Brad DeLong is surely right on balance (contra Henry Farrell) to say that the Goldwaterites objectively aided the liberal cause by generating the 1964 Democratic landslide, and that their long-run “victory” in the form of Reagan and Bush II consisted, in policy terms, mostly of rolling back modest portions of the legislation that couldn’t have been passed in the first place without what he calls the conservatives’ “Samson act.” (Careful there, Brad; if you start comparing your political opponents to famous terrorists who committed mass murder/suicide, someone might call you “uncivil.”)
But political movements aren’t just about making policy; they’re about acquiring power for individuals and social networks. “Tory men and Whig measures” is a good deal for the beneficiaries of Whig policies, but it’s also a good deal for Tory politicians and power brokers. As Goldwater himself said, “A party without a principle is nothing more than a conspiracy to seize power.” (And he hadn’t even met Karl Rove.) What Goldwater — himself a true believer rather than a careerist — didn’t consider is that the success of such a conspiracy could be a perfectly satisfactory outcome to those involved with it. Bob Dole, who didn’t inherit a department store and who said that he entered politics because it offered “Inside work and no heavy lifting,” wouldn’t have made Goldwater’s mistake.
On one vital dimension, conservatism has triumphed in policy terms. Current laws, policies, and economic arrangements are much more favorable to extreme wealth, and in particular to inherited wealth and to the people at the very tippy-top of the corporate pyramid, than they have been since the 1920s. Goldwaterism was a loser from the perspective of the little old ladies in tennis shoes, but it was a huge winner from the perspective of the upper tenth of one percent of the income distribution.