Few men would confuse the late Willmoore Kendall for a Southern gentleman. The son of a blind Oklahoma Southern Methodist preacher, the conservative political philosopher married three times, and carried on numerous affairs. A regular contributor to National Review, Kendall was once caught with a copy girl in the office of a colleague in NR spaces. He was an alcoholic, and occasionally appeared inebriated during courses at Yale, where he taught for fourteen years. He was notoriously quarrelsome, not only with liberal sparring partners, but his closest conservative allies. Reid Buckley, younger brother of NR founder Bill, remembered Kendall as a man who “never lost a polemic but could not keep a friend.”
Nor do some of Kendall’s most famous opinions easily align with those popular in the South. He criticized political theorist Harry Jaffa’s understanding of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency not on the grounds that Lincoln had overstepped his constitutional authority, but because Kendall believed no philosopher-president was situated to improve upon the Constitution (Jaffa in response called Kendall a neo-Confederate and fan of Calhoun, labels Kendall rejected). Kendall’s concern was less with Lincoln himself, but that someone after Lincoln might grossly overstep executive authority and undermine the body politic.
Kendall’s political opinions could certainly be idiosyncratic. He was an opponent of the civil rights movement, though he believed the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a kind of victory, because it was produced via a deliberative process that averted a much more radical turn had the civil rights movement achieved all of its demands. Nor was Kendall what one might call a classic “states’ rights” proponent, though he defended the states as components of the federal republic. Rather, Kendall viewed Congress as the supreme branch of American government, both within the federal government and over the states.
And yet southern is likely the moniker that best fits Kendall, who was sympathetic to southern culture, tradition, and politics. His brand of conservatism as articulated in The Conservative Affirmation argues that conservatism doesn’t oppose change writ large, but only change in those directions that eschew inherited principles that are themselves products of “rational deliberation moving from sound political and moral premises.” Kendall identified what he called a “battle line” drawn between conservatives and liberals, pre-dating the Civil War, defined by a liberal offensive against traditional cultural practices and mores, be they familial, social, or sexual. It is there that conservative southerners can find common ground with Kendall, who eventually repudiated his prodigal youth, converting to Catholicism and ending his career at the University of Dallas, whose department of politics he founded and chaired.
One place where Kendall’s gentlemanly qualities are evident is in regard to what he proposes as the basic principles that should govern political discourse. He explains:
Do not suppress evidence, do not place reliance on rhetoric in lieu of demonstration, do not stack the cards, do anticipate and attempt to deal with at least obvious objections to a given line of argument, do use terms univocally, do take your opponents’ case at its strongest and, preferably, as it is put by its most distinguished defender.
If only these principles were regularly put into practice, how much more substantive and effective would our debates be in the public square, and how much more would our discourse be defined by respect rather than point-scoring.
Daniel McCarthy observes in his foreword to Kendalls’s book that the very structure of our mixed regime orients towards a system of compromise and respect. Kendall, says McCarthy, believed that the Constitution and the teachings of The Federalist preserve democracy by “bringing out the best (and suppressing the worst) within the people.” McCarthy explains:
They do this not simply by pitting one power against another through checks and balances among branches of government and the use of faction to counter faction within the legislature of a large republic. One of Kendall’s most original insights is his recognition of the flip side to the checks upon power: in order to use power well and effectively amid all these restraints, voters and their representatives must embrace a ‘constitutional morality’ that encourages deliberation and wide satisfaction, even among legislative minorities.
This “majority principle” — by which even small factions are heard and their demands considered — is still evident in Congress and in individual states and districts, and certainly something Southerners with their provincialism and love for the local can appreciate.
Kendall argues that the Founders instituted a form of government that is representative in character, rather than the electorate making decisions by plebiscite. And this representative quality is found preeminently in Congress, especially the lower house, which Kendall termed “a stronghold of entrenched minorities.” Congress is bicameral, and its members are chosen in elections intentionally staggered to prevent waves of popular enthusiasm. It “overrepresents” rural and agricultural communities and interested. “It reflects, in a word, the anti-democratic, anti-majority-rule bias of the Framers, who notoriously distrusted human nature.”
Yet progressives often have a very different, more positive conception of human nature in contrast, which explains their approval of the principle of “one-man one-equal-vote.” We see this today, as Kendall saw it then, in their disapproval of the Senate, the electoral college, and the filibuster. Taken to its logical end, this would also entail making the House of Representatives based solely on numerical majorities, rather than the populations of states. Everything must be leveled in the progressive political vision. This is the egalitarian principle, which posits not only that men are created equal, but that they must be made equal.
The left’s embrace of this overarching principle explains why they favor the executive branch as a means of achieving its ends, because unlike the legislative branch, comprised of many competing factions, it is a behemoth that represents the “will of the people” in a broader democratic sense. While Congress sees “pork barrel” practices as honoring the needs of various constituencies, the executive branch seeks to forestall them in the sake of the “national” interest. While Congress is more hesitant in regards to foreign policy, the executive branch is more aggressive and willing to commit significant financial and military resources to far-flung places. And while Congress is viewed as full of ne’er-do-wells and eccentrics, the executive branch is (supposedly) full of enlightened experts and technocrats capable of deciding what is best for voters.
McCarthy, channeling Kendall in the foreword, notes that presidential elections demonstrate the defects of a national plebiscitary conception of democracy. Candidates make broad, unfeasible promises that find wide support only because of their utopian character. Once in power, presidents are then free to pursue a different agenda of their own choosing, while unelected permanent bureaucrats set their own course for policy. Failed attempts by the Reagan and Trump administrations to rein in the federal bureaucracy demonstrates how entrenched (and powerful) the executive branch has become.
One example of this problem in action is even more relevant than when Kendall raised it sixty years ago. Kendall notes that traditional immigration quotas were established on the premise that the United States would prefer immigrants from nations similar to its own Anglo-American culture, since such immigrants would more easily assimilate into American society. (Consider, alternatively, the current controversy over attempts by California legislators to curb the influence of the Indian caste system, a social, religious, and political system that does not even view all people as equal, and which is now being employed against lower-caste Indian-Americans.)
Finally, I’ll leave the reader with Kendall’s curious reflections on free speech. The Oklahoman argues that this long hallowed right should not be viewed as universal, but only in societies in which citizens have in some sense contracted with one another to conduct their affairs on such a basis or treat each other as equals. Moreover, Kendall cites a sociological study from the 1950s in which the researchers found, much to their surprise, that many Americans actually possessed quite restrained opinions about free speech. A majority of them, for example, would not permit communist or atheists to speak in their local communities, teach in their public schools, or have their books represented in their libraries. “One begins to suspect,” Kendall wryly observes, “that the true American tradition is less that of our Fourth of July orations and our constitutional law textbooks, with their cluck-clucking over the so-called preferred freedoms, than, quite simply, that of riding somebody out of town on a rail.”
Ironically (and worryingly), modern-day local attempts to ride educators and librarians out on a rail for their promotion of LGBTQ+ ideology and critical race theory have often been investigated (and stymied) by that same overreaching executive branch and federal bureaucracy Kendall warned of more than a half-century ago. The traditions and mores of local communities must become subject to an egalitarian utopian future, in which many of the diverse factions of our nation have little or no say not only about our national government, but even the education of their own children. Perhaps that cantankerous Oklahoman was onto something about those battle lines.