Conservatives believe that people are irrational and selfish, and need a stable authoritative system that induces or compels people to act in the public interest. Conservatives are prone to overlook the historical record of these responsible authorities acting just as irrationally and selfishly as the populace that these authorities are supposed to regulate.
Conservatives are skeptical of social, cultural, and governmental innovations; the big division is between those willing to accept evolutionary change, and those generally opposed to innovations.
Modern conservatism goes back to the reaction against the violence of revolutions and revolutionaries, especially Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte). Conservative intellectuals like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Edmund Burke were also skeptical of the new fashion of rationality (and they were not consoled by Immanuel Kant's answer to Hume). Major conservative politicians tend to be of the evolutionary change variety, e.g., the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft.
Before the Twentieth Century, few prominent Americans called themselves "conservative" (as Daniel Webster did); however, intellectual conservativism was popularized by William Buckley, and is now very influential. During the Gilded Age, authority in America became based on wealth, and conservatives are now often allied with the very rich, as they had been allied with the landed aristocracy when Edmund Burke was in Parliament. The basic tension of conservatism is that the leaders are often no better than the led.
Here it is, in all its glory, The Establishment. The alliance of stodgy pontification and entrenched authority. The aristocracy is in power, and that's the way it should be and should remain.
Befriending and befriended by the aristocracy -- including the current aristocracy of great wealth -- conservatives have never lacked media forums. But like the aristocrats they served, conservatives insist on quality, so the genuinely conservative media tend to be the best in the world. It is a sign of the times that the rise of the Right has been marked by a decline in the old house organs of conservatism.
Conservative thought is in pretty sad shape these days. Conservatives used to dismiss or suppress right wing radicals, but those were the days that there were first class conservative thinkers. Nowadays, most of the energy right of center is in the distinctly non-conservative (and often anti-conservative) Right, and the relatively limp conservatives have more or less caved.
Conservative thought is often supported by the Powers That Be, who often want something (affection, maybe) in return; the result is a tension in conservative thought between conservatism and lapdogism. Witness the tendency of conservatives like Aristotle (a successful lackey of kings) and Confucius (a less successful one) to rationalize the unconservative behavior of their patrons. Nowadays, the Powers That Be indulge in fantasies about how cowboy-esque they are, which leads to the founding and funding of distinctly unconservative Right wing think tanks like those listed at right. But there are institutes that are able to encourage a genuinely conservative course.
Conservative action is intended to defend or revive traditional institutions, from social to communitarian to governmental to national. This has a tendency of slipping into a defense of the current power structure.
Practically by definition, The Establishment is the bastion of conservatism, since The Establishment likes its position in the scheme of things. So we must start with the Powers That Be, namely:
Conservatives would not seem to need pressure groups, but still they have them.
Every society has visceral and often populist reactionary traditionalists, with minstrels like Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and celebrities like Charles Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy. The Romantic Right of Richard Wagner and Walt Disney could be included in this group.
Tribalism, formalized by G. F. Hegel and (unwittingly) popularized by Napoleon Bonaparte, appears in patriotism, nationalism, and exceptionalism. Reactionaries and tribalists provided rationales to bonapartists like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
The Religious Right argues that society or the state should advance or require a public religion; such a nation is a theocracy. Important theocracies include the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the (Protestant) Swiss Confederacy, and now the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the USA, this community was united by steady groundwork, alliances with conservatives, and sequence of leaders from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan; one of its successes was to make the word "liberal" an epithet.
Unlike the Left, whose media tends to always be marginal (except during revolutionary situations), the Right wing media blends into the mainstream media, at least that part of it in service to the political and economic elites. But the Right can be problematic, especially in respectable tea shops ...
Right wing politics -- served a la carte or in stews -- has always been popular in America, and the Reagan era saw the rise of great wurlitzers serve up popular fare.
As in the Left, there is no Right wing thought, but rather many right wing thoughts. Curiously, many right wing thoughts are quite similar to many left wing thoughts -- for example, except for their obsession with property rights, libertarian individualists have many similarities with anarchists (including, of course, fringe groups with a weakness for pipe bombs). Perhaps the one thing that they have in common is that they are about as conservative as their counterparts on the Left.
The Right always has money, and as Gary Trudeau once remarked, academics like to be bribed. The result is a number of Right wing academic institutes, largely rationalizers for great wealth.
As in other areas, Right wing organizations can't be readily pigeon-holed, as one can see by considering the history of that quintessentially American organization, the xenophobic and pro-union Native American Party (a.k.a., the Know Nothing Party, so-called because members invariably knew nothing about it).
While America has always had prominent Right wing organizations, the current efflorescence is certainly due to the steady and hard work of Right wing organizers at all levels. And while the Right organized, the Left whined and spun conspiracy fantasies -- er, theories.