Did the Goldwaterites win by losing?

Brad DeLong says that the Goldwaterites, far from “winning by losing,” in fact lost by losing. That’s partly true. The true believers lost in policy terms. But right-wing politicos and the ultra-rich won, and won big.

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 &#8212 himself a true believer rather than a careerist &#8212 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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Did the Goldwaterites win by losing?”

  1. My theory? The Rovian Republicans don't really care about these other issues. They whip up the conservatisim (whatever that means) to get the Homer Simpsons of the world to vote for them even though Homer et al. will see their net taxes go up and the net taxes of the rich go down. No – the Rovian Republicans only care about Reverse Robin Hoodism (Dooh Nibor as Krugman once called it) and yes, they are winning this game – FOR NOW.

  2. I am not certain that even in economics, "conservatism has triumphed in policy terms."
    First, much of "conservative" (really, libertarian) economics concentrates on businesses that do not derive their power from the government. Given the increasing role of government in which businesses are successful and which are not, the increase in wealth of the wealthiest businessmen can be seen as a form of successful rent-seeking. Neither Milton Friedman nor the public-choice school would consider that a desirable outcome.
    Second, much of the "economic arrangements are much more favorable to extreme wealth" is unrelated to anything in US domestic policy. I say that confidently because the same phenomenon is observed in France and Germany and Finland, and is the subject of much concern in those countries.
    Lastly, conservatism in mores is fairly feeble. The extremists want to go back to the status quo of 1935, the moderates to the status quo of 1965. Neither of those seems to me to be that extreme.

  3. Actually, the extremists want to go back further, to the Age of Faith. The moderates want the New Deal trimmed back as much as possible (Bush wasn't trying to destroy Social Security purely at random).
    And even taking your statement as stipulated, the moderates would want to destroy feminism and the civil rights revolution; the radicals wish, additionally, to roll back the entire union movement and the New Deal. That sounding good to you says more about you, I'm afraid.

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