The Foreword to the new book “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition.”
The Right’s Populist Prophet
Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall
By Christopher Owen
Lexington Books 2021
If conservatives seek perspective on the controversies they now face within their ranks—to say nothing of the ideological blows launched by the left on our constitutional order—Willmoore Kendall should become the cornerstone of their understanding. A new biography of Kendall by Christopher Owen, Heaven Can Indeed Fall, provides a compelling, in-depth opening to the investigation. Owen does not provide the reader with layered textual analysis of Kendall’s political thought. Rather, he seeks to contextualize his ideas, which he does well, while giving an insightful look into Kendall’s difficult life and the ways his experiences as professor, psychological warfare officer, conservative writer, and intellectual pugilist shaped the singular excellence of his written work.
Along the way, Owen takes us into the ideological wars that roiled American politics in the mid-20th century and shaped conservative thought. Kendall was part of these conservative contretemps, but his ideas about constitutional morality and deliberative process have never had a decisive impact on the larger public debate. This book, if heeded, could begin to turn that tide.
Kendall, Owen argues in his introduction, is a theorist of conservative populism. He “insisted that ‘we the people’ must be able to make the most important political decisions.” Owen observes that “Kendall viewed his chief work as championing the people.” And therein lies the puzzle that has occluded his work’s significance for many observers. What does it mean exactly to champion the people? And what’s necessarily conservative about populism? Populism threatens to unleash the roused passions of the masses upon government and can be used as much for progressive causes as conservative ones. And on the democratic sovereignty business, progressives emphatically make similar declarations, building their entire project on “we the people.” Yet according to Owen when we see Kendall “both as a populist and a conservative … his quirkiness disappear[s].”
Kendall’s academic output centered on theorizing the sovereignty of the people and their authority to govern themselves rather than being held as subjects fit for riding by various segments of elite power. Here is the basis for considering Kendall a populist: he articulated “a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.” Kendall’s majoritarianism over the course of his career moved from a progressive absolute majoritarianism to a more qualified concept in tune with Madisonian constitutionalism—an understanding that would mark his most productive output, which he advanced (notably in his 1963 book, The Conservative Affirmation) as a recovery of constitutional thinking against the dominance of the executive and judicial branches. He employed Publius’s phrase “the deliberate sense of the community” as the lodestar for political decisions. Kendall’s conservative populism entailed a recovery of Publius’ morality for constitutional politics.
His opponents were those who demanded comprehensive solutions to problems and whose insistence on the supremacy of their solution meant that it could not be made subject to public debate, at least of the kind that would involve legislative deliberation and compromise. These were primarily liberals, Kendall stressed, but also conservatives at times. Progressive politics “took decision-making out of the hands of the people” and dispensed with the balancing of social goods. As Kendall remarked in a lecture at the University of Dallas: “These are the people who are going to do justice, let heaven fall where it may. And I say to them, heaven can indeed fall and that it can hurt some of the heads it hits mighty bad.” Kendall’s conservative populism sought balance among the six goods of the preamble to the Constitution: Union, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare, and liberty. Deliberation among representatives of the discrete and diverse communities across America could uphold and harmonize these goods in a manner befitting a constitutional republic.
We should therefore consider community—specifically of the Oklahoma type—to gain greater perspective on Kendall’s wisdom. Born in 1909, Kendall was the son of a talented and reforming (and blind) Methodist minister who muted the fact that he did not actually believe in the Gospel’s revealed truth. Something of a tough-minded humanitarian, the minister risked his status and even safety in his opposition to America’s entry into World War I; he also opposed the Ku Klux Klan, which was an institution in Oklahoma during the ’20s and ’30s. Kendall’s childhood was spent moving every few years to different towns in Oklahoma following a father who was regularly rotated by the Methodist conference. As Owen observes, Kendall grew up within the webs of the small towns of Oklahoma. He knew their flaws and their mercies well. He also came to know the virtuous people that he would point to as the basis of the Constitution’s power and moral gravity. They lived American liberty “in their hips,” Kendall said.
Frequently frustrated in his vocation, the elder Kendall lamented not having chosen a more lucrative profession. He also noticed early the immense intellect of his son, who demonstrated his capabilities as a child. And here probably was a source of the frustration and anger that Willmoore would show during much of his adult life, imperiling his career and relationships. Kendall’s father exercised a domineering authority over him at times and gained esteem from his son’s achievements, leading him to drive and control Kendall even more.
