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What Burke and Paine teach us about the roots of political division in America

January 1, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
How and where did partisanship -- now prevalent in American politics -- originate? Judy Woodruff talks to Yuval Levin about his new book, "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left," early instances of the divide between right and left and how we can apply lessons of history to debates today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to politics.

Judy Woodruff recently recorded this conversation on the origins of the split between the political left and right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a look at our current political divisions through a historical lens.

Yuval Levin is a founder and editor of the quarterly journal “National Affairs.” His new book, focused on the giant thinkers of the late 1700s, is called “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.”

Yuval Levin joins us now.


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YUVAL LEVIN, “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left”: Thank you very much for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So why did you think it was necessary to go back, what, over 200 years…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … to these great thinkers, writers, who disagreed over the French Revolution…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … to help us understand more about what we’re going through today?

YUVAL LEVIN: Well, this is a book about the roots of our political differences.

It’s easy looking at our politics now to take for granted the left and the right. We have always had a broadly conservative party in our politics, a broadly progressive party. They have always been at each other’s throats, and it’s easy to just assume that that is what our political discourse looks like.

This book says, rather than take it for granted, let’s think about what it is, and where it comes from and why. And one good way to do that is to think about the first real instance of the recognizable left-right divide, which we find in an intense ideological debate that was taking place in Britain and in America at the end of the 18th century, in a period that we identify with the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

But it was also about a struggle to define the free society, a struggle about the tension between progress and tradition that is still very much with us, but that can be difficult to discern beneath the intense debates about particular policy questions that our politics are about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why this debate, though, this particular — there were others who were writing…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … who were thinking. Why these two men, Burke and Paine.

YUVAL LEVIN: In a way, the back looks at the broader debate that gripped Anglo-American politics at the time by looking through the eyes of these two very prominent and very interesting participants in the debate.

Edmund Burke is thought of as one of the fathers of modern conservatism. Thomas Paine is one of the fathers of modern radicalism. And they engaged one another. The important thing about it for seeing it as a debate is, they were contemporaries, they knew each other, they exchanged letters, and, especially importantly, they exchanged public writings, essays that tried to answer one another.

So, it is a real debate. They ask questions and answer questions. And they get to something like the bottom of what the real differences are between an outlook that we would now identify with the left and with the right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s unfair to ask you this because you spend the entire book, over 200 pages, looking at it.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But — but if you had to boil it down, what would you say is the essence of the disagreement?


One way to think about the essence is, you start out looking at a world that is filled with both successes and failures, good and bad things. Are you struck first by what is working and you want to build on that and are grateful for it, or are you struck first by what is failing and are outraged by it and want to uproot it and try to start over?

Burke and a lot of conservatives after him is first struck by what is working, because he begins with very low expectations of human beings. He thinks we’re fallen creatures, we’re very limited in our abilities. And so he’s amazed by anything that works at all, and wants to build on it, rather than try to uproot society and fix problems in a radical way.

Paine thinks, there is no excuse for failure, things should work better, and that means that, when we see a society in which injustice reigns, we have to start from scratch and in a radical way change things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of course, today’s conservatives, in many ways, the shoe is on the other foot…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … because they look at what is going on and they want to make some radical changes.


JUDY WOODRUFF: They think government has gotten too big in this country.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And they want to do some radical things to change it.

YUVAL LEVIN: In a lot of ways, that’s true. And the book gets at that as well.

So one way to understand that is a lot of the differences between left and right now are disagreements about the liberal welfare state, about a set of governing institutions established in America in the middle of the 20th century that themselves embody a certain kind of liberal outlook.

They exist in pursuit of an egalitarian ideal, and they try to achieve it by applying technical knowledge to society, by empowering experts. And one of the big differences between Burke and Paine is the difference about what kind of knowledge is really available to us to solve social problems.

Paine says society should seek to apply scientific knowledge, technical knowledge to address our problems. Burke says society is much too complicated to be amenable to those kinds of technical solutions, and instead we should try to use social knowledge, dispersed knowledge that we can really only access through the institutions that exist between the individual and the state, the families, civil society, markets, to try to make the best of knowledge that society as a whole possesses, rather than any specific group of experts.

That difference about what kind of knowledge we can have is really crucial to a lot of disagreements between left and right, especially economic disagreements. It’s absolutely at the heart of the health care debate, for example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that holds — that is a dispute that holds up today, with all that we have learned, with all that’s changed in the political system?



There’s still a basic disagreement about whether you solve social problems by using dispersed knowledge, by using markets to gather up people’s preferences and knowledge, or whether you solve it by putting the right experts in charge and giving them the power to make their expertise matter.

I think, if you think about the left and right in the health care debate, that is a big part of the difference between how conservatives and liberals want to solve the problems we have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of course, what we’re looking at today, though, is in many instances, the two sides have disagreed, not just over health care, they have disagreed over economic policy, over immigration policy.

And the result has been they fail to come together at all, to even engage in a debate. They just — we end up having dysfunction, gridlock, whatever word you want to use.

What would Paine and Burke think about that?

YUVAL LEVIN: There’s a lot of truth to that.

And it is one reason to write a book like this now. We live in a moment now where the two parties are ideologically coherent in a way that they haven’t been in a long time. We really have not only a Republican and Democratic Party, but a conservative and liberal party. Our parties used to be divided along regional lines or over specific issues like race.

Now Democrats are more liberal than they have been in a very long time, Republicans are more conservative than they have been in a very long time. And I think we can learn from the Burke-Paine debate what an actual constructive debate between left and right looks like.

One thing conservatives could learn is Burke’s disposition to policy. That is, conservatives, he says, should want to solve public problems before they get so big that they invite more radical solutions. So, he was a reformer. He wanted to be engaged in governing, in a way that today’s right doesn’t do enough of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying they’re not — they’re not — they haven’t done that?

YUVAL LEVIN: Yes. There is a kind of recoil from the particulars of governing, from policy, in a lot of the rhetoric on the right. And they would do well to think about policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about on the left?

YUVAL LEVIN: I think the left could learn from Thomas Paine that the greatest oppressors of the poor and the weak in human history have been their governments. This was a strongly held view of Paine’s. He was worried about the dangers of public power.

And I think the left in America today as much too cavalier about consolidating power and expanding the power of the government. And they could learn the essential importance of limiting, constraining, channeling that power for the very purposes that they want to serve through politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you say — what do you say, Yuval Levin, to people who — this is all very interesting, and it’s important and it’s important to know about history…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … but today we have problems that are — that affect real people’s lives, whether it’s immigration policy, and what happens to people who are suffering, whether it’s health care, budget decisions…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … that — that what you have done is interesting, but it doesn’t really apply to what we’re dealing with now?


Well, one of the reasons to look to history when you think about public policy is that our society in a certain sense has always been arguing about the same kinds of questions. What does it mean to be a free society? How do we find a balance between order and liberty, between progress and tradition? We still face those questions now.

And so the way that they have been faced by very wise people in the past can be helpful. And not only that, but you can learn about how to — about the roots of your own beliefs and your own arguments by looking at history in ways that are difficult to do in the intensity of the moment now. So to can help calm down our disagreements a little bit and let us think about what it is we are actually disagreeing about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And still stay connected to the human beings whose those policies affect?

YUVAL LEVIN: Exactly. Politics is always about reality. It’s always about people. It’s always about solving problems. It can’t be understood as a pure abstraction, as philosophy. It’s not philosophy.

But it has to be informed by world views that have to do with what we want our society to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yuval Levin, the book is “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.”

Thank you very much.

YUVAL LEVIN: Thank you very much.