Willmoore Kendall always seemed more folk hero than thinker. This is evident enough when reading the work of his defenders who usually open their pieces with a quick rehash of the man’s “larger-than-life” presence. We are reminded of his contentious personal relations, such as between his colleagues at Yale, which got so bad the university effectively paid him to leave; of his prairie-boy-genius upbringing that saw him earning a BA in Romance Languages at 18; of his work in the U.S. intelligence services, for which he wrote manuals for waging “psychological warfare” in China and Czechoslovakia; of his eccentric extracurricular antics such as (according to Jeffrey Hart) being able to talk a judge out of penalizing him for speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike without a license; of his inflammatory and almost compulsive approach to debate, often as described by Dwight Macdonald, who would know; among other things.
These items are never recounted without relish but not without defensiveness either. This, after all, is not why we are presumably reading about this person, who contributed significantly to American political thought and American conservative political thought in particular. Thus we must then wade into the reflecting pool of his ideas: of orthodoxy, of legislative supremacy, of rule by the majority, and of the “deliberate sense of the community.” He was not a “Calhounist” as Harry Jaffa so obsessively attacked him, nor was he a raving egghead demagogue as Jeet Heer has lately come to conjure him. He was a substantial and singular defender of the singular and singularly conservative political system of the very plural United States of America.
Willmoore Kendall, in other words, would cut an impressive figure as part of the Hall of Conservative Sages (surely to be erected around Donald Trump, Jr.’s seventh six-year term). I can see the tableaux now: the tall thin man sitting at his desk, surrounded by volumes of Locke, Rousseau, The Federalist Papers, and a pile of aggressively thumbed-through editions of Clinton Rossiter, penning one of his innumerable letters or essays, wearing a tweed suit and a racoon-skin cap. What his animatronic likeness would say once intellectual tourists reached him, I could not guess. Maybe that quip about how Americans live out their political traditions “in their hip.” Or maybe something from one of his acerbic “Liberal Line” columns in National Review. More likely it would be some withering remark about any other member of the Hall. Not that it matters because Kendall’s position in conservatism is so touchy and unusual that it is not easy to find a solid place. He would be tucked away in some corner, by the custodial closet most likely, where only the lost or saddest visitors would find him.
Willmoore Kendall did think of himself as a conservative, and he was within his rights to think so. He was a mentor to its greatest publicist: William F. Buckley, Jr. As a result of that he was a guiding presence in the early years of National Review. He held sentiments that were not out of place among conservatives of the mid-20th century: he thought communism the greatest threat to world order, he had no qualms with American support of “right-wing dictatorships” in fighting communism, he gave no quarter to notions of equality, and was at best dismissive of the effects of segregation in the South. His essays included several attempts to define conservatism, conservative responses to liberal proposals, and polemics against competing versions of conservatism he deemed fraudulent.
But even with those credentials, Kendall falls short. There was something temporal, even incidental, about his thinking on conservatism. Once it reached a certain threshold it simply dissolved. Even Buckley, whose early writings reflected the style and preoccupations of Kendall almost a little too well, had to, as they say, evolve. Then there is the larger matter that when you take everything Kendall wrote about conservatism — which is, pretty much everything he wrote — it doesn’t add up to anything even approaching a coherent ideology. This maybe leads the reader to wonder why bother writing about him at all. Fair, all things considered.
Personally, I find Willmoore Kendall interesting, and in some areas even compelling. He was a sharp thinker, committed entirely to explaining American politics to Americans. He wrote in a prose style that was, to borrow Dwight Macdonald’s famed adjective of Kendall, “wild,” combining cracker barrel colloquialisms, polemical pyrotechnics, and sophisticated, if dense, analytical rigor. He could be righteous, he could be deliberately shocking, and he could even be funny, a rare thing among professed conservatives even today. Kendall could charm a reader into thinking they were witness to an obvious brilliance that approached genius, which tended to wear off once it was clear no one agreed more than Kendall himself. Kendall is interesting in the way that people you never want to meet are interesting. Such thinkers are valuable either (a) in how their insights, in spite or because of their uniqueness, are eccentric or plain wrong or (b) in how the language of their time and place obscure broader, more timeless points of which not even the thinkers themselves were aware. I wish to argue the latter, but first I must address the former.
