Practicals insist that the world won't get better until people get better. Idealists insist that the world won't get better until the government fixes the underlying economic/political problem, whatever it is (it's the management approach to life: everything will get better when we get a better SYSTEM). Scene from the movie Sneakers: Robert Redford comes out of a building. A tramp asks him for money. Robert Redford's character turns and points to a politician's poster. "Take it up with him," he says.
It's a perfect illustration of what I am talking about. A Valjean type Practical would give the guy money and then worry about him for the rest of his life. A Modred type Practical would figure the guy would waste it on booze and ignore him. A Christian type Practical would escort the guy to a shelter and give them the money. But only an Idealist would direct the guy to the government as if that's the moral equivalent of taking responsibility.
Now, the Idealist does have a (small) point, but the problem with believing that the world won't get better until the government fixes the underlying problem is that first, you have to believe there is one underlying problem (or at least less than a trillion); two, you have to believe it is fixable; three, you have to believe there is one way to fix it that everyone should and could agree on and four, you have to be willing to give the government the money to fix the underlying problem. (Marxism is basically the end result of Idealistic thinking.) The problem with the last is that when too much money/power gets invested in governments, governments end up carrying out pogroms and holocausts and "cultural revolutions" and not so much fixing economic/class structures. (Enter my libertarian instincts.)
Les Miserables (the musical) is an excellent illustration of Practical thinking as opposed to Idealistic thinking (really, I know that sounds strange but bear with me), the point being that Valjean is not interested in fighting wars and getting people slaughtered but in taking care of the jobs he feels have been delegated to him. This is his redemption. In general I don't go in for the "but love is so much more important than everything, even my criminal record" argument, but the point in Les Mis is that Valjean feels an obligation to complete certain tasks. He isn't promoting some massive doctrine about the futility of legal redress; he's just trying to take care of his responsibilities.
This sets him apart from the leader of the students, who has a lot to answer for as far as I'm concerned. I'm not necessarily opposed to rebellions and wars, but I am opposed to overly idealistic people who use their idealism to convince non-soldiers and poor people to fight men on horseback. Can you say, suicidal tendencies?
This is illustrated in the scene where Valjean frees Javert. Javert infiltrates the students' ranks; he is recognized and taken hostage; Valjean shows up (to save Marius' sorry butt), recognizes Javert and . . . frees him. The implication is clear: Valjean has no idealistic beef with what Javert represents. He is motivated by mercy, but he has no need to destroy the man who represents the law. He doesn't want to.
Now, most people--conservative, liberal, Democrat or Republican--are, I think, Practicals: primarily focused on their moment to moment responsibilities. And for many people, I think even the Robert Redford approach is simply a survival mechanism. You can't take on all of the world's problems, you might as well just blame someone. What are governments for after all? But I have run into a more intense variation of the Robert Redford approach. It isn't necessarily a global outlook (as opposed to an isolationist outlook); often the people involved are die-hard isolationists. Their isolationism isn't honest, however. They don't admit that they don't care about people in foreign countries. No, what bugs them supposedly is the lack of consistency. It's all very well to give the Iraqis democracy but the Sudanese don't have it, ergo nobody should get it. Everything should be brought in line with an idealistic attitude (not idealistic behavior which is a somewhat different scenario, see below). One must have the right opinions about stuff. You're not really pro-women unless you are pro-choice. You're not really against abuse unless you are also against patriarchy. You are not really in favor of environmentalism (I'm not actually, so I don't count) unless you are opposed to nuclear power. And so on and so forth.
The problem with having an idealistic attitude is that pregnant, abused women, not to mention unhappy wetlands don't get helped any faster for it (and, as Les Mis illustrates, in many cases they might not get helped at all) but at least the people with the idealistic attitudes feel profound and caring.
Regarding idealistic behavior v. idealistic attitudes, I think there is a difference. Many people aim, in their behavior, for an idealistic mark, be it religious or philosophical or ethical or just good manners, but Practicals know that their day to day behavior will not always match up to the ideal. "You are wrong and always have been wrong," Valjean tells Javert. "I'm a man, no worse than any man." Many people believe that a Golden Age is just around the corner, but they also believe that a fundamental external alteration in the world as we know it will accompany that Age: that is, technology will create really cheap energy or aliens will come to visit or the Messiah will show up or something. But Idealists are less concerned with actual changes in the world around them (they never seem to be particularly impressed by women voting or increased standards of living or dental care) and more concerned with whether or not you think like they do, whether or not you vote like they do, whether or not you are the kind of person who has the right to exist in a Brave New World.
Basically, it's Calvinism. Isn't there some adage somewhere about how every trend repeats itself sooner or later?