Willmoore Kendall’s American Affirmation

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Willmoore Kendall’s American Affirmation

Feb 2, 2023 10 min read
COMMENTARY BY

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
A republic, Kendall said, cannot long thrive and succeed if it’s not prepared to defend and maintain its conception of justice, of the good, and of how its citizens should live. leekris / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Conservatives must work to extirpate progressive advances on the American constitutional order and replace them with sound political and moral principles.

Kendall’s Conservative Affirmation stands firmly for the proposition that for any republican constitutional order, the people must be the final arbiter of power.

Kendall is unsparing when he observed, “The Open Society confers freedom upon its members, but it does so at the cost of its own freedom as a society.”

Many conservatives behave as if their job is merely to slow the advance of progressivism, or—at best—block it from gaining more ground. But according to Willmoore Kendall, this isn’t enough. They must work to extirpate progressive advances on the American constitutional order and replace them with sound political and moral principles.

Achieving this unmet feat will require building and moving on what Kendall termed “a battle line” across the entire field. But this battle line is hardly a call for the politics of war or friend versus enemy, as advocated by post-liberal conservatives and certain voices from the so-called New Right.

Kendall’s affirmation is a constitutional morality rooted in both the procedure of constitutional power and in the unwritten mores that must guide a people who bind themselves to a limited charter of government, while also entrusting to themselves an even greater amount of self-governing authority than provided to the national government. This morality is deeply political and finds its explication in the Federalist Papers, where we see how Americans must be a constitutional people. How can conservatives maintain this virtuous republic?

In his 1963 book, The Conservative Affirmationrepublished in 2022 by Regnery Books, Kendall sought to define an American conservatism rooted in our major documents and debates. He looked to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and “above all” the Federalist Papers. Daniel McCarthy’s illuminating Foreword in the new edition argues that Kendall meant for the book to challenge both Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1952) and Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom (1962) and serve as the authentic statement of conservatism in America.

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Per Kendall, Kirk’s conservatism was too aristocratic, too Burkean, and too rooted in the European experience to be of real service to American conservatives. Meyer had made a god out of liberty, losing the balance of goods that the Constitution was committed to protect, as announced in the Constitution’s Preamble, which listed the classic five-fold ends of government, including liberty. In contrast to both, Kendall stated where his book stands:

With Madison and Hamilton, and with the subsequent American political tradition as a whole, it shares the conviction that the United States, because of the qualities of its people, must and should be governed by the “deliberate sense of the community.” Indeed, its objection to Liberal proposals for the “reform” of our political system is precisely this: Those proposals would (by eliminating deliberation) render impossible the expression of that deliberate sense—or, for that matter, any sense that would be, properly speaking, that of the community…. Its highest political loyalty, in fine, is to the institutions and way of life bequeathed to us by the Philadelphia Convention.

A cursory read of Kendall’s paragraph might leave many uninspired by its understanding of the conservative project. Do we really need a lesson in how a bill becomes a law? More seriously, what exactly is there to deliberate with progressives? They have become in many respects the source of American decline, many conservatives argue. Kendall made this same observation also about progressives. His fear was that if conservatives did not make his prescription the foundation of their ideas and politics, then the progressive advance would instill itself as a revolution, imposing “new modes and orders.”

Kendall always understood the Liberal project as a revolutionary one. Its goal was and remains to carve egalitarianism into our public institutions and to redefine the market and civil society by sameness of result. To this, we can add identity politics, which wants to use government to impose racial socialism. In congressional government, this revolution needed politics by electoral mandate (as opposed to deliberation), the repudiation of seniority in the committee system, the end of the filibuster, and the elimination of rural overrepresentation.

The overthrow of the Electoral College was another aspect. Finally, the long-sought goal was the replacement of congressional majorities with presidential majorities in the use of federal power, with the latter governing on top of actual communities not through them and with them.

Kendall’s list attempted to provide a marker to conservatives of what must be defended if a progressive egalitarian revolution was to be forestalled. Yet, many of its items have either been achieved by progressives or are currently in motion, facing only weak conservative resistance.

