Conservatism is an uncertain term, appropriated over the last three centuries to apply to varying kinds of political assertion or belief. There are few people today who, even though they would call themselves true conservatives, would ally themselves, for instance, with a position which defends monarchism and the divine right of kings, though that position was once considered a key tenet of that tendency. As society has changed, so have visions and versions of political partisanship.
Parties and thinkers have adopted so-called "conservative" attitudes to respond to the needs of a changing world. In a pre-industrial society, conservatism did not have to account for the rise of the factory system, the middle class, and organized labor. The development of socialism, universal suffrage, the ending of slavery and the servitude, were responses to the concentration of capital, the exploitation of the working class.
At the end of the first decade of the new century, competing definitions of conservatism threaten to fragment traditional constituencies, making enemies of old friends, and unlikely bedfellows out of old foes.
Fair warning: I've never considered myself anything like a conservative, but my faith in progressive liberal pretensions has decayed over the years. I was raised in an impoverished, but basically conservative, household. Whereas economically, our family should have had a natural sympathy with a liberal political view, my parents tended towards a traditional view. Raised in the Midwest, they had supported FDR and Truman, but had voted for Stevenson and Kennedy. But in the 1960's, they turned, voting for Reagan as Governor in California, and (grudgingly) giving the nod to Nixon in 1968. I was forced to attend church as a boy, though my parents refused to do so. During the late 1960's, when I was radicalized by the Vietnam War, I became alienated from my parents, and we never reconciled.
Throughout most of my adulthood, I've considered myself a sort of "lapsed liberal independent"--supporting Democratic candidates across the board, though acknowledging, with increasing frustration, the essential corrupted nature of both major parties--neither of whom, I think it's fair to say, represent the interests of the general population. I tend to regard the Tea Party movement as a confused rabble of benighted fools, seduced by carpet-bagging corporate and capitalist interests, who've been manipulated into advocating policies and positions which are diametrically opposed to their own interests.
What would a "true conservative" agenda look like? Here's a talking-points list of principles, out of which a rational political program could be constructed:
Population. World population growth is totally out of control. 9/10ths of the world's problems are the consequence of over-crowding, stressed resource, and competition for dwindling stocks. As a public policy, every nation on the earth should have a no-growth provision. Conservation should mean quality of life, not simply expansion (quantity).
Consolidation (instead of constant growth). Economic theory over the last 200 years has been dominated by the growth paradigm which drove the Industrial Revolution, and the occupation and "development" of the earth. This expansionist bubble has had many good, and many bad effects; but we're clearly at the end of this phase. Any economic policy which drives population growth, and constant expansion and/or consumption of resource use, and land, should be abandoned.
Nationalism. Nationalism has gotten a bad name over the last century, principally because it became associated with negative applications. As a form of division and allocation, the creation of nation-states is a natural development of the common interests of regional and local groups and geographical limits. Nations are formed to bring order and structure to social and economic affairs. The simplest interpretation of nationalist government would be to foster the interests of the citizens of a given nation. The establishment of a priority of self-interest and prosperity should be the driving motive force behind nationalism. Any national government which did not perform this function, would be a failure. True conservative policies would foster the prosperity of its citizens--before any other priority.
Preservation of resource and the environment. We now know that mankind is one part of a whole interactive, interdependent ecosystem. That system is finite. Man's imagination of his place in the universe must acknowledge these limits, and husband the earth's bounty in such a way that our planet may survive. The present rate of consumption and soiling/desecration is unsustainable. Population control is one priority. The others are preservation of resource from over-exploitation, and the setting aside of the remaining unspoiled precincts for posterity's appreciation, and the oxygen-nitrogen balance.
Isolationist Foreign Policy and Foreign Aid. There are certainly instances in which conflict and the needs of other nations may justifiably draw a nation into alliances, wars and spontaneous altruistic gifting. But a nation's first priority must be to preserve its own security, and the welfare of its own citizens. Nations should not engage in policies and actions abroad which cause their own citizens to sacrifice and suffer needlessly. Alliances may preserve peace, but they often cause a widening of conflicts which might otherwise be limited. The United States, for instance, did not directly intervene in the long Iran-Iraq War--which in retrospect certainly seems prudent. Our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, however, now appear to have been grave errors--campaigns in which we expended great wealth to no real purpose whatsoever. True conservatism begins at home: Preservation of a nation's wealth, is the first priority. With the luxury of prosperity, modest kinds of aid are possible. But "nation-building" is far beyond the meaning of this kind of limited charity. Democracy, if it is to prosper, must grow from within. It cannot be "imposed" from without. This is one of the lessons of the modern world.
Separation of church (and capital) from government. Religious doctrine and influence have no place in a true parliamentary democracy. Similarly, the power of capital to control government through influence and co-option of the means of dissemination of information must be limited. The buying of government should be a crime. The right of the people to worship and congregate should not be abridged, but no single faith should be allowed to exert influence through government.
The Family. The nuclear family is the most successful social institution in history. When people lived in tribes or small bands, other kinds of loose organization may have made more sense. But since the advent of agricultural settlement and the domestication of animals, the potential stability of customary social arrangements has made the family unit indispensable. Pressures threatening the viability of heterosexual contract notwithstanding, the use and value of the family, both for the conception and raising of children, and the focus upon normalized sexual interaction, remains unchallenged. Every effort should be directed towards preserving the hetero-sexual family unit.
Much has been made in recent decades about the higher purposes to which political organization might be directed. So-called "humanitarian" priorities have tended to get the best press. One hears the "one world" phrase brought forward, to justify certain kinds of policies. But we are manifestly not "one world"--we are a group of nations, each of which has differing priorities. Where our priorities as nations overlap--as, for instance, in the matter of global warming, its causes and possible cures--there can be a basis for international cooperation. Common interests may facilitate common efforts. But as citizens of different nations, national priorities still must take precedence over international ones. It is not our business, for instance, to see to Chinese prosperity, or African prosperity, or Mexican prosperity, over and above that of our own. In fact, in many instances, our attempts to assist other nations or groups, either through outright gifts, or through military actions, have had counterproductive affects. In areas where famine is a cyclical process, artificially propping up indigent populations, without instituting controls over their population growth, has had the net result of exacerbating the cycle, with each subsequent crisis worse than the last.
Another priority we've heard espoused, in America, is that of the freedom of capital, to act independent of restriction. The "pursuit of happiness" has been co-opted by those who would redefine that implicitly fair concept in terms of privilege--the right to exploit labor and resource for purely personal gain. But we all know that such "privilege" is not an inherent, unlimited "right"--and that limits are what government regulation of human affairs are about. We don't grant the "freedom" of some individuals to impose intolerable burdens on society, just as we don't allow people to maim and murder each other. Preventing an oil drilling corporation from polluting the ground-water of an entire region, is not an unwarranted "abridgment" of the freedom of capital to act in its own self-interest: There is a higher interest which a society places on its own well-bring, than the drive for wealth or power.
These are just a few notes on what might constitute a true "conservative" agenda at this point in our history. I don't expect anyone to agree with my version.