The Beginning of the Divide

America's polarized political landscape can be traced back to influential thinkers 200 years ago.

By + More

The 113th Congress was one of the least productive in history, following a year of partisan bickering culminating in a government shutdown in October. In his new book, "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left," Yuval Levin explores the history behind modern political parties, traced back to two intellectuals from the late 18th century. Levin, a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard and National Review, recently spoke with U.S. News about how Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine disagreed on the fundamental purpose and scope of government, and how their differing views continue to manifest themselves in today's political debates. Excerpts:

How do the roots of American political parties trace back to the two figures you explore in your book?

The book looks to an intense ideological debate that was gripping the Anglo-American world at the end of the 18th century about the nature of a free society: a struggle between stability and progress, between order and justice, a struggle that very quickly divided the politics of our new republic into two parties. When you look at that original debate, it's a little easier to see in that form just what the fight is really about. The book tells that story by looking through the eyes of two of the most prominent and interesting combatants in that debate: Edmund Burke is thought of as one of the fathers of modern conservatism; Thomas Paine is really a father of the modern left.

What are the main issues Burke and Paine disagreed on?

They both start by looking at a world that is a mix of good and bad, a mix of success and failure, working institutions and failing institutions. Burke starts out looking at that world by being grateful for what works about it. He's struck and impressed by the institutions in society that are effective, that allow for a mix of order and liberty. Paine starts out by being outraged at failure, because he actually has higher expectations of human beings. He thinks that we know the right principles on which society should be built, and there's no excuse for persisting in the wrong ones.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

Were there any issues they agreed on?

Both of them were what we would call capitalists. They were friends of the market economy for very different reasons. Burke was concerned that excessive government involvement in the economy would overturn the natural order. Paine thought that the market economy would be a force for revolution, would destabilize the social order in a way that would allow for a lot of longstanding and frankly oppressive institutions in society to be broken up.

What moral and philosophical questions from their time still impact us today?

One of the most interesting is the question of the relationship between generations. When you look at their dispute, a huge amount of it comes down to whether you give any authority to practices and habits and institutions that have existed for a long time in society and whether the mere fact that they've been there for a long time says that they should receive some credit or respect or protection.

Why do modern political parties find themselves so deeply at odds?

I think they speak to a basic difference of opinion about the liberal society. The good thing about them is the difference is not utterly radical. They both believe in the kind of liberal society that we have, and so the arguments we have are between the 40-yard lines. American politics is not about a dispute between communism and fascism.

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

What would Burke and Paine have thought of the government shutdown?

I don't think they would have been terribly surprised. We're inclined to think that our political life today is unusually vehement and divisive and polarized. When you look at the 18th century, you really get an idea of what polarized looks like. It got pretty rough. Our politics today, for all of the heat and the volume, [are] actually a lot more moderate than many of those fights, and a lot less personal.