The arc of Kendall’s life is perhaps one of the most oddly shaped of any human, beginning with a sharp incline. He was born in 1909 in Konawa, Oklahoma to a brilliant blind Methodist minister, also named Willmoore, whom he revered. His upbringing in the newly minted American state (one of its first senators being the fiercely independent Thomas Gore, grandfather of Gore Vidal) was nothing short of idyllic, marked by his father’s preaching, baseball, and Boy Scouts. The sepia-toned Americana of his early life is perhaps the most significant influence on his thought.
Kendall stood out nearly as much as he fit in. To say he was precocious would be putting it mildly. By 1918, Kendall was entering high school. He entered Northwestern University at age 13 before transferring to the University of Tulsa. He was the youngest college student in America at the time and was a minor celebrity for it. From ages 13 to 15 he worked as a reporter for the Tulsa Tribune. At 23 he arrived at Oxford and spent much of the 1930s traveling Europe, most significantly in Spain as a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. Then followed a series of teaching positions in the United States, work in the fledgling CIA, and finally his storied, tumultuous tenure as assistant professor of Political Science at Yale University from 1947-1961.
In politics Kendall started off very much as his father’s son: a New Deal liberal. He showed early admiration for the work of Thorstein Veblen and Walter Lippman. He drifted toward Trotskyism at college desiring to become a “socialist publicist.” His rightward tilt began during the Spanish Civil War and during his service in the CIA. “Much of Kendall’s criticism of liberalism grew out of his work in the intelligence field,” Jeet Heer writes. “He felt that the CIA was dominated by liberals who focused on the minute problems of each individual country or region they studied, had no broader sense of geo-politics, and were too inclined to fight communism by pushing American allies to adopt social democratic reforms.”
Kendall’s career was always colored by an anti-elitist and majoritarian bent, the tenor of his essays having fully calcified as early as 1939:
My point is that though Science … offers no pronouncements with regard to values, our leading publicists continue to talk as though it did. The effect of their debates is therefore to hide — from the debaters and listeners alike — the role of values in the formation of social policy, and to perpetuate a situation in which political discussion is the monopoly of the scientific elite.
The capitalization of sacred and profane terms — Science, World Communism, Civil Rights, Liberal, Conservative — along with notions of deception, willful or otherwise, from a minority opposition are also subsequent recurring themes.
It was as a conservative, though, that Kendall’s vision felt most complete and was expressed most forcefully. He spoke of having a “messianic urge” to tell and retell the truth at which he finally arrived. Indeed, though his America-centric conservatism had no use for Burke, and he (rightly) criticized Russell Kirk and others for fetishizing him, he nonetheless sought to be America’s Prophet in the Burkean mold — though by the time he reached the University of Dallas near the end of his life, he revised his stature from Burke to Moses. Even so, the grandeur seems out of proportion with the results, for over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, Kendall’s once steep arc starts to bend southward. Not all at once but to a still-noticeable degree.
As far as I can tell, Kendall had few critics from the left in his lifetime, and his critics from the right tend to be as scathing as his defenders are elegiac. Joshua Tait’s 2018 essay at The University Bookman is a refreshing addition to rightward Kendall criticism that splits the difference and breaks with the folk rehash-and-demystify formula. While not discounting completely Kendall’s merits, Tait’s piece ultimately concludes that Kendall’s folk status is daunting for a good enough reason. Kendall’s conservatism was, Tait writes, “sophisticated and deeply patriotic. He wed constitutionalism and majoritarianism, downplaying substantive rights. He was anti-liberal in the old sense of the word, believing societies must maintain a public orthodoxy.” Yet at the same time,
Kendall was self-sabotaging at nearly every turn. He left many fragments of work — much collected and published posthumously — but nothing major or even coherent. In part this was because Kendall thought in public, considering and casting off theses in print. He was also influenced mid-career by Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, which led him to revise and re-revise his own thinking.
Kendall developed ideas at a prodigious rate but always thought he was the only man for each job. He left many half-started projects, but none finished. Other than his dissertation and a co-written textbook, the only book published in Kendall’s lifetime — The Conservative Affirmation — was a collection of essays and book reviews. This inability to complete work had a devastating effect on Kendall. His lack of publications hurt his career. His lack of advancement and follow-through brought on guilt and depression which in turn fueled his alcoholism. The cycle of creativity followed by insecurity and alcoholism, and the underlying mental health issues it suggests, ruined his career and his health.
