Your normal citizen understands conservatism as wanting to hold onto the past, maybe with the idea that we like gradual change, or if this citizen knows a few things, that conservatives prefer traditions to unproven social engineering.
Few understand that conservatives look at the whole of history, try to understand it, and keep what worked best. That is how tradition evolved, and it is why we hang onto it: it is a whole way of life, lifestyle and ideals together, and it is better than anything we can invent.
This approach requires that we be realists, or those who measure how good something is by how it works in reality instead of in human intentions. From among those options that are real, we then choose what worked best and preserve it.
Contrary to what many think, this makes us seem like idealists in the sense of people who pursue a good but impractical end. Most of humanity is mostly in denial of reality most of the time, so realists find themselves clashing with people who would rather just do what is popular or profitable.
Pragmatists fit within this group but this is not visually clear at first. A pragmatist argues that we should do what is achievable given the situation as we find it, which means that pragmatism is a relative measurement.
Instead of looking at the whole of history, the pragmatist looks at his time and sees what is likely to be accepted by others. He picks the best he can from that shorter list, and then rationalizes that this is good because it is not as fully crazy as other options.
However, the pragmatist is like a bad satire of a conservative. He chooses from only within the narrow frame that he knows, so if that frame moves Leftward, the pragmatist finds himself arguing for Leftism. To leave it behind would be more idealistic or realistic, he thinks.
If you look at most arguments on the Right, they occur between realists and pragmatists. The realist says, “We need to do this, or we die.” The pragmatist says, “The social marketplace will never accept that, so here is what we can achieve right now, instead.”
You might view all of the RINOs, cucks, and NeverTrumpers as pragmatists. They saw what Trump aspired to, realized that was in collision with what was popular at the time, and took another path instead.
However, they got fooled by their frame of reference. History shifted on them, which meant that what was accepted then was a far cry from what would be accepted in a few months or years. They lunged for the past, while Trump moved into the future.
Almost no one believes the linear view of history, which states that we started out as fish coming ashore to grow legs, and since then, we have steadily been making “progress” toward some ideal, Utopian, god-like state.
We all know that in the past, other empires have risen and fallen, and that even in our own society, our fortunes have waned. We also know that there is “nothing new under the sun,” meaning that humanity and its needs have never changed.
As one source notes, conservatives are human realists above all else:
Conservatism at its heart is about seeing the world as it actually exists, and working within those confines. We do not have to like reality, but unlike progressives, we do not see it as clay to be shaped in our image. We do not pretend that it is possible to transcend our messy, imperfect humanity. The conservative creed in essence: Human nature is a chronic condition.
In our present time we have technology and medicine, power and wealth. Ultimately none of that changes the eternal question that determines our survival, which is how we organize ourselves. As individuals we need self-discipline, and as groups, order that points us toward something instead of merely looking inward and becoming fixated on “maintaining control.”
A pragmatist cares for none of these distinctions. He concerns himself only with what we can achieve now, and so has limited himself to options that are popular. In this way, he defers entirely to what is already going on in our society.
In this way, the difference between a pragmatist, a realist, and an aesthetic idealist might be seen as time-scale. For the idealist, the scope includes all of time, which may possibly change the basic rules; for a realist, it means all of history; for a pragmatist, right now.
This can play out with the example of a bridge. An idealist sees a span of open water and designs a gossamer-thin bridge made of some material not yet invented; a realist envisions a sturdy stone structure like a Roman aqueduct which will last ten thousand years; a pragmatist knows that it will be another suspension bridge and last for fifty.
Distinctions of this sort are most important in the inner worlds of these people. The idealist gains a great joy from thinking of possibilities, the realist for thinking of endurance, and the pragmatist, a satisfaction in mastery over the present time.
Professions differ among those of the various types. An idealist belongs in the arts, a realist in philosophy or history, and a pragmatist as the shopkeeper, bureaucrat, or construction engineer.
Perhaps a healthy society incorporates all three, handing tasks first to the idealist for aesthetics, then to the realist for vision, and finally to the pragmatist to implement. It seems like society would go awry without all three impulses present in the planning.
Modernity however inverts this hierarchy. It goes to the pragmatist for the vision, aesthetics, and execution, and everyone else is left to watch. After all, when managing the herd is more important than looking forward, only pragmatism counts.
Some societies might strike us as more pragmatic than others. Chinese and Jews, for example, might seem the most pragmatic; the southern Europeans the most idealistic; the northern Europeans the most realistic.
Among conservatives, the realists serve as the visionaries. They know that to get out of this time, we have to change our thinking, and look toward things other than what is pragmatic for now. This causes constant clashes, but this will not always be the case.