The Conservative Affirmation
By Willmoore Kendall.
Paperback, 432 pages, $18.99.
Reviewed by Benjamin Clark.
First published in 1963, Willmoore Kendall’s The Conservative Affirmation remains an under-read classic of conservative theory and political science. The work serves as Kendall’s contribution to two perennial problems in the conservative movement: the definition of American conservatism and its differentiation from liberalism. This project of defining American conservatism and placing it in contrast with liberalism serves as the main through-line in a book that may otherwise feel disconnected at points. The Conservative Affirmation consists of a series of seven chapters that operate as stand-alone essays, followed by a series of 30 book reviews. Throughout the book, Kendall offers a series of contrasts between conservatism and liberalism rather than a simple definition of each; these definitions of conservatism are not contradictory and do in fact harmonize but are not reducible to a single statement. The result is a work worth returning to, both profitable for those already steeped in the American conservative intellectual movement and a good starting point for the uninitiated.
Despite his critiques against the positivism dominant in his native discipline, Kendall’s work contains the insights of a brilliant political scientist—in the best, non-positivistic sense of the term—combined with the attentiveness to deeper principles that marks the best in political theory. Kendall’s constitutional theory draws on both to offer his readers a perspective on the American constitutional order that many will never have encountered. Through his first two chapters—What is Conservatism? and The Two Majorities in American Politics, he presents a contrast between American conservatism and liberalism: liberalism is a revolutionary movement designed to overthrow the existing American political and social order and replace it with a new one, and conservatives are those who, in their respective arenas, resist this radical transformation. American Conservatism, Kendall emphasizes, is thus something uniquely American: committed to defending the American political tradition as it is embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution (the latter as interpreted through The Federalist Papers).
Many conservative readers will no doubt be surprised by Kendall’s claim that this conservative resistance has been, by and large, successful, resulting in a “continuous and cumulative defeat of the Left in American politics.” However, as Kendall details the ways that the liberal revolution has failed to achieve its desired transformation of the American constitutional system—ending equal state representation in the Senate, abolishing the electoral college, abolishing the filibuster, reformulating the parties along ideological lines to offer voters a “genuine choice” and enable electoral mandates—it becomes clear not only that the liberal political program seems to have remained largely the same, but also (with a partial exception made for the ideological transformation of the parties—a goal, incidentally, pursued by movement conservatives as well as liberals) that this liberal project appears to have been continually thwarted by those who would maintain the status quo. Additionally, by casting the issue along these lines, he duly reminds American conservatives that their primary political objective is one that does not change with each election cycle: maintaining the inherited constitutional order and passing it on to the next generation.
Kendall’s second chapter, The Two Majorities in American Politics, takes this framework of conservative opposition and liberal revolution and translates it to conflicts between the executive and legislative branches. Kendall argues we are dealing in many of our political debates with a conflict between an executive branch that favors the liberal project and a Congress that supports the existing constitutional order. Presidents try to turn the presidential election into “the central ritual of American politics” in which a nationalized electorate announces their will through “popular mandates” and Congress attempts to remind presidents “that the system has rituals other than that of the presidential election.” As regards the role of political parties, presidents champion turning the parties into ideologically-cohesive organs for offering competing party “programs” for the voters to choose between, and Congress instead defends “our traditional system of decentralized parties of a non-‘ideological’ and non-programmatic character.”
What lies at the heart of this conflict of democratic visions are two different visions of how representation should work. On one hand there lies the liberal conception of plebiscitary elections: the voters choose between competing party “programs,” resulting in a majority mandate for the winning party, and ultimately leading to “instructed delegates” doing the bidding of the voters through the legislative process. On the other hand we have the conception that Kendall attributes (quite persuasively) to the authors of The Federalist, wherein elections are an opportunity for the people to choose the most virtuous of their neighbors (and Kendall arms himself with numerous quotes to emphasize the signature importance the authors of The Federalist put on selecting virtuous and wise representatives), send them to Washington without specific “instructions” from the populace, and then have them deliberate among themselves. Kendall notes further that the goal for these deliberations appears to be legislation by broad consensus, such that the votes taken will not be particularly close.
Kendall identifies this traditional model of democracy as requiring a “constitutional morality” that lies at the heart of the American constitutional order: the “process of deliberation among virtuous men,” each of which representing the majority values and interests of their respective communities, will lead to the pursuit of justice and the passage of laws that do not harm the rights of their fellow citizens, in a way that cannot be guaranteed by the liberal emphasis on majority mandates. Kendall argues that, contrary to popular conception, Madison and Hamilton were not opponents of majority rule as such, but rather were opponents of unjust majority rule, that is: the majority ruling in such a way that harms the rights of others.
On this point, the reader in 2023 may have to qualify any affirmation of Kendall’s assessment of the failure of the liberal revolution in politics. For whatever liberals may have failed to accomplish in their desired structural reforms, it is hard to deny that American political culture (on the Right as well as the Left) has almost wholly absorbed certain aspects of the liberal revolutionary program. Rather than zealously defend institutional prerogatives and assert their own rival version of majority rule, most members of Congress (again, in both parties) seem to be perfectly content with their casting as backup players in the drama of the executive branch—seeing their job as alternatively fighting or defending the president, depending on which role they have been assigned by the latest presidential election. Conservatives have not resisted the trend toward ideologically homogenous parties, nor the allure of national popular mandates. And today’s elections—for Congress no less than president—appear to be focused much more on receiving direct commands from the people on policy matters than on selecting wise and virtuous leaders who will go and engage in informed deliberations on the people’s behalf. To the extent that Kendall’s description of the political Left still holds true, it is hard to say the same of his treatment of the political Right.
