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.”
If Kendall thought liberalism wrecked the Founders’ America, Burnham saw it as the capitulation of Western civilization. To him, liberalism was “the ideology of Western suicide.” He observed three problems facing the West: “the jungle now spreading within our own society, in particular in our great cities”; “the explosive population growth and political activization” of the “world’s backward areas,” primarily amongst the “non-white masses”; and “the drive of the communist enterprise for a monopoly of world power.” Western elites, beholden to liberalism’s “rationalistic optimism, its permissiveness, its egalitarianism and democratism, and by its guilt” lacked the will to confront these challenges. No liberals had fire in their belly for “suffering, sacrifice and death.” Alert to the structural foundations of ideology, Burnham concluded that, functionally, liberalism “motivates and justifies the contraction” of the West “and reconciles us to it.” Burnham and Kendall overestimated liberalism, considering it a coherent and existential threat.
Within the conservative orbit, both men’s careers diverged sharply. Kendall accepted a payout from Yale University to resign his tenure in 1961. He lived in Spain and France briefly, and taught at several universities before founding a Ph.D. program at the Catholic University of Dallas. He left National Review under a cloud, and his once close friendship with Buckley turned bitter. He died suddenly in 1967 having left a mark on American conservatism, albeit not the decisive one of his ambitions. Burnham on the other hand stayed at National Review until a debilitating stroke in 1978. In retrospect, Buckley considered him “beyond any question” the “dominant intellectual influence in the development” of the magazine. Ronald Reagan awarded Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.
Throughout his time at National Review, Burnham pushed for accessibility—better copy, better design, greater emphasis on contemporary issues, and pitched toward a broad audience. He argued the magazine should support candidates like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon even though they were not conservative favorites. Other editors at the magazine often found him imperious, even un-conservative.
In the early 1960s, Burnham counseled Buckley to attack the John Birch Society, an organization not entirely unlike QAnon. In an analytical mode, Burnham suggested the Birchers could be the seed of an American form of fascism. Yet a critical review of Burnham’s Suicide of the West connected Burnham to the Birchers, calling it “as puerile as a Birchite pamphlet,” combining “academic hauteur with fanatic shrillness.” Burnham castigated the Birchers, whose leadership claimed American liberals, including Eisenhower, formed part of an immense communist conspiracy. At the same time, Burnham himself argued liberals unconsciously led a national suicide in the face of communism. The line between Burnham and the Birchers was real, but their analysis of liberalism pointed in the same direction. They both plausibly existed on a Kendallian battle line, a fact clear to radio host Clarence Manion, who drew on Burnham for his show and cofounded the John Birch Society.
American conservatives tell themselves many origin stories. Narratives are necessary to create a political identity. But political identities are also forged in war, and conflict is central to American conservatism. Kendall and Burnham contributed significantly to this intellectual architecture. They articulated and in some cases established conservative tropes, endowing them with a patina of intellectual sophistication. Key themes include that modern democratic trends cannot be trusted, liberal elites are attacking America, and conservatism is ultimately the antithesis of modern liberalism.
From the John Birch Society up to the sophisticated explicators of conservatism like Burnham and Kendall, the threat of liberalism to America and the West demanded conservatives commit themselves to anti-liberalism. It was—and remains—the unifying logic of the American Right, bringing together issues as varied as school choice, abortion, marginal tax rates, states’ rights, and the rollback of communism as conservatism. In 1997, National Review editor-in-chief John O’Sullivan updated conservatism “After Reaganism.” He decried liberal elites who supported disintegrating “existing society” and replacing it with “bureaucratic management” through multiculturalism. Long-time National Review editor Jeffrey Hart, a friend of Kendall’s, recognized the argument as a successor to Burnham’s. Liberalism “still is the ideology of Western suicide – but now is expressing itself in the domestic agenda.” And so it remains in the conservative imagination.
Worldviews create action. Ultimately, the pathologizing of liberalism and antagonistic defining of conservatism leads to posturing and polarization. Within National Review, Burnham counseled tactical moderation. Kendall fetishized deliberation, which couldn’t have imagined the information silos of the social media age. But their apocalyptic mindset undercut any serious chances for conservatives to strike alliances with the center, or even center-right. There’s no compromise with evil. Domestically, anti-liberalism encourages the American Right to overlook bad actors within their ranks. Conservative unity is the priority against vicious liberalism. On the global stage, far from strengthening America by stiffening the liberal spine as Burnham intended, a polarized America struggles to act decisively. Burnham and Kendall’s ideas have filtered through to talk show hosts, columnists, and TV stars. What incisive ideas they had have been beaten into cudgels. The anti-liberal glue of conservatism has become its objective. The struggle is the point.
Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.