IDW: In Memoriam - John Lewis, Congressman, Icon, Beloved Author

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

To understand the complex U.S. political landscape, it helps to look to those who planted its ideological origins. Yuval Levin, the founder and editor of National Affairs, explores the country's first public discourse in The Great Debate. In this rigorous yet accessible work, Levin contextualizes the positions of British philosopher Edmund Burke, who has been viewed as both the founder of modern conservatism and an example of classical liberalism, and Thomas Paine, the author of several classic political texts, including Common Sense and The Rights of Man. Both supported the cause of the American revolutionaries, but Burke opposed the French Revolution--a cause Paine defended on ethical grounds.

Their clashing ideas spawned the two main factions that persist in politics today--although both of them inspired rhetoric that alters or elaborates on their original views. Revolutionaries have infused Paine's memory with socialist sensibilities that, Levin says, "would have been largely foreign to Paine himself," while contemporary conservatives have lacked Burke's emphasis on community, opting instead for hyper-individualism. "Each group," he suggests, "might find some of its worst excesses alleviated a bit by carefully considering the Burke-Paine debate." By understanding what these two political philosophers believed, we can better see how today's debates have selected and rearranged the foundations of American thought. --Annie Atherton