We might observe that Kendall’s intellectual struggles with progressives have now become something close to our impending ruin. Many conservatives would dispute Kendall’s list of progressive revolutionary aims or fail to understand the importance of them. If anything, conservatives—in a manner like progressives—yearn for presidential majorities now. We, too, embrace the rhetoric of electoral mandate for change, seeing Congress as a scrum to push into place policies that receive inadequate deliberation because of both congressional polarization and a committee system in decline.

We still defend the Electoral College and the legislative filibuster. Both institutions, however, seem increasingly strange to the broader electorate. The democratic will to power has now become so embedded in our thinking about government that many Americans are unaware of why delay, deliberation, and filtration of voting are positive methods for insuring the republican principle best serves our common good.

Much of Kendall’s book unpacks and defends the statements quoted above by providing a foundation for what Deliberation, Community, and Constitution actually require for their maintenance and successful operation. If William F. Buckley gave National Review the mission to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so,” Kendall’s conservatism did not oppose change outright, but only “change in certain directions” that contradicts our “inherited principle.” Such principle is not good “merely or even primarily because it is inherited, but because it is the product of rational deliberation moving from sound political and moral premises.”

The American Majority

In his book Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970), co-authored with George Carey, Kendall contended that the symbol Americans made to represent the truth of their political order was a virtuous people deliberating under God and natural law in order to create laws that would lead to their liberty and good order as a people. Kendall and Carey expressed very little concern over the various and sundry rights of minorities being protected by a gifted and chosen elite acting through the judicial branch or another organ of government. In a review of the constitutional history of the colonists and Americans from the Mayflower Compact through the Constitution of 1787, Kendall and Carey found that the key principle was deliberation of the people’s representatives to build a civilization worthy of a largely Christian people who believed that there was reason, order, and purpose within creation that they could draw on as a lawful and constitutional people.

Kendall’s Conservative Affirmation stands firmly for the proposition that for any republican constitutional order, the people must be the final arbiter of power, or else we would have a fraudulent government. As Daniel McCarthy notes in his Foreword, “should the Supreme Court be trusted more than the American people and their representatives?” If so, have we just upended our bedrock commitment to self-government? And the answer, according to Kendall, is yes, because elites have used rights-talk to enlist their conceptions of truth over and against popular government. There is nothing necessarily more virtuous about minority government than the rule of majorities through the constitutional process that Publius outlines in the Federalist Papers.

A national majority does not exist and is really an abstraction made on behalf of elites…. The arguments made on its behalf are necessarily composed of ideals formulated by academics.

Kendall’s chapter “The Two Majorities”—meaning the clashing representations of the two political branches of the federal government—discusses core political truths with direct application to our situation today. In short, the two majorities are reflected in a congressional majority and a presidential majority and the types of ideas, interests, and members of those different majorities. Kendall contested the position advanced by scholar Robert Dahl whose 1956 book, Preface to Democratic Theory, argues that the presidential majority is the only legitimate majority that should govern. Kendall questioned if there was such a thing as a presidential or really a national majority, somehow above or at least apart from the “structured communities” of legislative districts and states represented in Congress.

A presidential majority seemingly rises above the parochialism found within many congressional districts on spending, immigration, foreign policy, trade, entitlements, and a host of other issues. Presidential majorities, because they understand themselves to represent the will of the whole already, do not point in the direction of deliberation and therefore of compromise and moderation. We are left with a politics of executive rule and administrative fiat.

Kendall’s position was that a presidential majority is one in favor of elites. A national majority does not exist and is really an abstraction made on behalf of elites as to how things should be ideally. The arguments made on its behalf are necessarily composed of ideals formulated by academics, the chattering classes, and then repeated endlessly by media organs that are also run by elites. The ideals of this majority find embodiment in the federal regulators and bureaucracy that serve the president. Contrast this with those representatives who compose congressional majorities. Kendall described how they are much more likely to be beset with arguments, interests, and prejudices of particular people and places.

But congressional majorities are often understood merely as a counterpoint to presidential politics. Political districts, localities, and states, though, offer arguments about national policy with something concrete that comes from real communities with interests. Kendall reminded us that congressional elections are the path we have to the Founders’ Constitution. Thus, congressional elections sometimes still turn not only on policies or vague promises but on character and the virtue of the representative, which was one of Publius’ arguments about how deliberation could build durable and just majorities. That is, the voters of bounded and structured communities send good men and women to deliberate on their behalf and give their judgment on how best to defend and reflect their community in the national councils.