This difficulty is even compounded when we view Kendall through the lens of the populism ascendant on the Right today: to the extent that one can identify an element within Congress that seems bent on preserving the traditional form of representation envisioned by The Federalist, it would seem to come not from the populist wing of the two parties, but from the respective party establishments. The image of the legislator that Kendall presents—focused more on local interests than ideology, preferring compromise and consensus to sharp partisan contrasts, and operating with limited direct input from the people—is hardly one that fits with much of what is now considered conservative populism. Kendall, to be sure, expresses distrust in American elites at various points throughout the book; moreover, he does indeed profess a confidence in the deliberations of the American people, who he believes very strongly to still be quite conservative. But it is very easy for that confidence to be misunderstood, in large part because many of our own assumptions about what it means for the people to deliberate probably owe more to the liberal revolutionary project than the model of deliberation Kendall prefers.
And it is here that we encounter a major problem for applying Kendall’s analysis (including his “populism,” such as it is) to our own day: Kendall’s model for democratic deliberation is not only far-removed from our own politics, it may well be impossible today. In The Two Majorities, Kendall offers his vision for how congressional elections should function—and, he believes in 1963, how they still did function. Congressional elections are “aristocratic” in character, geared toward representing “structured communities” with “hierarchical relations” between their members, and are on small enough scale that deliberations can be “about something, not nothing.” Presidential elections, by contrast, are essentially “democratic” in character, focused on a national constituency, and thus tend to devolve into deliberations “about nothing.” According to Kendall, the scale of our political deliberations is important: expanding the size of the constituency—making it larger and more complex—makes it less possible for voters to engage in the kind of deliberative process necessary for the traditional model of majority rule to work.
Kendall’s locally specific, decentralized, communitarian vision of congressional elections is perhaps a highly compelling and attractive vision of what a healthy democratic politics ought to look like. But it is a vision of political deliberation that seems to bear very little resemblance to the congressional elections of today, which may go a long ways toward explaining why we do not find ourselves with a Congress full of the most virtuous men and women from their respective communities; nor with a legislative process (as our system was designed for) prioritizing the values of deliberation, compromise, and consensus; nor with policy outcomes tailored toward the pursuit of justice; and why our political debates seem so often to boil down to arguments about “nothing, not something,” just as Kendall predicted.
Kendall has been the subject of recent scholarly attention, with the publication of Christopher Owen’s Heaven Can Indeed Fall (2021), the republication of The Conservative Affirmation (2022), and most recently David Frisk’s Willmoore Kendall: The Search for America’s Creed (2023). One hopes with this recent attention, along with the much-discussed rise of populism on the contemporary right, that Kendall’s intellectual contributions will be more fully appreciated and the challenges he offers to today’s conservatives more thoroughly incorporated. Given the structure of the book, there are numerous other themes from The Conservative Affirmation that will prove relevant to contemporary debates on the nature and definition of conservatism. Of particular interest for readers interested in this question may be his chapters “McCarthyism: The Pons Asinorum of Contemporary Conservatism,” “Freedom of Speech in America,” and “Conservatism and the ‘Open Society,’” which deal with the relationship of conservatism to classical liberalism (and of classical liberalism to the American constitutional order). Those interested in the history of political thought and the relationship of liberalism to the Western philosophical tradition will be interested in “The Social Contract.”
And the persistent reader will be richly rewarded for attentively reading the book reviews that make up the last chapter, for even if some of them (such as his unfortunate review of Nathaniel Weyl’s The Negro in American Civilization) offer little to today’s readers, many of the others either expound upon earlier themes (as in his review of John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition), showcase Kendall’s wit (as in his review of Edgar Wesley’s NEA: The First Hundred Years: The Building of the Teaching Profession), or display his trademark maverick iconoclasm (as in his excellent review of Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided). Indeed, while many different types of conservatives will find something to like in The Conservative Affirmation, it also seems likely that any potential group of sympathetic readers will find in the work something to make them hesitate. He thus seems likely to remain a challenging figure within the conservative intellectual tradition, but the challenges he offers his readers should make a study of his thought a more profitable exercise, not less. Kendall’s works remain thought-provoking. His arguments are “sweetly-reasoned,” to use a recurring phrase from the work, treating his more skeptical readers with the patience and good-natured sympathy of a seasoned teacher. And many of Kendall’s arguments cannot be easily dismissed.
Still, one wonders if the current populist moment that the American right finds itself in is one that still fits Kendall’s vision. The profound irony would be if Kendall’s conservative populism were to gain ascendance in the conservative movement in equal proportion to Kendall’s assumptions about the American people and their political deliberations become more and more suspect in light of a decaying political culture. Even more ironic would be if this conservative populism were to become ascendant largely by coopting various elements of the liberal political revolution that Kendall so detested: a faith in the electoral mandate of “the people” over and against the corrupting influence of special interests in Washington, the concentration of power in the presidency over and against the legislative and deliberative branches of government, and increasingly-demagogic appeals to ideological crusades and policy outcomes, rather than to cultivating and maintaining the virtue and wisdom that befits a free people. Then again, it is hard to predict how Kendall would have viewed this moment: after 60 years, he still manages to surprise his reader with where his own maverick brand of conservatism will lead them both next.
Benjamin Clark is a Senior Lecturer of Political Science at Georgia College & State University, where he teaches courses in political theory and American government. He holds a PhD in Political Theory from the Catholic University of America.
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