Is the Christian tradition compatible with a conservatism skeptical of power and a constrained vision of human society?
The Willmoore Kendall Story
I date every book that I read. Why? My stock answer, cut from the mold of Walter Mitty, is, “In case someday, someone cares to go back and write my intellectual biography.” I am a simple country boy from Wisconsin teaching political philosophy at a mid-level state school but maybe, just maybe someday, someone will care to go back and figure out why I thought what I thought. No one would ever care to delve into the intimate details of my family life or my personnel files.
Christopher H. Owen, professor of history at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, has written a biography of noted political theorist, Willmoore Kendall, where he does delve into that level of detail. Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall is a chronology of Kendall’s life and thought. Why precisely we should care about Kendall’s life—as opposed to his thought—is another question.
Born a child of rural Oklahoma in 1909, Kendall’s father was a blind Methodist social gospel preacher and staunch political progressive. Kendall at first took up his father’s radical politics: he opposed the supposed half measures of the New Deal as a young man. As he was in studying Spain, he proved quite sympathetic to the Spanish Republican cause. He remained a communist “fellow traveler” loosely committed to “left oriented isolationism” well after Pearl Harbor.
Then Kendall joined Allied intelligence in World War II, since he could not snag an academic job. This work proved decisive in turning Kendall “away from the left” and led to his “rightward turn.” As Owen tells the story, “exposing disloyalty within American intelligence circles contributed to this turn.” Liberals did not have the stomach for saving the country. Only staunch anti-communists—Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy among them—were interested in challenging the leftist acquiescence in a communist take-over. This was Kendall’s attitude as he became associate professor of political science at Yale in 1947.
Kendall inspired students and alienated faculty from this perch at Yale. Students like William F. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell, inspired through Kendall’s opposition to communism, could see the communist sympathies at Yale as requiring a new brand of conservatism that reflected a somewhat deeper critique of liberal institutions. Owen is clear about the limits of Kendall’s influence here. He does not say: “No Kendall; No Buckley. No Buckley; No Conservative Movement.” Kendall influenced Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, but was neither its inspiration nor its sine qua non. Kendall proofread the classic and made important suggestions for improvement. Kendall was not unimportant to the conservative movement. He is not exactly a footnote to Buckley, but he is not a main chapter either.
Conflicts with faculty at Yale concerned matter and manner. On one hand, Kendall was cantankerous, snide, a drunk, and a womanizer. The faculty was annoyed. Later in his life, he showed up at events inebriated. On the other hand, he was staunchly anti-communist and defended McCarthy and the loyalty oaths as a right and meet policy for ferreting out communists. Given his controversial opinions and his scholarly output, his chairman, famed political scientist V.O. Key, told him he would never be promoted to Full Professor at Yale. Kendall ended his four year or so stint at Yale in the early 1950s.
The problem, however, is that Kendall’s brilliance, such as it was, was not then obvious to anyone. Owen mentions how Kendall’s scholarly career is marked through a threefold development. Kendall’s first work, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule (1941), argued that Locke’s fundamental principle was not natural rights or natural equality, but rather majority rule. Doctrines of natural rights should not be read to limit the power and effect of majorities. This thesis, at least, allowed majorities to seize private property (as the leftist Kendall hoped it would) and would not allow communists to hide behind their “right of association” (as the anti-communist Kendall feared they would). This insight suited a time when, as Kendall saw it, cynical elites appealed to “natural” doctrines to limit the powers of a salutary and concerned majority.
Kendall had already staked his all on the majoritarian principle as he helped set the editorial tone of National Review in the mid-1950s. As Owen tells the story, Kendall defended “the right of the people to rule themselves and to resist the aggrandizement of experts.” Elites were extending their dominion over the people through their claims of expertise; claims of “individual rights” were being used by the judiciary and bureaucracy to undermine the rights of democracy (think, for example, the erosion of pornography legislation in the late 1950s). He became a Rousseauean, as he understood it, where the “general will” must rule (his second stage). He sided with Athens in “The People Versus Socrates Revisited” (1958). Socrates had to drink the hemlock because the people demanded it. There is nothing wrong with the cave as long as the people rule.
