It stands as a testament of the continuity of this remarkable age that for more than two centuries we westerners have divided ourselves by the persuasions “left” and “right.” In terms of transnational or trans-ethnic points of identity, only the great religious traditions have endured longer, and in our collective imagination the religious denominations have been largely supplanted by political denominations. To call oneself Baptist or Lutheran may raise a look of faint curiosity. To call oneself conservative or liberal sharpens the encounter considerably.
The power of left and right persists despite a steady challenge to the current adequacy of the right-left spectrum from a cadre of compelling critics, often themselves in quest of a “third way.” Among the most astute of these was the American historian Christopher Lasch, who in 1991 launched his brilliant book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics with the claim that “old political ideologies have exhausted their capacity to explain events or to inspire men and women to constructive action.” Despite attracting considerable critical attention, Lasch got nowhere with his own counter-proposal, or at least not nearly as far as he had hoped (“against hope,” as he admitted). His dense, searching call for a reinvigorated “populism,” morally conservative but economically radical, drew bemusement, pique, admiration, and bewilderment, but not much conversion. His isolation remained.
In The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Yuval Levin provides a genesis story that goes far to illumine the considerable mystery beneath our civilization’s persisting ideological inclinations and identities. It’s a story so important it’s worth questioning. But before turning in that direction, it might be well to ask a more fundamental question: Why does the whole notion of a political left and right—and, more broadly, the ideological realm itself—matter in the first place?
Pathways Between the Actual and the Ideal
Every day a hundred social realities demand from us a moral response. Polluted rivers. Political corruption. Falling test scores. Changing mores. Why do left and right matter? They matter because it is to this realm, the realm of practical political wisdom, that we turn to construct the moral responses these social realities require. It is from this fund of insight—the ideological realm of political vision and social prescription—that we hew out pathways between the actual and the ideal, between circumstance and principle, between the world we know too well and the one we hope to make.
We do not construct such pathways easily. To move wisely out of the past and into the future we need earthy intelligence. Our ideological traditions, hammered out in time and over time, furnish us with a history of perceptions, inclinations, and judgments from which to continue the ongoing construction of the common world that we in liberal democracies have been building for more than two centuries—though certainly not without continuous quarrel and conflict.
For some, the affirmation of the necessity, not to say desirability, of ideological contention is not just wrongheaded but toxic. It is our penchant for ideological divisions—what the American founders called “factions”—that, on this view, is the problem. Our ideological divides lock us into tired ideas, old divisions, and malign networks. Our deepest difficulties, such critics insist, demand fresh perspectives and wide cooperation and new leadership. We need to transcend left and right. To move along we need to get along—not divide up.
This is an entirely understandable response to the idiocies, on stages big and small, that misshape our politics today. But it’s no more possible to avoid ideological contention in a liberal democracy than it is to avoid household management in a marriage. Whatever political thrust one hopes might capture and renew the body politic—an appeal to high principle, an elucidation of a common worldview, an experience of national unity—eventually requires the particularity of political action. And such action cannot come without first stopping in the fitting room of ideology. Policy must be cut from some cloth.
And so that which seeks to transcend ideology, to move beyond left and right, invariably ends up being swallowed back up by the ongoing current of our political and intellectual past, never having actually left it. Far better at the outset to embrace the ideological dimension of our common life and creatively construct pathways with it, rather than apart from it.
We’re left with ideology. And, for now at least, we’re left with left and right, which is why Yuval Levin’s book is so important. If we can’t—and shouldn’t—divorce ourselves from the ideological spectrum, we had better understand it.
Enter Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, figures far more central to our lives, if Levin is right, than Washington, Robespierre, Lafayette, or any other bona fide revolutionary of that heroic age could possibly be.
A Fundamental Divide
Once there was no left and right. There was, instead, Right—Divine Right. Kings and Queens ruled by the mandate of heaven. Opposition and intrigue issued in challenges, to be sure, whether in the form of subtle politicking or brutal warfare. But a political universe divided into parties aligned with distinct, expansive social visions: for this there was no space. Such a universe, rather, was what early modern liberals—those ideological pioneers constructing representative governments—began to create, as through the eighteenth century monarchy weakened, industrialization exploded, markets opened, and subjects became citizens.
To many, all of this carried the scent of possibility. To others it smelled of danger. And some sensed both possibility and danger. But regardless of how one judged the new conditions—the rapid reshaping of religion, economics, government, families, even land—one’s response to them had itself become political, inevitably so. That the subject had become a citizen meant that one’s moral responses registered politically, and so had a shaping effect on the new body politic.
It was within this enlarging liberal space that Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke’s significance took form. Levin notes that “between about 1770 and 1800, many of the crucial concepts, terms, divisions, and arguments that define our political life burst into the world in fierce and fiery succession.” Two of the most articulate and impassioned voices of the day, one a politician and the other a journalist-revolutionist, they seized the open space and in arch fashion sharpened the ideas that were emerging over the question of what form the new world should take. Their intellectual duel was lively and public—it was in fact followed in American newspapers—and, as Levin writes, “would not only help to define the politics of their age but would also reverberate through the centuries and around the globe.” That’s effect.
