Why Willmoore Kendall And James Burnham Are the Prophets of Modern Conservatism
James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall helped give birth and intellectual legitimacy to a conservative movement primarily defined by its opposition to liberalism, resentment of elites, distrust of democracy, and drive to fight the liberal destruction of America and “the West.”
In Kendall’s view, the American people, especially those between the Appalachians and Rockies, were basically conservative. Theirs was an unspoken consensus that only required articulation when its precepts were attacked. In other words, conservatism manifested as a defensive measure in response to the liberal establishment. Kendall resented it. Liberals, Kendall wrote, write “proposals born of their instinctive dislike for the American way of life and for the basic political and social principles presupposed in it.”
This concept of social consensus informed conservative thinking on the majority’s inherent right to establish norms. For a time, it seemed Kendall’s majoritarianism might be an anti-liberal logic in defense of conservative mores against the burgeoning Rights Revolution led by the Warren Court, especially since he wrote in a constitutional idiom. As Kendall and many conservatives found, however, the rhetoric of rights is extremely powerful.
For both Burnham and Kendall, Joseph McCarthy was a turning point. They put their reputations on the line. Kendall defended McCarthy as a champion of America’s consensus. He collaborated with his students William Buckley and L. Brent Bozell on the tawdry book McCarthy and His Enemies. In a semi-fictionalized account by Buckley, Kendall asked, “Isn’t that what Joe McCarthy is saying: that the Communists are illicit members of the American society?” The anti-anti-McCarthy Burnham broke with the intellectual Left over McCarthy, saying when liberals leaped over themselves to denounce McCarthyism, they fell for the “diversionary semantics” of “communist tacticians.” There was no turning back after McCarthy. When Burnham quit Partisan Review’s advisory board, its editor warned him he had “committed suicide” socially. Kendall found it hard to be taken “as something other than egg-head McCarthyism” by his scholarly peers.
Incensed by the dominance of liberal public opinion, these well-credentialed but professionally damaged academics joined Buckley’s fledgling National Review in 1955 and became increasingly reliant on conservative grants and organizations. At National Review, Kendall influenced not only Buckley and Bozell, but younger writers like Garry Wills. Burnham became Buckley’s ablest lieutenant, writing a column on the “Third World War,” as well as editing the National Review bulletin and the main magazine three months out of the year. He helped shape the magazine’s style and editorial direction.
FOR DISTINCT but related reasons, Kendall and Burnham concluded that America’s political tradition was critically threatened in the 1950s and 1960s. Kendall always rooted his sense of conservatism in American practices. It “is idle to speak of conservatism without at least tacit adjectival reference to a particular time and place,” Kendall wrote. “We should speak about ‘American Conservatism,’” not “Conservatism in America.” Burnham had more of an international emphasis, but a conservative foundation induced him to study Congress, initially in response to liberal research on congressional investigative powers after McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Burnham and Kendall both argued liberals and conservatives understood the American political system differently. Beholden to a cult of action, liberals emphasized the executive branch and administrative bureaus of the federal government and justified their authority by nationalized plebiscitary votes. By contrast, Kendall and Burnham argued, congressional representatives were closer to their constituents and natural conservatives. In his investigation, Burnham found the Framers intended Congress to be the preeminent branch of government, but also that the tension between the branches was a system of countervailing forces that secured liberty. Franklin Roosevelt shattered this arrangement, ushering in executive-bureaucratic supremacy. Burnham foresaw “the popular despotism (Caesarism) into which this shift, if the prevailing tendency continues, must … lead.” As a stylist, Burnham wrote crystalline prose, giving his dire predictions a veneer of reasonableness and certainty. “Can constitutional government, can liberty, survive in the United States?” he asked. “If liberty, then Congress; if no Congress, no liberty.”
Along similar lines, Kendall argued in The Conservative Affirmation, published in 1963, that “the Founders of our Republic bequeathed to us a form of government that was purely representative.” Now America had two competing majorities: the legitimate representative majority, expressed in Congress, and the plebiscitary majority of the Supreme Court and presidency. “The central destiny of the United States” hinged on the tension between these majorities. Would the Republic be “much the same as that intended by the Framers, or one tailored to the specifications of egalitarian ideology”—“‘open’ or relatively ‘closed,’ egalitarian and redistributive or shot through and through with great differences in reward and privilege, a ‘welfare state’ society or a ‘capitalist’ society”?
