Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs and a leading conservative public intellectual who worked in the second Bush Administration. Great Debate is the first of his books that I read. By outlining the life experiences of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, Levin explores how their perspectives slowly evolved into the foundations of liberal and conservative political ideologies in America. The book illuminates the hidden ‘why’ behind how liberals and conservatives think the way do across a variety of issues.
While I knew a decent amount about Thomas Paine from various U.S. history classes, I found Burke a fascinating foil to Paine in his sympathetic and structured, but fundamentally anti-enlightenment views. I appreciated Burke’s emphasis on modest and incremental progress combined with a skepticism of grandiose change as a welcome contrast to the more radical forms of conservatism on display lately at the national level in the U.S. In a later chapter, Levin characterizes Burke’s view of reform:
The fundamental insight of his positive case for reform is that a statesman ought to begin from gratitude for what works in his society, rather than from outrage at what does not work. He must begin from a sense of what he has and what is worth preserving and from there build toward what he wants and what is worth achieving. But without question, change is not only inevitable but desirable. And without developing an effective means of change, a nation “might even risk the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.” 1
Burke’s recognition of the contradiction in reforming for the sake of preservation is the clearest articulation of what conservatism could and should be. Great Debate is an informative rather than advocative work, and I look forward to reading Levin’s subsequent book The Fractured Republic to delve into thoughtful examples of what Burkean ideas could look like in the twenty-first century.
1. Burke, Writings, 8:180
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