In my time, the idea of conservatism has been turned upside down. Men in my family wore neckties even when just reading the paper at home.
Conservatives such as Dwight Eisenhower were moderate and modest. Vice President Richard Nixon illustrated this by telling how his wife favored a respectable cloth coat. One could believe we had government of the people, for the people and by the people.
Our country had real upward mobility. There was a relatively smooth continuity from lower to higher income. Any one person's niche was within a spectrum of respectable achievement and better possibility, which encouraged hard work and hope.
Children seemed able to stand on their parents' shoulders and rise to greater heights. Of course there were political differences. But there was a balance between union organizations and business, and blue-collar workers could sustain and advance their families.
Now we have moved from dissension to outright division in our society. The poor are poorer, and the rich are much richer. The gulf between is wider than ever. And the workings of the Congress have moved from debate and compromise to dispute, disparage and standoff. Conservatives say, "My way or the highway!"
A lot of us are in pain: economic, social and personal pain. It is like a cloak of demoralization that suffocates our grasp of options, even our sense of what is wrong. It sponsors the yearning for a target.
The Republican primary candidates are roaring with energy, shining their flashlights into these dark corners to prove that their party is not at fault. Each one has a kind of answer. The conservative agenda is becoming radicalized.
Some thrash about at President Barack Obama, saying he is weak and a socialist. Others proclaim an urgent need for the leadership they want to offer.
They gloss over how their party reaches to craft stumbling blocks for every idea not its own, or how their own president ran the government from surplus into gaping deficit with two reckless wars on the charge card while reducing taxes for those most able to contribute.
The thrust reaches to entice the rich into rewarding politicians who help them garner their wealth. Political dependency and corrupt collusion with lobbyists are condoned.
Nevertheless, the dependency is "bad" when those forced into poverty have to rely on government benefits for unemployment or health or disability.
Those desperately going into debt for food are irresponsible and should tighten their belts and let their children go hungry. The Scrooge-like advice from the rich for the poor is too often such.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says his goal is to reduce deficits, but underneath this holy mantra is the determination never to raise taxes.
In the balancing of taxation with government services -- services are what he would cut. This hollow "freedom from government" tops freedom from hunger for the conservatives.
They seek to glorify the self-made man, as if leadership is not basically a collaborative achievement.
We have a society in which the wealthy are hoarding everything that their power allows, not what the constructive dictates of fairness would suggest.
The power of corporate employers wants never to be confronted by any corresponding coalition of working people. This worsens our dysfunctional disparity of incomes, of fairness and adds to the increasing division of our society.
So when you hear that the government is too big, know that programs provided to protect the health and well-being of average working Americans are being challenged.
Similarly the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was challenged by trying to prevent the appointment of a person to head the agency. Conservatives claim the agency is not accountable for its actions.
Mitt Romney divisively said that Jon Huntsman disqualified his candidacy by having been an Obama ambassador. Ron Paul unashamedly asserts that property rights trump human rights. Rick Santorum opposes "giving money to others who did not earn it," and Newt Gingrich suggests that food stamps go disproportionately to blacks (most, in fact, go to working whites). Perry wants to "take America back" from those who have "no work ethic."
What they all harangue about is the redistributive and regulatory governance we have constructed since the Depression.
As E.J. Dionne points out in The Daily Star published for the weekend of Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, the president's defense of principles that helped make ours a society for all also makes Obama the conservative candidate "in the truest sense of that word."
William Masters can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.