Kendall extended his point in a lecture series composed at the height of the civil rights movement and published posthumously in 1970. He argued that the foundational “symbol” of American politics, dating back to the Mayflower Compact, was the virtuous people deliberating under God and the law. In the Gettysburg Address, however, Abraham Lincoln substituted this foundational symbol for equality, “derailing” the American tradition and providing ammunition for liberals to use rights talk to slice through America’s social orthodoxy.
The arguments are not without insight, but these chief thinkers of movement conservatism rehearsed the clichéd lament of constitutional decline and liberal perfidy. In conservative discourse, the political order is constantly on the precipice of destruction (or heroic resuscitation). The stakes are enormous: a return to the Founders or liberal Caesarism.
Not only did Kendall and Burnham raise the stakes to apocalyptic levels, they undermined conservative trust in democracy. On the question of democracy, Kendall and Burnham were worlds apart. Kendall, the arch-democrat, idealized deliberation, holding that social orthodoxy and political legitimacy emerged up from communities. Burnham, the elitist, started from the “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” arguing that, at best, the ruling class could bring the masses along through civic mythology and good governance. Kendall put all his faith in deliberative democracy; Burnham treated democracy as one of many potentially useful constraints on elites. Both men attacked modern democratic tendencies from their contrasting positions, putting them firmly within National Review’s circle of democracy skeptics.
Singing from the same choir book, Kendall and Burnham criticized national political movements as “democratism” or plebiscitary democracy. They argued democratism treated bare national majorities as divine mandates that overrode all restraints, whether salutary political structures or communities’ social orthodoxies. Democratism reduced complex issues into binaries “resolved” in plebiscitary votes or in the person of presidential candidates. Burnham warned this process led to the politicization of all issues and bureaucratic centralization. Fortunately, widespread trust in the Constitution provided “juridical defense in depth.” Kendall and Burnham especially distrusted political movements linked to rights talk. Burnham saw rights as an ideological façade for ruling classes, Kendall saw them as a threat to the American political tradition. Kendall warned that social revolutionaries who in their zeal would not “take ‘No’ for an answer” and wait in the political “ante-room” would destroy America’s constitutional framework. “Plebiscitary presidential elections,” Kendall wrote, “cannot become the central ritual of our system without destroying the system.”
Specifically, Kendall feared the civil rights movement. In 1963, Kendall confessed privately he was “for segregation of the bulk of the American Negroes”—more so than he had been before Brown v. Board of Education. Not on racial grounds, he added, but because the movement threatened the social consensus and constitutional morality. In practice, Kendall’s concept of social consensus gave veto power to the most recalcitrant parts of society until they could be defeated in Congress. Abstract “consensus” lent theoretical support to Southern white filibustering and domination of Congress through the seniority system.
Kendall and Burnham fomented distrust in the legitimacy of national elections and in democracy beyond their specialized definition. To conservative audiences, every liberal candidate became a would-be tyrant. Kendall, Burnham, and the many blunter iterations of the argument in the conservative press created a demonization of liberal candidates that has reached a crescendo today. Likewise, through their emphasis on the need to constrain plebiscitary democracy, Kendall and Burnham fostered a conservative mentality that, over the history of movement conservatism, justified and continues to justify anti-democratic measures, including voter suppression.
AS THE conservative movement coalesced around Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s, Kendall and Burnham defined conservatism as a defense of tradition animated by conflict with liberals. “Liberalism is anti-traditional,” Burnham wrote in his 1964 study of liberalism, The Suicide of The West. “I rather think that the attitude toward tradition furnishes the most accurate single shibboleth for distinguishing liberals from conservatives; and still more broadly, the Left from the Right.” Likewise, to Kendall’s mind, America’s “Judaeo-Christian” public orthodoxy and constitutional structure were its tradition; conservatism was the defense of these things against aggressive liberals. He drew a metaphor of a battle line. On the Left, “a disciplined and battle-wise enemy, with crystal clear war-aims and a grim determination to win.” On the Right, isolated pockets of resistance standing firm on disparate issues. America faced a choice between “the Liberal Revolution” or “the destiny envisaged for it by the Founders of our Republic.” Conservatives, Kendall argued, needed to forge a conscious political identity and stronger practical alliances to staunch the liberal advance.
In The Suicide of the West, Burnham detailed how liberals had gone from a focus on freedom and liberty to fixated on creating peace and justice through coercion and welfarism. It had become a secular faith motivated by guilt. Burnham drew up a thirty-nine-point list of positions—from “1. All forms of racial segregation and discrimination are wrong” to “14. Colonialism and imperialism are wrong” and “34. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” A pure liberal agreed with all these statements, Burnham claimed, and a reactionary opposed all. In general, “most persons fall fairly definitely (though not in equal numbers) on one side of [the liberal line] or the other.”