The Two Poles of Politics
An article, by Peter Berkowitz, in The New Criterion looks at the historical influences that have largely shaped the differences between Left and Right.
Behind the crossfire of left and right vituperation and the comparatively demure scholarly debate about the locus of polarization lies the widely shared opinion that partisanship is, whichever way you look at it, a pathology from which relief should be sought. Seldom considered is the possibility that, although its intensity may wax and wane, partisanship is an irreducible feature of the American constitutional tradition, and more generally of modern liberal democracy.
This neglected possibility is raised by Yuval Levin in his fascinating new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. A senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Center in Washington, D.C., and the founder and editor of National Affairs, Levin has taken the bold step of attempting to shed light on contemporary politics and public policy by turning to political philosophy and history. Levin is uniquely well-positioned to take that bold step, having obtained a Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and having worked in Washington as a congressional staffer, as the chief of staff of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and on the domestic policy staff of the George W. Bush White House. It is Levin’s contention that bitter public policy debates between left and right today—about economics, the environment, culture, and much else—do not divide arbitrarily and cannot be explained merely as a function of the configuration of contemporary politics. Rather, he maintains, disagreements about public policy can be traced to deep-rooted assumptions about nature, human nature, reason, society, and justice. And recovering an understanding of these deep roots, he contends, provides an enhanced appreciation of what is at stake in our differences of opinion about how to govern the nation, and may even lead to more measured and productive partisan debate.
To accomplish his task, Levin turns to “the great debate” between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine about the French Revolution. Burke, the eminent Whig statesman and the father of modern conservatism, denounced the French Revolution in 1790 in Reflections on the Revolution in France. He argued that the uprising against the monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy by intellectuals and the common people was the first “total revolution,” an attempt not merely to alter government but to uproot old beliefs, practices, and associations in accordance with a novel theory, and replace them with a new form of social and political life dictated by pure reason. Paine, an immigrant to America from England who, in 1776 in Common Sense, brilliantly expounded the principles on which the American Revolution was based, responded to Burke in 1791. In the Rights of Man, Paine derided Burke as an apologist for privilege and the past, and defended the French Revolution as being grounded in the right of the people to rid themselves, from the ground up, of any political order that does not protect their natural rights.
As Levin shows with impressive learning and a rare capacity to enter into the spirit of both parties to the controversy, the great debate was about more than the French Revolution. In developing their arguments, Burke and Paine laid the groundwork for two rival schools of thought about liberal democracy; these schools set forth fundamental alternatives to conceiving the challenge of organizing political life around the belief that human beings are by nature free and equal. Paine, Levin argues, stands for a “progressive liberalism” that seeks to bring political society into conformity with an abstract model of political perfection that involves freeing the individual from the constraints imposed on him not only by arbitrary or overreaching laws, but also by “his time, his place, and his relations to others.” Burke champions a “conserving liberalism” that discerned in Britain’s established institutions and inherited morals and principles political wisdom in light of which prudent reform could be responsibly undertaken. Levin demonstrates that while each of these fundamental alternatives puts liberty at the center of politics, each assesses differently the structure, content, and social and political requirements of liberty.Yet, at the centre of their argument, of their public debate, was liberalism. Both Burke and Paine were discussing a type of liberalism, disagreeing on what shape it would take; the former voting for a "conserving liberalism," the latter for a "progressive liberalism." If only it were so today, that politicians and their staffers would at least acknowledge the history of the forces that shaped the thinking of Left versus Right.
It is my view that the U.S. has veered so far right politically and economically and, in many ways, socially, that any discussion of this nature will have little influence within the U.S. body politic. For one, the U.S. is really a special case, having allowed the infusion of religion, notably Christianity, into politics, and thus political debate is no longer within the framework of what Burke and Paine were debating more than 200 years ago.
The (New) Left, on the other hand, has veered away from its base of industrial workers and toward identity politics and anarchist or marxist thinking. It has become more nasty, more brutish, more personal. It is hard to see if consensus on any issue can ever be achieved, given the wide and extreme differences in thought and ideas. Moreover, sadly, neither actually speaks for the majority of its citizens, who identify as either moderates or liberals (Neither speaks for me, I having formed my thoughts from the school of classic liberalism.)
Even so, it is interesting to read this article, and the book itself will likely flesh out such ideas in greater detail, but does anyone outside academia or the intellectual realm actually care about such distinctions? Or more to the point, will it have any influence in Washington? I have my doubts, but I would happily be wrong in this case.
You can read more at [NewCrit].