When you look at the quality (or lack thereof) of political debate today it seems a bit of a stretch to link it to Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, but that's what conservative journalist Yuval Levin has done in his recent study of The Great Debate. I can understand the desire to root the rhetorical differences in what passes for political debates, but come on now, how many Americans even know who Edmund Burke is? As for Paine, he has been co-opted by right wing pundits like Glenn Beck, who see him as an early Libertarian maverick.
This doesn't stop Levin from cobbling together a "debate" of political differences, using their opposing thoughts on the French Revolution as a springboard. One can understand why old guard conservatives would prefer Burke to Paine, as the British statesman espoused a "prudent conservatism" in keeping with the tone of the National Review, which Levin most often pens for. But, Paine is more at heart an American than Burke, who criticized the emerging American republic as much he did the French republic, especially when Jefferson and other American statesmen sided with the French.
However, Levin is looking more for an ideological divide than he is a historic one, finding comfort in Burke's sense of stability, much the way Adams did, who cribbed from Burke when putting together his own Thoughts on Government. So why not go with a homegrown Burke?
In fact, why not go to the heart of the American political divide, federal government vs. states rights, which has been the running debate since the US Constitution was first introduced? I suppose this would put Levin at odds with Burke, who would have sided with the Federalists, and we can't have that. No, by stripping down Burke's arguments to their raw core, he can keep this on a purely ideological plane.
Whatever the case, you have to marvel at what these conservative think tanks ponder over these days. However, this isn't the type of stuff that translates well to the rank and file conservative. Much easier to turn Thomas Paine quotes into memes, like the one above in support of gun rights. This is the nature of the political debate today. Whether he actually said it is another matter ; )