This impish, purely conventionalist theory wishes away central conflicts in politics such as the conflict between the few and the many or the standards to which rulers and majorities can be held. Thus, Kendall brought a certain disrepute to the conservative position, one that eventually led to his break with Buckley. Confronting the works of Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss soon after “The People Versus Socrates,” however, Kendall “abandoned his previous value-neutral account.” In both cases, Kendall found it necessary to introduce what Owen calls “moral verities” or “eternal truths” into his political theory.
This coincided with, if it did not cause, Kendall’s most fruitful phase as a political thinker, where he defended a certain kind of majority as formed by the U.S. Constitution. His assembled majority, for lack of a better term, was the opposite of the majoritarianism of then leading liberal political scientists like Robert Dahl and James MacGregor Burns who criticized the Constitution. The liberals thought presidents could represent truly national majorities. Programmatic parties based on unifying governing platforms could forge national majorities as embodied in presidents. Liberals understood such programmatic politics in contrast to “local” parties, where Congress represented the parochial interests in their districts.
Kendall agreed with this analysis, but took the other side. This marks Kendall’s third, Madisonian phase. Congressional parties, grounded on local interests, were superior to the untrammeled national majoritarianism liberals in America then favored. Why? Programmatic parties threaten national unity since they turn our politics into a battle of “national visions” and encourage ideological impositions. They introduce faction into the heart of national politics. A consensus cobbled together through congressional deliberation and give-and-take would more likely hold the country together amidst great uncertainty. Real societies value many, many goods, while programmatic parties are founded on dreams where only a few of these goods are valued. Congressional majorities reflected popular selection. Members of Congress would have to consult their local communities while thinking also of the national interest. Congress as a whole then represented “the will of many distinct communities.” This is an interesting insight, one that continues to attract political theorists to this day.
Kendall applied this theory in interesting ways. He favored the wheelin’-and-dealin’ Lyndon Johnson over the programmatic and ideological Barry Goldwater in 1964. He associated himself with right-wing critics of Spain’s Franco regime—which he now thought of as too much founded on a national majority. How many human beings favored both LBJ and Franco’s right-wing opponents?
At the same time, Kendall’s embarrassed himself all over the country as he defended these articles and decisions. He showed up drunk to debates. He burned bridges with National Review. He threw around irresponsible accusations eliding liberals with communists. His last professional work involved establishing the department of politics at the University of Dallas—a lasting testament to anyone’s career, though there is some question how far Kendall is responsible for what UD has become. Kendall died in 1967.
This would make the essence of an intellectual biography of Kendall. Owen’s book is at least as concerned about Kendall’s private life. Here are some highlights. Kendall was thrice married. He converted to Catholicism. He sought an annulment for his first two marriages for more than a decade so he could marry his third wife. He alienated friends. He alienated colleagues. He inspired students. Kendall moved from left to a kind of right. He moved between academe and government service. Some of this is of more lasting interest than the rest. How all of it interplays with Kendall’s thought, if it does, is not immediately apparent. Thus the book smacks of a Walter Mitty character.
Another puzzling question from the book: Why does Owen entitle it Heaven Can Indeed Fall? That particular thought—bespeaking a critique of utopianism—is not overly developed in the book. He does not dwell on the quotation when it arises. It does not exactly sum up Kendall’s most important insight. This is an indication of how Owen’s book is long on description of Kendall’s life, but short on analysis of what his career means.
Owen’s book is a chronicle, which makes it both more and less than an intellectual biography. Sometimes chronicles are indeed interesting, but the man must be genuinely great to make it so. Even then, a Plutarch-like treatment often yields lessons for the moral life and for understanding politics. A book such as this needs a much stronger and deeper motivation, for Willmoore Kendall, while an intellectual of some note in his time, is not obviously deserving of a book length treatment that integrates his private concerns and public life. Perhaps Kendall’s particular insights are relevant only to his time and place. Are cobbled majorities still possible in America? Are they the product of a time when local distinctiveness and American regionalism were much greater? The greatest failure of Owen’s book is that it never really justifies itself.