Conservatism is a complex term these days, lots of people claim to be conservative, yet they can agree on nearly nothing. In fact, conservatism has become a catch-all term which really refers to nothing classically conservative, it’s become a word applied to things hoping to attract conservative votes to things which are demonstrably not conservative in nature.
The reality is, the modern Republican Party is not conservative. It is Neo-Conservative. Most of the powers-that-be in the modern Republican Party were hardcore religious Southern Democrats who abandoned the party in the 1960s and 1970s over issues like civil rights and abortion. They joined the Republicans with the goal of taking over the party and that’s exactly what they’ve done. The modern Republican Party is fiscally liberal and fundamentalist Christian. Neither of these things are classically conservative.
Believe it or not, you don’t have to be religious to be a conservative. In fact, conservatism doesn’t take religion into account at all. One of the fundamental beliefs of conservatives is keeping government, and that includes government-endorsed religion, out of people’s lives. Abortion and gay-rights would never be a part of a conservative platform, except to say that the government has no place in deciding for people what to think on these issues. The government needs only to ensure equality of rights to all Americans. Conservatism, unlike the impression many liberals would like to give, does not oppose rational change, it just opposes change simply for the sake of change. Given a good reason to abandon traditional positions which have worked for years, change is always a viable option. However, there’s no reason to abandon a position which does work in favor of another which has yet to be demonstrated, simply because someone seeks change.
In the modern political vernacular, since the religious fundamental right-wing has claimed a spot at the far-end of batshit crazydom, conservatives would be fiscally conservative and socially moderate. Conservatism shares many of the same core values as the more moderate, responsible libertarians, which is why libertarians can often be found under the umbrella of conservatism. Again, there are a lot of wingnut libertarians, like there are a lot of wingnut neo-conservatives, which run off down the primrose path of insanity, which make it difficult to include their parties wholesale under conservatism.
Conservatism requires, as it’s core value, personal responsibility. This theme runs through every other aspect of the view and whenever you’re confused if a particular idea may be conservative, ask yourself how personal responsibility applies to it. Almost without exception, if it matches with the idea of personal responsibility, it very well may be a conservative value.
So what does this mean in the political sphere? It means small government. Not no government, as many on the libertarian side might like, but a small, effective, necessary government. There are things we need the government to do such as national defense, maintaining the law, representing the will of the people, etc. Beyond that, the government has little it ought to be doing. It means fiscal responsibility, not spending more than you have to spend, something both parties have serious problems doing these days. While there can be times when running at a deficit can be warranted, that is a short-term solution to a serious problem and ought not happen often. It does not set up a nanny state where the majority of people receive checks from the government, at best it may help people to get back on their feet in the short term and once there, recind any payments and perhaps even require the money be paid back out of new earnings. Some things, like unemployment insurance, that has already been paid for out of the checks of working individuals, certainly would not have to be repaid, but most anything else, the government doesn’t owe the citizens anything, especially since tax rates ought to be kept low to begin with.