Paine was the revolutionist. Born in working class England to a Quaker father and Anglican mother, he sensed epic possibility in the swirling new notions of equality, justice, and freedom by then making their way even into the world of tradesmen such as himself. Paine’s thinking and moxie were enough to impress another enlightened (former) tradesman, Benjamin Franklin, who, while in England in the 1770s, helped Paine find his way to the New World. An ex-Quaker with a Dissenter’s soul, Paine found his political congregation in the colonies, and in Franklin’s Philadelphia in particular, the most liberal of all places in the emerging democratic geography. With Common Sense, a fifty-page tract published in early 1776, he rang a bell with a force neither he nor almost certainly anyone else knew he possessed.
“Paine’s great rhetorical power,” Levin notes, “came from his ability to bring even modestly educated readers into contact with profound philosophical questions and to give those questions an immediacy and intensity that few political thinkers could match.” So when Paine denounced and exposed monarchy, as he did in Common Sense, his readers did not just nod along. They acted. His writing sliced into the still forming ideological nerves, which made many nascent citizens jump—right into the democratic fray.
It was both the jumping and the fray that deeply disturbed Burke. The Irish son of a Protestant lawyer and a Catholic mother, he aspired to become a writer and ended up a statesman; as such he would, like Paine, pioneer the newly emerging role of “intellectual,” fusing with rhetorical verve elevated ideas to social vision. As it turns out, Burke and Paine at first imagined themselves as allies. Both had supported the American revolution, and Burke even hosted Paine as a house guest in August of 1788. But as revolt turned to revolution in France the following year, their differences quickly became clear. What Paine saw as immense possibility—freedom emerging from the ruins of monarchy—Burke saw as disaster. What had changed between them?
For Burke, the American crisis had actually not been a revolution but a revolt, a just revolt, against imperial reach. He, a very cautious, conserving liberal, judged that the way of life established by the colonies in the preceding century and a half had yielded good political fruit: economic growth, orderly governance, and cultural stability. Given the distance of America from England, the colonies, in his view, should be permitted to go their way, seeking to preserve the genuine freedoms they had been able to foster.
But to Burke, the French revolt was fuelled by no such prudential, pragmatic wisdom, nor was it guided by visions of true order. Rather, for Burke the French Revolution was rooted in a wrongheaded hope: that humans could cut themselves off from their own histories and in so doing flourish, standing together as equals, as rational, free-thinking individuals severed from past ties. While Paine read this new republican politics as an awakening to justice in accord with what he believed to be natural law—the long overdue granting of the freedom endowed by “Nature’s God” to each human—Burke saw it as entirely unnatural, as against the grain of human nature itself.
Here was a huge, fundamental divide. For Burke, the most basic, fundamental human necessities gathered around the bedrock biological reality of familial ties, and these required of all people not only moral obligations but the spiritual dispositions that would make possible the survival, always tenuous, of “actual living communities,” as Levin puts it; Levin describes Burke as “a reformer of failing institutions who was wary of radical change and a preserver of venerated traditions who was wary of the abuse of power.”
For his part, Paine thought such fears unwarranted, given the increasing possibilities of both individual lives and a common life guided by enlightened human reason. Levin summarizes these differences in illuminating fashion: “An enormous portion of Burke’s (and the conservative) worldview becomes clearer in light of the importance he places on the basic facts and character of human procreation, and an enormous portion of Paine’s (and the progressive) worldview becomes clear in light of the desire he evinces to be liberated from the implications of those facts and that character.”
And so the worldview differences between these seminal intellectuals were vast, Paine articulating with swagger the heady rationalism of the age (“My own mind is my own church,” he famously confessed), and Burke cultivating a rearguard traditionalism in the face of the revolutionary rationalist triumph, what he mocked as “this new conquering empire of light and reason.” He countered such rationalist faith with an (un-cynical) appeal to a politically useful cultural Christianity, necessary for the ever-endangered social cohesion.
Individual Freedom and Corporate Responsibility
It is truly inconceivable that progressive fantasies of political harmony could somehow have been realized among their heirs, given such different foundations. But crucially, in Levin’s account, the politics that have in fact proceeded from these archetypal worldviews possess a kind of historical inevitability: once Painean enlightened premises were assumed, Levin thinks, the kind of politics we’ve come to associate with “progressivism” were bound to follow: the erection of constitutional liberties for individuals; the clearing of adequate space for social and economic freedom; the creation of a state strong enough to guarantee the exercise of such freedoms. And Burkean traditionalism, in turn, has ever since required, Levin believes, a suspicion of anything associated with this liberal vision, whether social justice, economic levelling, or a state empowered to curb markets and provide welfare.
But what if this account of the Painean-Burkean divide simply isn’t true historically, nor philosophically? What if this formulation of our past and present is too rigid, too schematic, and so explains too little?
Today, for instance, Paine and Burke seem, in key respects, to have each conquered our left-right divisions. That in the United States the Republican party has proceeded in un-Burkean ways is the criticism levelled by liberal critics like Sam Tanenhaus (see his 2009 book The Death of Conservatism). And pragmatic proceduralism in the Burkean vein has long been a left-liberal standard, from Dewey to Rorty to Obama. For the more ideologically exotic, consider the former New York City mayoral candidate Norman Mailer in his 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning The Armies of the Night, wherein he describes his own “Left Conservative” politics as an attempt “to think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.”