To the regret of his admirers, Kendall never seemed capable of writing a book. Nor could he manage to form his essays into a unified tapestry as Kirk had done with his or as Buckley had done with his persona. Instead, what’s left in 1963’s The Conservative Affirmation and in the messier posthumous collection Kendall Contra Mundum is something like an assembly-required plaything.
The centerpiece to Kendall’s conservative Erector Set was his theory of the “two majorities,” which addressed the tension where American voters “give an apparent majority mandate to the President to apply principles ‘x, y, and z,’ and a simultaneous (demonstrable) majority-mandate [sic] to the Congress to keep him from applying them.” The Presidential mandate favors “enlightened” and “internationalist” leadership, it appeals to the intelligentsia and the civil service. By contrast, the Congressional mandate is “pork barrel” and “nationalist,” it is favored by the constituents each congressman represents. Kendall’s “messianic” aim, then, was to defend the Congressional majoritarians against attacks laid by the Presidential majoritarians of being “selfish,” “obstructionist,” “bigoted,” and “irrational.”
Out of this tension, the Presidential majoritarians became Liberal and the Congressional majoritarians, Conservative. Liberalism was always the force imposing from without; Conservatism with the community whose way of life was under siege:
[N]othing can be more certain than that the Founders bequeathed to us a form of government that was purely representative … that is, for electoral “mandates” emanating from popular majorities. … [T]he Liberals intend to overthrow that traditional form of government, have a carefully-worked-out program for overthrowing it, and labor diligently, year-in-year-out, to seize the strategic points they must seize to accomplish its overthrow.
More than that, Liberalism “looks to the overthrow of an established social order” guided by the principle of “egalitarianism” as distinguished from the Declaration’s equality principle, which it stands over “in a relation like that of a caricature to a portrait, or a parody to a poem. It says that men are not merely created equal … but rather ought, that is have a right, to be made equal. That is to say equalized, and equalized precisely by government action …” Liberals, whether civil rights activists, Christian pacifists, or milquetoast reformers like Hubert Humphrey, are “revolutionaries” at heart who “refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer.”
That the working title for The Conservative Affirmation was What is Conservatism, and Other Anti-Liberal Essays is quite telling of the book’s most consistent theme. Kendall may not have spent the most time polemicizing the transgressions of liberals (he dedicates quite a number of pages to the transgressions of Clinton Rossiter, who uniquely set him off), but the power of those broadsides tends to overshadow whatever conservative doctrine he was trying to push. At times it reminds one of Pascal’s Provincial Letters attacking the heresies and errors of the Jesuits. “The way to beat the Communists,” concludes Kendall’s sardonic review of Chester Bowles’s The New Dimensions of Peace, “is to accept leveling as the historic imperative of our age, prove that we can do it better, and assert proudly that we thought of it first. In short, the way to beat Communism is to be more Communist than the Communists.”
Over time, Kendall, especially after his Strauss- and Voegelin-influenced reassessment, would talk up conservative principles of a Christian-based morality and of “the West,” sometimes (as I will show) in grave terms, but that tends to take a backseat to the dirty business of resisting malignant thought. Kendall was a loud proponent of HUAC and of Joseph McCarthy well after his decline. Liberal-minded Americans were vulnerable if not already in the sway of World Communism. Communists, Kendall wrote, “must shift the mind of an entire people from one set of convictions to another.”
That explains why the Communists concentrate first on the elite group of the country they seek to subvert. It molds and sets public opinion, so that anything cast upon its waters is indeed likely to come back a hundredfold. First the writers, the scientists, the professors, the teachers, the artists. If they can be brought around, they can be counted on to force all other doors, and so carry Communist influence into all walks of life.
The temporality of Kendall’s writing cannot be overlooked. Try as we might to conjure “McCarthyism” at even the faintest instance of emerging right-wing populism, McCarthy himself is the perfect ghost of the post-Roosevelt order, infused as it was by a triumphal liberalism. “In the United States at this time,” Lionel Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination, “is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” By contrast, “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse” are reduced to “action or irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” I have not read anything of Kendall’s that mentioned Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. by name, but Kendall did everything he could to flex those “irritable mental gestures” and to fuse it with the Constitutional order as he saw it.
This is a conservatism of someone who died as the Summer of Love was just underway, and so did not live to see the swelling of the antiwar movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the rise of the militant Weathermen against the more deliberative SDS, the rise and fall of Nixon, the rise of Reagan, the takeover of Congress by the “Watergate babies,” the weak presidencies of Ford and Carter, Roe vs. Wade, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, and the gradual right-wing turn of the Supreme Court. To any of these, Kendall might have had something interesting to say, but also not all that distinguishable from or as accessible as what was then being said by Buckley or Kirk, or for that matter Kristol, Podhoretz, or Moynihan.
