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...