by Joshua Tait
There are many legends about the political theorist Willmoore Kendall. A great deal of them are true. He was a founding editor of National Review. He reported on the Spanish Civil War. He worked in military intelligence. He spoke three languages and could read three more. Yale paid him to resign his tenured professorship. He had a decisive influence on the careers of William F. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell. Another oft-repeated story is that Kendall is the great “might-have-been” of American conservatism.
Garry Wills wrote in 1968 that “Willmoore was the one man with the depth, training, and style of presentation to lead a conservative revival; but that his prickliness always got in the way of his abilities as a proselytizer.”
Kendall theorized a sophisticated and deeply patriotic conservatism. 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. The crux of Kendall’s politics was a “consensus that is, in important particulars, different from just simple majority rule.” American politics was slow moving to encourage compromise and consensus. The “basic symbol” of American politics was “a virtuous people through deliberative processes striving to achieve and advance their declared purposes which involve, inter alia, better ordering with justice.”
His wife suggested Kendall’s wartime experience in Spain, particularly the murder of children selling partisan newspapers, drove his emphasis on social cohesion. Kendall disdained the libertarian trend in conservative thought represented by Frank Meyer. He was equally scathing of Burkean conservatives like Russell Kirk and Clinton Rossiter. In one of his infamous green-ink letters he called them “a pair of ignoramuses whose facile pens have made them ‘famous.’” Neither Burkeanism or libertarianism was for Kendall authentically American. To him, “conservatism” was not a transnational phenomenon but something rooted in good societies. And mid-century America—especially between the Appalachians and the Rockies—was a good society.
But, as Jeffrey Hart put it to Kendall in 1966, “whatever your objections” to Meyer and Kirk, they have “at least put out books… You haven’t, as yet.” Hart told Kendall that conservatives needed a constructive philosophy. Libertarianism was solely critical and useless as a principle of governance. Instead, Hart told Kendall he could incorporate the insights of Burkeanism—“hostility to abstraction and universalism, stress on locality, anti-egalitarianism, the aesthetic components, the transcendent”—to forge a philosophy of conservative governance.
It never came to pass.
It’s difficult to judge Kendall’s influence on American conservatism. On the one hand he was a key mentor to William F. Buckley, Brent Bozell, Garry Wills, and others. In the mid-1950s, Buckley called Kendall “perhaps my best friend and a man whose counsel I would not be without in any circumstances.” Even after breaking with the right, Wills said Kendall did more “than anyone else to make me see that liberal theory does not account for the supposedly liberal conduct of our affairs.”
Yet Kendall did not develop any real institutional influence. He left National Review having lost his struggle with James Burnham to shape the magazine’s direction. There isn’t a Kendallian school in the same way there is a Straussian one. He left Yale having trained few graduate students. Kendall spent his final years establishing a doctoral program at the University of Dallas, a tiny Catholic university. When Kendall died, the program, in its early stages, lacked the prestige or staff to punch above its weight. It’s hard to see traces of his thought in conservative in discourse after the early 1960s.
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.
In addition, Kendall destroyed nearly every relationship he had. Some of this conflict was intellectual. He fell out with National Review over foreign policy, support for Barry Goldwater, and the nature of conservatism. But much bitterness was usually, in truth, personal: the result of jealousy and perceived slights.
The acrimony between Kendall and his friends—like his drinking—is often played lightly in conservative mythology. “Willmoore being Willmoore.” In reality, it was heartbreaking for all involved. “I have exhausted so much time and emotion over Willmoore in fifteen years that I have pretty well had it,” Buckley confided sadly.
Conservatives sometimes suggest Kendall’s majoritarianism made him amenable to the Civil Rights Act. The argument is that the law came through the proper channels of government and there represented a social consensus. But like many of his contemporaries, Kendall valued stability above justice. Blind to the repressiveness of the Jim Crow south, Kendall feared the moral fervor of the civil rights movement made it unwilling to “wait” for society to change. He worried black activism would do violence to the constitutional order. When he told an Arizona audience in 1966 that Lyndon Johnson was “the greatest conservative President I’ve seen in my life span of 57 years,” he meant because Johnson had “passed the civil rights laws only to get the Negro out of the South.” Now African Americans “must fight American society,” a fight they would inevitably lose.
Matt Continetti has argued Kendall is a thinker relevant for the Trump era. Kendall “drew attention to questions that still have not been answered,” Continetti writes. “Who belongs within the political community, where are borders to be drawn and ought they to be enforced, what traditions and symbols (the English language, the national anthem, the flag) are worthy of preservation, deserving of honor?”
Would Kendall have liked Trump? He might have seen Trump as a middle American revolt against liberalism.
But he also may well have disliked Trump’s conservative defenders and been wary of creeping executive and judicial worship on the right. For Kendall, Congress was the branch of government most connected to the people and therefore most important. He would certainly worry about threat of a “constitutional crisis.” Discussion of packing the Supreme Court or abolishing the Electoral College or Senate would fill him with dread.
In some ways Kendall’s sense of American politics anticipated the Silent Majority and elements of Trumpism. But he didn’t shape them. The Silent Majoritarians never cited Kendall. His thought seems to have had no impact on Trumpism as it has been presented thus far. He’s being attached to it as a post-facto attempt to theorize Trumpism and relate him to an eddy of the orthodox tradition of American conservatism.
Even then it is unclear Kendall’s thought is salient. 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.
Likewise, his idea that consensus emerges from local communities is similarly nostalgic. For the millions who live in impersonal cities and suburbs, bowling alone and chasing financial stability in a thoroughly disrupted economy, community is far more transient and based on personal social networks.
It’s also an open question whether there is a social orthodoxy to enforce. If there is, it may not be a conservative one as he understood it. Given the tremendous political and geographic polarization, it’s truer today to speak of rival orthodoxies. Kendall did not live long enough for abortion to become the divisive issue it has become since Roe v. Wade, or observe the emergence of feminism and LGBT rights. He opposed rights-based politics, but the proverbial horse has long bolted.
Kendall’s anti-rights political philosophy never really found traction, even among many conservatives. Many today see philosophies of local consensus as discredited by their association with “massive resistance.” Instead, conservatives been successful forging their own language of rights and choice.
One conservative friend wrote to Kendall in 1965 to tell him he made “a solid case against the myth of American concern for individual rights before the Bill of Rights.” Nevertheless, they couldn’t “turn back the clock now.” Nor would they want to. “What else protects beleaguered conservatives in this day and age against the omnicompetent State except the ritualistic, if you will, concern for the Bill of Rights.”
Willmoore Kendall is endlessly fascinating. He was a charismatic figure but ultimately a sad one. He was influential in ways, but he is not the great lost conservative thinker he’s sometimes presented as. He desperately wanted to be, but couldn’t.
Joshua Tait is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of North Carolina. He tweets @Joshua_A_Tait.