The words conservative and conservatism have been the subject of an ideological straggle that resembles the tussle over Patroclus’ corpse described in the Iliad—as violent as it is futile: Both words are dead. Originally, conservatives were supporters of the establishment who did not like to be called Tories—a more full-blooded term. By the 1830’s, there were no real Jacobites to restore a non-existent pretender, and conservatives were out to preserve the traits of a revolution that had made the fortunes of so many powerful families.
In America, “conservative” was applied to defenders of the status quo, which by the 20th century meant plutocracy. Franklin Roosevelt could be accused of conservatism because he always worked for the interest of his own class, while Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken rejected the label because it meant little more than “shill for the rich.”
For a brief period, roughly between the end of the Korean War and the election of Ronald Reagan, “conservatism” implied a chaotic set of principles that included individual liberty, private property, respect for civilized order, and morality, but by the mid-50’s, the term was legitimately applied to the defenders of a status quo represented by multinational corporations and the national bureaucracy.
The usual alternative to “conservatism” is “the right,” which originally denoted the more tepid supporters of red revolution in France. Both terms have always represented the more moderate version of the revolutionary movements that find their fullest expression in Leninist Russia and the New Deal.
Marxists know what they are for; conservatives, typically, only know what they are against—sort of, because when “what they are against” becomes the status quo, then they are for it, at least up to the point where it might have tax consequences.
The only real alternative to “conservatism” would be a term like “Christendom” that stood for something positive and enduring, but that would mean taking a stand, like Martin Luther or Thomas More or Charles A. Lindbergh, and taking a stand can entail unpleasant consequences. It is much nicer and much safer to be either a little liberal or else a little conservative.