If anything, Burkean methods now mainly serve Paineans ends: individual freedom. And this is true for both (supposed) sides of our political spectrum. In some respects, both liberals and conservatives today are altogether Burkean when in power—cautious incrementalists—and when in opposition, radical idealists. It may not make for good governance, but it does make for cheap (though costly) theatre.
Although Levin’s style is more professorial than polemical, his Burkean sympathies are evident throughout. His kindly analytic tone cannot mask the rhetorical reality that in this book Paine serves mainly as a foil for Burke, a means of elaborating, through seven clear and careful chapters, the ongoing relevance of Burke’s political vision. In this guise Levin is, rightly, critical of Paine’s rationalism. Rationalistic autonomy and human wellbeing are indeed at enmity, a conflict that goes to the heart of the moral and ecological devastation raining plagues upon our world. Yet Levin’s critique of Paine’s rationalism comes at the expense of sympathetic attention to Paine’s insistent call for social justice and economic hope—at the expense, in other words, of the very conditions and concerns that helped spawn Paine’s outrage and activism, and that of so many others, in the decades that followed.
The cry of injustice, no matter the source, is a claim we are wise never to simply brush aside, as many in Burke’s lineage have been nearly obligated to do. That an entire, enduring, global political tradition—all that we associate with “the left”—eventually emerged across the West from such a vast array of voices, ideas, and experiences should clue us in that something deep, and deeply embedded, was being awakened and empowered through early figures like Paine. However wrongheaded his anthropology and epistemology, Paine articulated cries that transcended his own thinking. His worldview did not altogether defeat his politics. And his chief political protest was precisely that the class, system, and tradition of which Burke was a part was incapable of adequately responding to real, persisting injustice.
Since the end of the Cold War, both conservatives and liberals across the West have embraced the political economy of neoliberal global capitalism as the best means of creating wealth and ensuring justice—the best means of responding to the concerns most sharply articulated since Paine’s day by the left. Yet in these same years the chasm between rich and poor has continued to expand in the West’s leading nations, and with it troubling threats to democracy: reckless lending and borrowing; greater concentrations of power; abandoned houses and homes; dysfunctional governments; ecological ruin. We’re back once more to Christopher Lasch’s judgment of nearly twenty-five years ago: that the ideological trajectories of “liberalism” and “conservatism” have reached a state of impotence, leaving their exponents presiding weakly over our common life while vast deterioration holds sway.
So a reconfiguring—or, better, a reigniting—of our ideological spectrum may be not just a good but a necessary idea—necessary for the constructive action we need to prevent further erosion and calamity.
Any seeking of such an igniting might require careful consideration for what Levin, tellingly, dismisses: the place of religion in the world-historical ideological developments he intently unfolds. In the book’s last paragraph he downplays religion as a defining element in our own ideological battles, blaming them instead on philosophical differences in the way each side imagines the individual’s relation to society: Painean individualism versus Burkean communalism. But it would be far more fruitful to see all of our conflicts, and in fact our conflicted ideological history, as suffused irreducibly with religion. Levin wishes to lead us to a (largely secularized) Burkean pragmatism as a way to ameliorate our differences. But politics can’t survive on such thin gruel, because people can’t. They will eventually elevate to an overarching, authoritative level, some ideal the pragmatic process will then serve—and over which political factions will then fight. Although we can’t live without procedure, we need far more than procedure to live. And this need takes us invariably into the realm of religion.
In reality, the original dynamic between Paine and Burke pulsed with religious convictions rooted in social imaginaries that by the turn of the nineteenth century had made these distinctive modern ideologies not only starkly different but fruitfully different. Burke’s intensively social, order-oriented vision of society was, arguably, a (culturally) Catholic construction, the long-maturing moral fruit of a particular religious tradition, one with a metaphorically lush perception of intricate connection between spheres and within spheres. And Paine’s exaggerated individualism surely sprang from his radical Protestant roots, the Quakers being the left wing of the Reformation. His own religious history made it possible for him to articulate what might be construed, kindly, as a necessary complement to Catholic communitarianism. As surely as Burke understood our vital communal nature, Paine grasped that any tradition that lost sight of the particular worth—and freedom—of each soul was itself unworthy of preservation.
It’s a familiar tension, this dance between the one and many. In fact, it strikes at the heart of the North American experience, with its intensive religious communalism so persistingly dedicated to the health of each individual soul. For that elemental vision to be renewed in ideologically fruitful ways, the roots of both left and right need to be rediscovered. And such discovery leads deep into religious soil.
All traditions, including political traditions need to be renewed, radically renewed, even at the risk of the social instability Burke so feared. Religion is not merely a source of social control, as Burkeans see it, nor of social conflict, as Paineans tend to think. It is also a source of social renewal, giving us eyes to re-imagine boundaries and feet to reactivate convictions. If ideology is here to stay, religion had better be, too.