When GOP candidates and sympathizers use the word conservative, what are they talking about? I wonder about it because I do not relate to anything that follows that word in contemporary usage as being conservative. Candidates Romney, Gingrich and Santorum each gave the word necessary lip service at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. Romney went so far as to declare himself a “severely conservative governor” and used the word conservative more than 20 times in a 25 minute speech. That is hardly a conservative way of using any word.
Consider the etymology of the word. Conservative appeared as a name for a British political faction in 1831, replacing the 150-year-old word Tory, which had become a pejorative term. However, conservatism is not a political system as American politicians imply. Instead, it is a shared preference for things that are established, such as institutions and customs, and a desire to preserve them. But that’s etymology for you.
Romney made the distinction that conservatives are a political faction. He told his CPAC audience that he was “the only candidate, Republican or Democrat, to never work a day in Washington. I don’t have old scores to settle or decades of cloakroom deals to defend. As conservatives, you learn to be skeptical of this city and its politicians, and right you are.”
Jimmy Carter said much the same thing and became an outsider elected president. Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter as a Washington outsider. Romney says the words conservative and outsider, but he does not appear to be either.
Reagan led a conservative crusade that began with the failed candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Whether or not Reagan would be considered a conservative by today’s Republican standards is debatable, as is Goldwater’s conservatism. The problem is that in contemporary usage, the word conservative seems to require modifiers, such as extreme or arch. Or conservative requires being associated with a name, such as Reagan or Goldwater.