Nevertheless, attempts to bring Kendall into the contemporary political context occasionally take place, as recently as last year, in fact. Matthew Continetti attempted to revive interest in Kendall as the key to understanding our present predicament, especially Kendall’s writing on the divisive atmosphere surrounding Joseph McCarthy:
In political correctness, we see a new, multicultural orthodoxy struggling to be born. Meanwhile, the rise of a populist leader has sparked another social, intellectual, and political conflagration. One has to spend only a few minutes browsing on the Internet before coming across references to the “genuine civil war potential” [Kendall’s term] in America today, and articles about sanctuary cities, Cal-Exit, and other forms of secessionism. Speakers face the heckler’s veto, people lose their jobs because they violate one or another orthodoxy.
This attempt was not successful. And here, Tait also has a good answer. Though certain elements of Kendall’s thought echo in Trumpism or the Silent Majority (on this Heer contends as much), it has gone unacknowledged. It’s generally a fool’s errand to lay the substance of the conservative movement to any one thinker — proponents and opponents have done so for Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and Michael Oakeshott, but this does not often extend beyond bloggers — but Kendall seems especially disassociated:
The political order Kendall celebrated was already passing him by in the 1960s. Now with the widely acknowledged power of the executive, the Supreme Court, and administrative agencies, his theory of government is more removed from practice than it was in the 1960s.
Kendall’s emphasis on constitutional machinery was suited to the largely non-ideological party system — the product of historical happenstance — that gave way in the 1960s and 1970s.
At every turn of the conservative movement, Kendall’s instinct was to turn against it, loudly. “Kendall destroyed nearly every relationship he had,” Tait writes. “He fell out with National Review over foreign policy, support for Barry Goldwater, and the nature of conservatism.” Kendall’s defenders tend to see this as proof of his being one step ahead of his peers. Kendall made an “affirmation,” Gregory Wolfe wrote, “at a time when his fellow intellectuals abandoned themselves to a solipsistic fantasy world which affirmed nothing.” Yet it’s more accurate to say that Kendall was one step beside them. Kendall wrote of “some terrible anarchic thing ‘way down inside me,”
that always puts me, instinctively, on the side of the pillow-throwers against the umpire, on the side of the freedom-riders (even though I disagree with them) against the Mississippi sheriff, on the side of George Washington against George III — and therefore on the side of the let-‘em-speak contingent against the censors and silencers.
Kendall-as-outsider thinker was always more compelling than Kendall-as-conservative sage. There was nothing sagacious about him. An outsider stands out not by his profession as one but by how poorly he fits in. Kendall didn’t want to simply fit in, but to lead the conservative movement, only to find himself continuously in exile. His quirky Americana style, obvious brilliance, and mercurial tendencies have much in common with another western outsider: Daniel Johnston. But Continetti doing the blog post equivalent of Kurt Cobain wearing one of his illustrations for Rolling Stone wasn’t enough.
A Kendall that is relevant to contemporary America is made possible by following two-and-half steps. Step one is to separate him from the conservative movement to which he clung for the better part of his career. Step 0.5 is to consider his use of “Liberal” and “Conservative” as archaisms that obscure broader issues. Step two is to narrow our view of his writings to those related to freedom of speech.
Kendall was a committed disenchanter of freedom of speech and of the civic worship of the Bill of Rights as a whole. He did this through a hyper-technical reading of the Bill, which he deemed an “afterthought,” that saw no more “rights” than that of “peaceable assembly and petition for redress of grievances.” Everything else is a carefully crafted set of congressional precepts Madison thought would entice Federalist votes. This, too, was replicated then abandoned by conservatives. Justice Antonin Scalia’s arch-conservative textual deference to the Constitution did not prevent broad, even permissive, readings in First Amendment cases. The broader conservative movement as a whole places paramount importance to freedom of speech and of religion, which Kendall denied existed as we think them to exist.
But Kendall went one further by exploring the implications of this mentality in the community. The Kendallian community does not accept as self-evident the notion that ideas, regardless of soundness or merit, should be brought to the public forum simply because “pursuit of truth” is a noble goal. Such a pursuit turns society into “a debating-club” which subordinates “all other considerations, all other goods, all other goals” to that perpetual and open-ended pursuit. Such a society, then, would deteriorate into a paradoxical dilemma where every idea and no idea are tolerated.