This isn’t to say there won’t be the occasional (or even not so occasional) nincompoop or political opportunist, a problem surely evident in early Congresses, too, but that they will be overwhelmingly canceled by more reflective representatives. In the process, these representatives form governing majorities that are reflective of citizens and the communities they live in as opposed to the glowing and always unfulfilled ideals of presidential majorities.

The Open Society

In defense of political communities, Kendall aggressively rejected the open society thinking of philosopher Karl Popper and the related absolutist skepticism of John Stuart Mill regarding truth and legal coercion. Mill famously argued that because no one has the truth in any argument, the state itself must surely refrain from imposing one set of beliefs on other persons. In this manner, society should in reality be an ongoing and iterative discussion process whose highest good is absolute freedom of speech and expression. Mill, we can cheekily say, did hold to that truth.

Kendall rejected in his day what has become the overall philosophy of public opinion and politics in our country for the last 70 years or so. This public philosophy has been composed of a regnant relativism, which has enthroned a vapid individualism, a secularist society, and now a spurning of American patriotism. Moreover, Kendall did this in the face of a then-emerging judicial belief that these commitments of Popper and Mill were constitutionally required by the First Amendment and its incorporation against the states, which neutered their capacity to be authentically self-governing about the things they loved and rejected.

Our tradition, stressed Kendall, does not mandate an absolutist position on individual liberty and speech; nor does it require that we adopt Mill’s On Liberty as American civic gospel. Kendall flatly stated that Mill’s skepticism about any claim to truth, his requirement of unending discussion, and a very limited justification for censorship is a fundamental misunderstanding of how societies operate and perpetuate themselves. The open society of Mill falls apart because it is inseparable from an assault on truth, he concluded. No society can actually defend itself when it makes liberty of speech and expression its absolutes.

Existing societies, Kendall observed, are built on public goods, truths, and embodiments of a way of life that its members who enjoy its existence will naturally, if not unconsciously, defend. Mill and the progressive elite tell them to stand down because truth doesn’t really exist and their provincial beliefs are wrong, in any event. So, the communist whose beliefs would destroy American civilization has the same right to speak as the American patriot who seeks to defend a constitutional government of limited powers. And, Kendall noted, if we are serious about Mill’s argument, then we have to be open to the possibility that the communist position might prevail.

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Kendall is unsparing when he observed, “The Open Society confers freedom upon its members, but it does so at the cost of its own freedom as a society.” The Open Society, in rejecting that human beings can know truth, finally can’t be tolerant. If all opinions are equal, then any opinion can also be rejected as a greater utility undergirds the probability of society moving in one direction rather than another: the ends will justify the means.

A republic, Kendall said, cannot long thrive and succeed if it’s not prepared to defend and maintain its conception of justice, of the good, and of how its citizens should live together in what they affirm and in what they reject. Such a society will slowly come apart at the seams as its citizens increasingly look at one another and realize they have no core beliefs and principles that they hold in common. The result will be apathy, anger, and aggression as civilized argument becomes impossible to sustain because the public square is no longer upheld by a consensus about who the “We the people” really are.

This, ultimately, was the issue involved in the Joseph McCarthy hearings, Kendall reasoned. He detailed a series of arguments the McCarthy hearings engaged and the reasons why Americans favored and opposed him, but the key question, Kendall highlighted, that McCarthy raised was if an American could espouse communist beliefs regardless of whether those beliefs were capable of actually being implemented in American government. Senator McCarthy answered “no” to this question, and his opponents could not abide that answer. Communism was illegal in word and deed, McCarthy and his followers held. And that inaugurated the nearly warlike drama that unfolded around him.

This is a hard teaching and many struggle even to consider it, but it should not be casually dismissed. The constitutional morality of Publius, exemplified by deliberation, depends on Americans believing in and loving their country. We find ourselves increasingly adrift as a people and yet dominated by an ontological relativism that constantly leaves us unsure of who we are and of what we should do.

Kendall told us to make a patriotic decision in defense of our country because it is built on sound moral and political premises found in our American inheritance of the great Western tradition. Neither Mill nor Progressive elites should get the last word on what it means to be an American.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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