Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Sunday Review: The Conservative Affirmation

In 1962, Clinton Rossiter published a revised edition of his Conservatism in America. Rossiter attempted to clarify his analysis of contemporary conservatism and to take into account the latest developments in the so-called “New Conservative” movement that had emerged in the post-war United States. By this time the movement flowed beyond the small group of intellectuals behind the National Review into where it really counted: the political world. L. Brent Bozell’s The Conscience of a Conservative became a best seller and made Barry Goldwater a favorite among those seeking an alternative to mainstream conservatism.

Largely in response to Rossiter’s book, Willmoore Kendall decided to enter the intellectual fray with his publication in 1963 of The Conservative Affirmation. Like Rossiter, Kendall was a university professor. Trained in classical political philosophy, he taught at Yale University, where he established a reputation for getting “a conversation into the shouting range faster than anyone.” His students included National Review founder William F. Buckley. To bring peace and serenity to the halls of Yale’s political science department, administrators bought out his tenure.

Kendall went to work for the National Review. Even there Kendall became known as eccentric in both his views and his behavior. He did not follow the religiously based views of natural moral law embraced by the many Catholic staff members at NR. And his colleagues recall the “Willmoore Kendall Memorial Couch” where he engaged in recreational activities with some NR secretaries between writing pieces for the magazine.

Although probably a response to Rossiter’s work, The Conservative Affirmation appears to be a collection of loosely related essays on conservatism, McCarthyism, free speech and the open society, and recently published books on politics. Kendall writes that his purpose in the book is too identify what he calls the Conservative Affirmation rather than defend it. In this purpose he claims this book differs from other similar works with which it will “rub Dewey-decimals shoulders.” In identifying the Conservative Affirmation, he looks not at any abstract theory crafted by conservative philosophers, but instead at the marketplace where conservatives are engaged.

He defines conservatives as those, who “at any given time and place . . . are defending an established order against those who try to undermine or transform it; and that, in the absence of urgent and express reasons to the contrary, the words “Conservatism” and “Conservatives” should not be used in any other meaning.”

Conservatism “shares with the American political tradition that the United States should be governed by ‘the deliberate sense of the community’ and thus has little to do with so-called conservatives such as John Calhoun and Irving Babbitt. “Its highest political loyalty, in fine, is to the institutions and way of life bequeathed to us by the Philadelphia Convention.”

Although I doubt she ever read Wilmoore Kendall, maybe this is what Sarah Palin meant when she once referred to herself as a "constitutional conservative."

On the question of change, Kendall differs little from other conservative writers. His conservatives “distinguished between change directed at the development and perfection of our heritage and that which it is, and change calculated to transform that heritage as that which is it is not.”

Kendall utilizes a battlefield analogy to illustrate his point. He writes that there obviously must be some line which divides the left from the right. Otherwise, to talk about political differences would be meaningless. At first, in the 19th century, only a few skirmishes took place along the line by those forces on the left. By the 1930s, however, the small groups behind these skirmishes coalesced into a coherent force attacking all along the line. It was only the, according to Kendall, that Conservatives recognized the import of the skirmishes that had been taking place and that a Liberal revolution was underway.

What have been some of these points on the front?

Kendall mentions immigration policy. Historically,  immigration policy rested upon existing shares of the population. This acted in favor of families because immigrants already in the United States funded the immigration of relatives. Liberal politicians, psychologists, sociologists, etc. waged an assault on traditional immigration policy. And we all know now that apparently new policy favoring non -traditional immigrants is not enough. Today liberals act as if we must have open borders.

Liberals incessantly press for reform of tax laws that they hope will prevent anyone from saving money to leave to children or grandchildren. (That would undermine the principle of equal opportunity for those generations that follow).

Liberals push for spending on education also in the name of equal opportunity. Why should anyone’s quality of education depend upon accidents of birth?

Liberals pushed public housing because they thought it unreasonable that “people be expected to save money out of their own income to buy themselves houses to live in.” Of course, now in addition to federal housing projects, the government pressures banks to load money for private housing purchases that the people cannot afford.

Liberals advocated spending policies without regard to a growing national debt. (We owe it to ourselves, don’t we? Now we owe much of it to China.)

Interestingly, these issues never seem to go away, even after 50 years since the publication of the book. Partly this is because issues are never resolved in the minds of liberals. They never run out of reforms. But partly the issues seems to never go away because of the conservative success at blocking what the liberal hope to achieve.

This observation that conservatives have more the most part successfully resisted the encroachments of liberalism serves an an introduction to his next chapter. Kendall explores the tension between the Congress and the President. He sees the Congress as the force of conservatism and the status quo. It is the executive who seems to pursue goals of “high principle” in line with enlightened intellectuals that dominate the universities and the media. It is the executive that wants free trade, open borders, accommodation with the communists, etc. It the Congress that has opposed them. Kendall argues that this tension results from a modern change in our conception of government that has taken place. The Constitution invests legislative power in a Congress to which voters, at least in theory, would send virtuous and talented representatives to deliberate about laws. This is the first majority. The President, in contrast, was a non-representative executive chosen indirectly by an electoral college. With the rise of political parties, the President now a representative executive chosen by voters through an electoral college which is now an archaic formality. Each four year presidential election cycle becomes the “feature attraction” of the political drive in theater. Observers eagerly anticipate the result so that they can discern if voters have accorded some “mandate” to the winning candidate. This is the second majority. Kendall remarks that the conservative intellectual movement has not caught on that it should get behind the Congress in support of its conservative tendencies.

The ultimate issue: Conservatism rests on the Great Tradition of Classical Antiquity: society “ is natural to man; its origin is to be sought in the nature of man, for whose perfection it is necessary. Justice, the principles of right and wrong, and the law are not artificial and man-made, but rather are discovered by man through the exercise of reason. Man, whose nature requires him to strive for his own perfection, has a duty to subordinate himself to justice, the principle of right and wrong, to the law.”

For this reason, Kendall argues that it is an error to assume the founders were followers of Locke, who argued that states rested on different foundations. Lock sees the states as the artificial creations of citizens engaged in a contract about protecting rights. Conservatives err when they accede to such claims. They end up supporting a bill of rights that Liberals used to subvert the existing social order. He says that today’s liberals are the successor of the conventionalists who opposed Plato and Aristotle years ago.

Finally, Kendall addresses a topic largely missing from Kirk and Rossiter. The threat of communism served as one of the cohesives of the post-war conservative movement, yet neither of them mention it. Kendall argues that whatever the controversy about McCarthy and his methods, the bottom line was that conservatives believed in suppressing any domestic movement that threatened our freedom and liberals did not. On the related question of free speech and the open society, Kendall asserts his openness to letting someone “have their say.” But he concludes that free speech or the open society as the compelling organizing principle of our society will only serve to subvert it. If all ideas are equal, then their can be no public truth on which a society can be founded.

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