By William Harms
Photo by Alex Kingsbury

In every class I took [at UChicago], we looked beneath the surface of some political question, some timeless question.””
—Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin is already a nationally recognized political thinker—he’s a former White House and Congressional staffer, prominent author, conservative commentator, and editor of National Affairs, a newly established quarterly on public policy.

But as he stood behind a 30-foot wooden table earlier this summer in Foster Hall, surrounded by an audience of faculty, friends, and students, the 33-year-old PhD candidate in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought couldn’t help but feel a little nervous as he prepared for the oral defense of his dissertation.

He felt in command of his subject, which concerns political differences in the 18th century that helped shape the modern distinctions between liberals and conservatives. But speaking to such a distinguished audience gave Levin some pause.

“This was a crowd of people who know their stuff, and I certainly felt some stress giving a lecture in front of them and taking their really very good questions,” said Levin. “I think anyone who would speak to University of Chicago professors and grad students on a scholarly subject without feeling some pressure has got the wrong attitude.”

Before Convocation each quarter, this scene plays out across campus for many PhD candidates facing the last official test on the road to academia’s highest degree. The Committee on Social Thought makes the whole experience more of a celebration and calls the experience a lecture rather than a defense. Reaching that point marks the culmination of years of work, and can carry a peculiar mix of personal and intellectual anxiety, even when the outcome is certain.

Let the Proceedings Begin

Ralph Lerner, the Benjamin Franklin Professor in Social Thought began the review of Levin’s work, a session that would include a 45-minute summary as well as questions.

Lerner credited Levin with having produced an exemplary treatment of a highly partisan debate: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were powerful spokesmen for their political positions, said Lerner, adding that “neither author would have had reason to complain that he had been falsely or even weakly represented in Levin’s fair-minded presentation.”

Levin took the podium and praised Lerner for being an extraordinary teacher. He then thanked Nathan Tarcov, Professor in Social Thought and another member of his dissertation committee, for teaching him how to take texts seriously. “My first class here was with Tarcov, and it was on Machiavelli. I knew I had come to the right place,” Levin said.

Finally, he thanked Leon Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor in Social Thought, who had been his mentor when Levin worked for the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Levin then began his dissertation, titled “The Great Law of Change: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Authority of the Past.” The thesis describes how Burke and Paine differed, particularly in their attitudes towards generational change. Paine was a strong defender of the right of people to overthrow government that was not serving their needs, while Burke was a defender of gradual change and respected the heritage people have from the societies in which they lived.

Levin said the topic interested him in part because those impulses of change and conservation are each indispensible to American democracy, yet they often come into conflict.

“Modern liberals approach politics much as Paine did, in that they see so many societal flaws and strive to fix them with ambitious plans,” Levin said in a later interview. “Conservatives tend to be impressed that society works at all. Like Burke, we’re naturally suspicious of big changes.”

At the conclusion of his talk, the defense of Levin’s interpretations began. Into the questioning, Tarcov pointed out the contradictions inherent in modern political thinking. Sometimes the roles of American liberals and conservatives get reversed, so that conservatives sound like Paine in their invocations of individual rights, and progressives sound more like Burke in how they value particular historical and cultural conditions.

“Politics are complicated,” Levin offered.

The next week, in The New York Times, David Brooks, AB’83, wrote a column about Levin’s ideas of generational change, and pointed out that Americans have never resolved those old conflicts between Burke and Paine. “Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation?” wrote Brooks, who declared Levin’s thesis a “superb dissertation.”

The Road to Chicago

Levin was born in Israel, grew up in New Jersey, and did his undergraduate work in political science at American University in Washington. He was drawn to D.C. by an interest in politics, and to UChicago by a desire to pursue big questions.

“I wanted to go to graduate school because I felt I was missing a foundation in philosophy and ideas,” he said. He flourished in his studies at Chicago, where he found “students and professors took up fundamental issues, such as the nature of leadership and the proper meaning of economics. In every class I took, we looked beneath the surface of some political question, some timeless question.”

After finishing his coursework, Levin was invited by Kass to join the staff of the President’s Council on Bioethics. He decided the chance to take part in vital political issues took temporary priority over the pursuit of his degree. He later joined the White House staff, and in 2007, he left to be a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and began working on his dissertation. In the wake of the 2008 election, Levin helped found National Affairs, an experience that has given him a chance to use the serious thinking he learned at Chicago.

“We thought one of the things that was missing from the political debate was a serious examination of the issues,” he said.

Levin’s budding reputation as a conservative commentator drew many to the audience of his dissertation. Among them was second-year Jeremy Rozansky, who has received help and encouragement from Levin as editor of Counterpoint, a conservative campus quarterly.

Rozansky says he looks forward to following more of the newly minted PhD’s writing. “I have every expectation that Yuval will bring to the next few decades of popular politics what Irving Kristol (editor of The Public Interest) brought to the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. He will ground it in a conservative optimism—what we have in America is very good, and it can yet be better.”