The Kendallian community, however, would recognize, even tolerate, a minority of leisure truth-seekers, which is not the same thing as empowering them. If a member of the community wants to air a contrary opinion, he or she must persuade his or her fellow members and hopefully marshal a majority to his or her side of things. This must be done with the understanding that “orthodoxy” is “first and foremost the frame of reference within which the exchange of ideas and opinions is to go forward.” But, Kendall cautions, challengers of orthodoxy
must expect barriers to be placed in his way, and must not be astonished if he is punished, at least in the short term, by what are fashionably called “deprivations”; he must, indeed, recognize that the barriers and deprivations are a necessary part of the organized procedure by which truth is pursued. Access to the channels of communication that represent the community’s central ritual (the learned journals, that is to say) is something that the entrant wins …
This is and the preceding summary are from “Conservatism and the ‘Open Society’” in The Conservative Affirmation. To chapters earlier in “Freedom of Speech in America” he is far less euphemistic:
One begins to suspect that the true American tradition is less that of Fourth of July orations and our constitutional law textbooks, with their cluck-clucking over so-called preferred freedoms, than, quite simply, that of riding someone out of town on a rail.
We have gotten, as Kendall might say, to the heart of the matter. A heart which Murray Rothbard saw quite clearly, writing that Kendall “is an ur-democrat, a Jacobin impatient of any restrains on his beloved community. He hates bureaucracy, but not as we do, because it is tyrannical; he hates it because it has usurped control from the popular masses.” He is, in sum, “the philosopher extraordinaire of the lynch mob.” And watching as the internet creates a digital “debating-club” of competing orthodoxies, he could also be seen as the philosopher of “cancel culture.” The mentality echoes decades later in the well-known xkcd strip: “If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show cancelled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated. It’s just that people think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door.”
A less glib assessment of Kendall’s contemporary importance might be to describe him as a modern philosopher of power. That which he described in his works, and advocated for from a conservative stance, is not limited to a single ideology, it is simply to describe how a free people assert control over their freedom and maintain order. It is an Americanized restatement of Rousseau’s most striking paradox of members of the general will being “forced to be free,” and it is no mistake that Kendall translated Of the Social Contract and cited Rousseau at all stages of his career. His status as a philosopher of power puts him in unusual but more amenable company.
“Challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonized that their world is fundamentally different. The colonial world is a Manichaean world.” So wrote Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon’s landmark book, published two years before The Conservative Affirmation, explains how violent resistance against colonial rule is made inevitable by the dehumanizing effects of the imperial power. On the surface it has nothing to do with Kendall’s work, having been written an ocean and two continents apart by a clinical psychiatrist and collaborator with Algerian militants. But a broader examination shows some thematic, and at times sometimes stylistic, overlap:
The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world, which tirelessly punctuated the destruction of the indigenous social fabric, and demolished unchecked the systems of reference of the country’s economy, lifestyles, and modes of dress …
Kendall’s work expresses an extremism that mirrors Fanon’s: a Manichaean worldview with each side separated by sharp “lines” of battle, one side is dominating or attempting to dominate the other through cruel or extralegal means, both sides are past the point where negotiations can achieve anything, conflict — even, perhaps especially, violent conflict — is a matter of when rather than if. Fanon’s writing took the view of the disempowered retaking what’s rightfully theirs; Kendall’s took the view of the empowered defending it. Fanon’s view held the West as the prime enemy; Kendall held the West as the prime good. But switch colonial with Liberal and you have a close verbal equivalent of the split-screen in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. And vice versa:
Those proposals, insofar as they involve the premise that we, Western man, can be blackmailed into a one-world despotism by the slogan “Federate or Perish,” are for one thing, a libel, since they do not do us justice, and for another thing, a lie, because they deny the facts of history of Western man, who has never refused, when the highest values are at stake, to die for them. We suspect the man who so libels us, and so lies to us, of judging us by himself. We suspect him of being a man who, having nothing to die for, can only babble about survival. We suspect him, in a word, of being a Liberal.
If this still seems far-fetched, at least in this respect, Kendall achieved what he at one point wished: he became the American Burke. “Reading your Reflections warily over,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Man, “it has continually struck me, that had you been a Frenchman, you would have been, in spite of your respect for rank and antiquity, a violent revolutionist … Your imagination would have taken fire.”