The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

Basic Books | Published on December 3, 2013

By Yuval Levin

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For more than two centuries, our political life has been divided between a party of progress and a party of conservation. In The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the origins of the left/right divide by examining the views of the men who best represented each side of that debate at its outset: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. In a groundbreaking exploration of the roots of our political order, Levin shows that American partisanship originated in the debates over the French Revolution, fueled by the fiery rhetoric of these ideological titans.

Levin masterfully shows how Burke’s and Paine’s differing views, a reforming conservatism and a restoring progressivism, continue to shape our current political discourse—on issues ranging from abortion to welfare, education, economics, and beyond. Essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Washington’s often acrimonious rifts, The Great Debate offers a profound examination of what conservatism, liberalism, and the debate between them truly amount to.

Watch Levin’s interview with David Gregory of Meet the Press below:

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Reviews

Publishers Weekly

“Two seminal thinkers anticipate the modern split between progressives and conservatives in this insightful study of 18th-century political theory. National Affairs editor Levin presents a lucid analysis of the ideological confrontation between Paine…and Burke…he succeeds in establishing the continued relevance of Burke’s thought and prescient critique of revolutionary excesses.”

Booklist

“Making intricate contrasts between Paine and Burke throughout, Levin perceptively demonstrates the philosophical routes to liberalism and conservatism for politics-minded readers.”

Peggy Noonan, columnist, The Wall Street Journal

“The Great Debate brilliantly brings out the richness of the tradition underlying our politics. It reminds us that politics is an intellectually serious thing that deserves better than the shallowness and cynicism that fills our political conversations. It reminds us that the right and left are each rooted in a desire to see politics serve the cause of human flourishing, even if they understand that cause very differently. And by the way, Burke was right.”

Leon Wieseltier

“Yuval Levin’s lucid and learned investigation of our origins is not only a study in the history of ideas, it is also a summons to first principles. Like Burke and Paine, Levin believes that philosophies are buried in the shabbiness of politics. His book is both clarifying and complicating: he writes sympathetically about both sides of the heroic disputation that he describes, and so his book will have the salutary effect of shattering ideological complacence. In our infamously polarized climate, The Great Debate may even be a public service.”

William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education and author of America: The Last Best Hope

“The Great Debate is an exciting, narrative adventure in the contest of ideas. With two world-shaking revolutions as background, Levin brilliantly explains how two great minds shaped the broad debate between left and right that still governs our political debates today.”

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

“The polarized character of contemporary American politics is widely noted, yet the intellectual origins of the division between right and left remain obscure. In his deeply historically informed and elegantly argued book, Yuval Levin casts a brilliant light on the matter. It is a work of lasting significance that will instruct liberals and conservatives alike on their intellectual heritage.”

About the Authors

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the founder and editor of National Affairs. A contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and National Review, he lives in Maryland.

Click here to purchase The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left on Amazon.