the theory of the Great Progressive Conspiracy to Transform American Life:

Of particular note, while the major figures of Progressivism would directly attack classical liberalism, Tocqueville discerned that Progressivism arose not in spite of the classical liberal tradition, but because of its main emphasis upon, and cultivation of, individualism.

Immediately after reading that, I thought of The Great Debate. I’ve had the great privilege of chatting with Levin over the course of the last year about the argument he mounts in The Great Debate: namely, that the left-right divide lurks within the very conception of American liberalism. It’s been there since the beginning. Modern progressive liberalism was not simply an alien ideology imported from the Continent. I will paraphrase a conversational line of Levin’s that I’ve been tempted to steal many times: You don’t have to draw a line through Germany to trace the intellectual evolution of the American left.

Without benefit of that gem, I’ve tried, gropingly, to make this case many times since I began blogging regularly three years ago. There is continuity, I argue, between the founding era’s classical liberalism and today’s modern liberalism. To borrow from Deneen again, both are about the businesses of expanding the “empire of reason” and the “relief of man’s estate.”

Yet, as Levin so elegantly chronicles, there was always great tension about how far, or how quickly, to expand this empire—and how much, or how quickly, lawmakers should strive to relieve man’s estate. Incrementally or in one fell etched-in-parchment-and-blood swoop? Through the channels of existing institutions or through an ever-swelling central authority? And conveniently for intellectual historians—well, it only seems convenient now that Levin has pointed it out for us—this tension was given voice by Burke and Paine in a body of writings and correspondences, often formally addressed to or in response to the other, that speaks, indirectly but penetratingly, to the present.

As Levin depicts it, the Burke-Paine divide did not look like that of the 20th century ideological struggle between collectivism and individualism—a cast of mind that many conservatives seem trapped in today. Both Burke and Paine supported free markets and free trade—though, as Levin notes, for different reasons: because “government manipulation of the economy could be profoundly disruptive to the social order” (cautious Burke); and because protocapitalism would advance the cause of radicalism “by uprooting traditional social and political arrangements … by focusing men on their material needs and showing them a rational means of meeting those needs” (humanist Paine).

It’s helpful, I think, to project Paine forward through the centuries, arriving at the left-libertarianism of late post-Marxist Christopher Hitchens: hostile toward religion and orthodoxy, disdainful of inherited privilege, and yet ultimately comfortable around wealth and the churning of markets and disruptive technology.

Levin writes of Paine’s evolution away from economic libertarianism:

[B]y 1791, having witnessed in Paris and London the early effects of the approaching industrial economy and having thought through the implications of his views about the origins of the social order, Paine was writing with eloquent passion of “the moral obligation of providing for our old age, helpless infancy, and poverty.” Meeting this obligation, he argues in the second part of Rights of Man, is a key purpose of government … He calls for provisions for poor parents when a child is born, for government support in paying for elementary education, for pensions to the elderly who cannot work, and even for public help with funeral expenses for those who cannot afford them. “This support,” he then argues, “is not of the nature of a charity but of a right.”]

Is it so crazy, upon reading this, to park Thomas Jefferson in the same tent as Franklin Roosevelt? To imagine Paine-esque radical individualism, given scope by the civil religion established by Lincoln, swinging like a scythe through the institutions that stand between the individual and the state—that constrain him, define him, and bond him to his fellows (and not merely his country)?

Levin, in his conclusion, connects the Burke-Paine debate to the arguments that roil contemporary politics. And, yes, he is hip to the superficial irony that the party of Obama certainly seems Burkean—it seeks to preserve the status quo of 20th-century welfare capitalism—while its conservative opponents seek fundamental restorationist change. “The rhetoric of some key domestic debates therefore sometimes seems almost a mirror image of the original left-right debate,” he writes.

But the first-order conflicts remain: the dictates of pure reason vs. the messy reality of lived history; justice vs. stable, transmittable order. Conservatives naturally will differ over how far and aggressively to wage these battles. But the sound and fury over (for instance) Obamacare perhaps obscures more than it illuminates. As Levin has written elsewhere, serious alternatives to Obamacare still involve quite significant federal involvement in the provision of access to medical insurance.

Lost in the din is a more unsettling question: will Paine-minded liberals ever rest before nothing stands between the individual except a lumbering state that distantly and, supposedly neutrally, guarantees her liberation and self-actualization?

This is the nightmare that keeps true Burkeans like Yuval Levin up at night.