How long does it take for a word to become its own opposite? There are lots of words that have usages that are near-opposites ("sanction", for example) and groups of words derived from the same root that have come to be opposites in a way ("host" and "guest", which are related to "hostile" and "ghost"), but the inversion of "conservative" is a curious case, because I've seen it flip in my lifetime.
Once upon a time, to be conservative meant to be prudent and frugal. Conservatives recognized that the institutions of our society did not spring fully formed from the minds of one or two Great Leaders, but are the product of centuries of modification and refinement. A conservative looks at the vast accumulated experience of the common law, and humbly admits that she might not know why this or that rule or maxim was adopted, but assumes that it must be there for a good reason, if it's withstood centuries of testing, and so she applies the sensible principle: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." At the same time, she sees that this process of refinement is ongoing, and that careful incremental adjustments may still be necessary, but always tempered by an awareness that nobody really knows what they're doing well enough to be entrusted with making huge sweeping changes.
I am happy to describe myself as conservative in this sense. As a law student, I enjoyed browsing through the ancient and honest-to-goodness-dusty old law reports, where learned judges now long dead wrote with great care about the reasoning that led to the decisions they delivered, and I was struck at how little has changed in the sorts of ordinary disputes human beings have with each other. We still bicker about who owns what and who owes what to whom and whether or not this or that insult should be compensated and how. We have a lot of experience in resolving these questions, and while it doesn't mean they've become easy, the basic principles of the process, the rules of evidence and the procedural rights of the participants, are exceptionally well-developed.
There are some hints of this meaning still. Conservatives still claim to be motivated by moral values often considered old fashioned, and they like to think of themselves as students of history; it's easy to see how conservatism as I have described it could be associated with an affection for the past, even a preference for the Good Old Days. It's an easy mistake to make, to jump from respecting the refined and polished results of many generations of muddling to concluding that the older generations themselves must have been smarter than today's young whippersnappers. Combine that with the way most of us seem to acquire a sense of entitlement to respect from our juniors as we age, and it's only natural that there be considerable overlap between prudent deference to tradition and curmudgeonly old-fogeyism, and that both of these things would be conflated together under the label "conservatism".
But that overlap has always existed, and isn't the radical flip in meaning I'm talking about. The change I've observed has its roots in the election of Ronald Reagan. The shift was subtle at first. The older, traditionally conservative caution that we today should be careful how we govern because we are prone to error, morphed into a distrust of government itself; the motto "Government is the problem!" became mainstream with Reagan and Thatcher and has become the central tenet of those who today call themselves conservative.
Subtle though the shift itself appears, it is radical, especially when combined with nostalgia for the good old days (which never actually existed) before government came along and ruined everything. The deference conservatives once held for time-tested human institutions, principles and traditions is now paid to The Market, and any government intervention in or tinkering with the Invisible Hand is anathema. Today's conservatives are supremely confident in their own expertise and judgment, and feel perfectly qualified to yank out and discard pieces of the engine of government without knowing or caring what vital functions they might have performed. The goal, as Grover Norquist has put it, is to shrink government down to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.
Once upon a time we would have called this ideology "anarchism". But that word still bears the stigma of bomb-throwing crackpots of the early 20th century, if it is taken seriously at all. The anarchists have achieved quite a coup in seizing for themselves the label of "Conservative", a much more respectable word, with its cachet of common sense and frugality (even if the only thing today's conservatives are now frugal with is common sense).
Today's "Conservative Party of Canada" is by far the least conservative of any of the parties running in this year's federal election. They are radical reformers, having managed to obtain the name "Conservative" when the old Progressive Conservatives disbanded after a particularly disastrous election defeat, and merged with what had formerly been called the Reform Party. "Progressive Conservative" may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't when you recognize that what they're trying to conserve and build upon is the result of centuries of incremental progress. "Reform", however, is much more nearly an opposite to the traditional meaning of "conservative". Yet it is the reformers who today march under the Conservative banner.
So it is richly ironic to hear the campaign rhetoric, playing heavily upon the connotations of "conservative", urging us to be careful, not to take chances, to keep a steady hand on the helm, as if there is anything prudent or cautious about the party currently claiming to be conservative.
You may agree with their decisions to cut funding to Statistics Canada, abolish the long form census and scrap libraries of scientific data that took decades to compile, throwing away important sources of information upon which sound policy decisions can be made. But that's just not conservative.
Maybe you agree with Prime Minister Harper that elections, parliamentary procedures and civil rights are inconvenient obstacles to Getting Things Done, and support his efforts to minimize these checks on his power. But that's just not conservative.
Maybe you think we live in a new and dangerous world, and that the ancient legal rights now codified in our Charter were never designed to contend with anything so shocking as plots of violence against Parliament itself. Maybe you think we need to surrender some of those rights in order to be safe. But that's just not conservative.
Maybe you think we'd all be better off without the CBC or Canada Post or national parks or universal health care. Maybe you are in favour of all of the radical reforms the Harper Government has put into motion. I think these are all really, really bad ideas, but I am fundamentally committed to democracy and your right to support whatever policy platform you want. But understand that Harper's party is really #justnotconservative.