Leo Strauss, Willmoore Kendall, and the Meaning of Conservatism

Article excerpt

Since the end of the Cold War, the meaning of conservatism has been the subject of intense debate. This debate has coincided with a revival of interest in the ideas of Leo Strauss, whose political philosophy has influenced American conservatism in particular. Yet the conservative credentials of Strauss have been vigorously questioned, in light of his perceived rejection of history, his apparently unabashed admiration for liberal democracy, and his skepticism about the political value of revealed truth. While I shall show that Strauss is reliably conservative on the issues of history and democracy, I shall also contend that a comparison of Strauss's ideas with those of the American populist conservative Willmoore Kendall reveals that Strauss did not share the conservative enthusiasm for the application of biblical ideas to politics.

What is conservatism? Is it simply an older version of liberalism? Which traditions do conservatives "conserve" in an age of modern change? Is conservatism populist or elitist, democratic or aristocratic? Does it support imperialism or isolationism? Which religion, if any, is most compatible with conservatism? Since the end of the Cold War, these traditionally academic questions have drifted into the political arena and often pitted conservatives (especially in the United States) against each other. To date (2004), the American conservative movement's divisions have forced a return to the question of the very meaning of the doctrine.

In the same time period, the ideas of political philosopher Leo Strauss have increasingly become part of this debate over American conservatism. For Strauss and his many students have been credited with (or blamed for) the direction of the conservative movement since the collapse of communism. Some critics on the left have branded Strauss as the major conservative influence on the American intellectual right. One opponent has contended that Strauss is the "godfather" of American neoconservatism, a version of conservatism which has taken hold in American politics since the 1970s. (1) (Indeed, this influence is supposed to be so vast that Straussian ideas have been seen as the guiding foundation of foreign policy under President George W. Bush. Presumably, the planning of the second Gulf War could not have taken place without a nefarious Straussian "clique" in the White House. (2)) Yet critics on the right have argued that Strauss's influence at the political level does not translate into conservatism. Indeed, scholars who consider themselves guardians of the true American conservatism have distinguished this tradition from the ideas of Strauss and his followers.

How exactly do Strauss's ideas compare to American conservatism or even conservatism in general? Despite the fact that his admirers are generally on the political right, can Strauss be called a "conservative" in any sense, American or otherwise? I believe that a comparison of Strauss's ideas with certain premises central to conservatism can elucidate the meaning of his contribution to conservatism in general while shedding light on the meaning of conservatism in particular. Still, such a comparison can be daunting since Strauss himself made no effort to describe himself as a conservative and often criticized the term as too modern for a political philosopher who seeks to transcend modernity in favor of a return to classical political thought. In Liberalism: Ancient & Modern, Strauss described conservatism as "no longer politically important" since it is "identical with what originally was liberalism." (3) Indeed, his long-time correspondent and fellow political philosopher Eric Voegelin once commented that Strauss "did not [do] the work he did, in order to extend comfort to Conservatives." (4) If Strauss, then, disclaimed any association with conservatism, how successful or fruitful can a comparison of his political philosophy with conservatism be?

Any comparison is further complicated by the impression that Strauss, in the eyes of his critics on the right, takes "unconservative" positions on three issues of importance to any conservative political philosopher: the meaning of democracy, history, and revealed truth. …