Kendall was something of a child prodigy. He was accepted to Northwestern University at age 14, but never quite fit and struggled academically. He would eventually graduate from the University of Oklahoma and earn a Rhodes Scholarship, matriculating at Pembroke College at Oxford University. R.G. Collingwood was his tutor in political theory, and it was from Collingwood, Owen reports, that Kendall gained his methods of analysis, which he applied to brilliant effect in his academic career. These involved an almost prosecutorial reading of the text, carefully weighing each sentence against the others, interrogating the text’s real purposes and determining if it met them. While studying, Kendall lived for a time in Madrid and worked as a journalist for UPI, reporting on Spanish politics with a distinctly leftist tone, though he departed before the civil war erupted.
Kendall would eventually earn a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He taught at Louisiana State University, Hobart College, the University of Richmond, Yale, Stanford, Los Angeles State College, and ended his career at the University of Dallas, where he founded the graduate program in politics that used close study of great political books for its method. Owen notes that at Dallas Kendall’s capabilities as a Socratic teacher were fully appreciated. He never failed to attract students and earned their respect and admiration. They sensed his erudition but also Kendall’s daring and logically informed search for the truth. At Dallas, Kendall’s conservatism and aggressive personality were received well by a Catholic student body that loved learning about politics from master thinkers. It was not uncommon, Owen says, for students to have “Kendall for King” paraphernalia.
His preceding sojourn at Yale had been marked by controversies. Kendall shed his leftism during his time as a psychological warfare officer in World War II. Kendall became convinced that America was fundamentally good and needed to be defended from enemies foreign and domestic. The liberal mind would slowly lose America; by permitting everything it could defend nothing. Kendall was extraordinarily effective as an intelligence officer, operating in various capacities as a propagandist for American interests in Latin America and an analyst in Washington. From these experiences he learned of the ease with which communists moved in the federal government. Progressives either did not care or were apathetic about their presence. At Yale after the war Kendall became a lightning rod for controversy as he defended what were viewed on campus as the despicable anti-communist tactics of the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Kendall’s contention was that every regime is built on and enforces an orthodoxy. He went so far as to defend, in a brilliant essay, the execution of Socrates, which, he notes, even Socrates did not resist. The philosopher’s aim was to undermine Athens’ understanding of its own purposes. The jury that condemned him was charged with the defense of the city and its laws. Socrates had to go. Similarly, communists in America preached ideas and political goals that would undermine America at a foundational level. They, too, had to be controlled. Kendall never departed from his commitment to the people’s right to govern themselves, including by providing for their security—even if it meant limiting aspects of individual freedom.
Kendall viewed Joseph McCarthy’s red-hunting mission as a defense of the people not only from the communists but from those elites who failed to grasp the situation. In this, Kendall was of one mind with a star student of his at Yale, William F. Buckley Jr. He helped Buckley edit his first book, the landmark God and Man at Yale, published in 1951. Buckley attributed the book’s most “provocative” statement directly to Kendall: the view “that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. … [and] that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” Owen finds the framework of Buckley’s book to be fundamentally Kendallian in its themes of “distrust of experts,” that freedom must have limits, concerning the need for orthodoxy, and support for democratic university governance.
When Buckley launched National Review in 1955, Kendall was among the magazine’s senior editors and wrote a regular column, “The Liberal Line.” Owen unpacks for us the strains that eventually developed in the relationship between teacher and pupil, which at length led to Kendall’s disassociation from National Review and Buckley. Had Buckley not at last become Kendall’s teacher, Owen wonders, as Kendall’s alcoholism and personality conflicts created problems not just for Kendall but for Buckley and those around them? Buckley’s counsel was at times angrily scorned by Kendall. His penchant for interpersonal conflict served him poorly in academia, particularly at Yale, where his right-wing positions elicited strong opposition from his colleagues. Knowing that his prospects for promotion were bleak and tired of working in an atmosphere of faculty rejection, he left Yale thanks to a somewhat generous buyout of his tenure by the university.
Kendall was married three times. His last marriage was one of enduring love. It was preceded by Kendall’s conversion to Catholicism: he married Nellie Cooper after having two marriages annulled simultaneously by the Vatican, with well-connected faculty at Dallas making direct appeals to Rome. He would die in his sleep in 1967. But Kendall’s words—collected in The Conservative Affirmation, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (which George W. Carey finished after his death), and Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum—are there for us to recover and reexamine. Since Kendall’s death conservatives have in many respects opted for more ideological profiles or have sought one goal to the exclusion of the balance between several goods that Kendall believed public order required. Yet we now confront an unmistakable attempt by the left to purge core constitutional ideas and replace them with the confused theology of identity politics. We need to learn from Kendall how to defend the constitutional right of the people to govern themselves in their own name.
Richard M. Reinsch II is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a columnist for The Daily Signal.
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