When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, someone who called him or herself "politically conservative" often fell into the category of Main Street Republican; the self made small business owner, who embraced the values of an honest wage for an honest days work; who felt competent to make sensible, unregulated decisions for his business and community, resulting in a positive economic and social environment in which to raise a family. Sensible, clear eyed, self motivated and community oriented were features of this individual's profile.
Today conservative conjures all sorts of conflicting images, from Tea Party xenophobes to Christian fundamentalists, from big business monied gentry to imperialist militarists, from new "austerity" advocates to anti-green science and technology throwbacks.
Theodore Roosevelt loved the self made man as did Ann Ryan, but having suffered terribly as an asthmatic child, there was a part of TR who embraced the idea of offering a hand to the less fortunate with a belief that they too could prosper even if they required some incubator time. Ryan on the other hand, was the ultimate Darwinist; throw off the shackles of civilization (government and social programs) and allow the individual to compete; nature is ruthless and only the strong should survive. Her fictional heros combined brute strength and animal magnetism with cunning intelligence and competitive aggressiveness. In real life, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick come to mind. They embodied some, but certainly not all of these attributes
These men (and how the system then excluded women like Rand!) were of the time of America's infancy. They fought the entrenched economic, political and social hierarchy of day, leaning hard on a rapidly changing world where meritocracy was embraced and aristocracy shaken to its roots. These entrepreneurs went on to form the first monopolized cooperate structures on earth, a totally new and untried form of economic system implemented to reduce the boom-bust cycles of the competitive, small business/agricultural capitalistic economy.
As this new form of big business in transportation and energy took hold, one thing became shockingly apparent; the very political/economic system which allowed this form of business to grow was in jeopardy of collapsing unless some form of restraint could be instituted to re-level the playing field between the individual and the non-corporeal corporation. Democracy itself was threatened by the capitalistic economy which was reallocating the nation's wealth from the many to the few, and through big money's influence on government policy, in danger of reproducing the fiefdoms of Europe in which peasant classes were generational captives in a stagnate economic hierarchy.
So in swept "liberalism" as first portrayed by Theodore Roosevelt with the graduated income tax designed to move top-heavy money back into the lower strata of the economy, where in fact, it had originated. After the Great Depression, the second major wave of soc/economic reform was spearheaded by cousin Franklin during his presidency. Liberalism then stood for safe, healthful working conditions, a living wage and a social safety net for those injured, sick or old within the community.
I call myself liberal because I have found the world is not a black and white, and all men are not created equal. I have travelled and lived among the poor and found them to be just as human, animated, caring and worthwhile as any other demographic. Still, I have seen how "conservative" economic policy has purposely created a system to sustain low wages, increasing the profits of an already wealthy elite. I have watched the proliferation of a monopolized media, which does not reflect informational "truth" but is skewed by political dogma and functions as a propaganda machine for its underwriters.
The world does not belong only to property owners or a ruling economic class, it is the home to countless species of plant and animal life of which we are only one. Proper stewardship of the planet should not conflict with economic policy, it should not be twisted to represent the ranting of a misinformed "liberal " coalition, but instead be part of the good sense now referred to as "sustainability."
So what defines a conservative today? Well, if you don't believe that carbon emissions are changing an ever changing environment, if you believe that people should fend only for themselves and not look at their community as their responsibility; if you think the earth stops at the edge of your picket fence, state or nation or if you think that any one man has all the answers, then you probably are a conservative.
However, if you are an aficionado of Theodore Roosevelt, then with continued study you just might become a liberal yet.