Even Obama is trying to catch up. “Reducing spending while still investing in the future is just common sense,” he said, a bit awkwardly, in his weekly address on April 9. “That’s what families do in tough times.”
And what political elites do in tough times is . . . invoke common sense. As a slogan, a style of address and an ideal, common sense has long played an outsize role in American politics, typically surging in times of exceptional fractiousness. And for all its homespun appeal, it has often been a vehicle for precisely the opposite of what it suggests: subjectivity, partisanship and demagoguery.
One of history’s most successful pitchmen for common sense was Ronald Reagan. In his farewell address from the Oval Office, the 40th president defined the Reagan revolution as “a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.” From the beginning of his political career, he routinely attributed his success to his faith in the idea that government “could be operated efficiently by using the same common sense practiced in our everyday life, in our homes, in business and private affairs,” as he put it in a 1975 CPAC speech.
But in tapping the populist mood of today, conservatives have been reaching considerably further back than Reagan. They are conjuring the American revolutionary hero Tom Paine, the originator of the myth of a common-sense politics — and a tea party favorite, despite his decidedly less-than-conservative roots.
Paine spent the revolutionary winter of 1776 trying to persuade a hesitant colonial audience to adopt the most radical option before it: not only a complete break with the mother country, but also the introduction of an untested form of government, stripped of both aristocracy and king, that would unite the various North American colonies in independence. His genius was to make this solution seem as self-evident as the proposition that an island had no business ruling a continent. That — and labeling the entire thing “Common Sense.” After all, who could argue with a man who offered “nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense”?
Paine both validated the instincts of his everyday readers over those of distant authorities and turned those instincts into the foundation for a new system of rulership. In this way, an American political tradition was born. Thomas Jefferson insisted in his later years that even the Declaration of Independence, that other great political invention of 1776, was simply “the common sense of the subject.”
Much of our political class today speaks Paine’s language, overtly at times. Consider the appearance of such tomes as Mike Huckabee’s 2008“Do the Right Thing: Inside the Movement That’s Bringing Common Sense Back to America” and “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense,” the television personality’s self-aggrandizing 2009 update of Paine’s pamphlet.
In its current political form, “common sense” is intended to telegraph two related messages: Ordinary people know better, especially compared with overeducated, smooth-talking experts and insiders. And governing works best when it is rooted in everyday experience.
Do ordinary families cut expenditures when they are low on funds? Then so should the federal government. “To spend your way out of debt defies common sense,” Beck proclaims in his best-selling book. Or as Pawlenty put it in his CPAC speech, “On what planet do they try to reduce the deficit by spending even more?” Common sense is supposed to represent the one set of ideas that all sensible people can agree upon, a collection of truths transcending politics.
The notion that ordinary people collectively possess a kind of indisputable, shared wisdom born only of experience was an enormous boon to American democracy in its formative, 18th-century stage. It helped make conceivable the notion of a government based on popular sovereignty or self-rule. But its problem lies in this promise. Once democracy is established and consolidated, common sense is rarely a match for the messy and complicated business of governing. No matter how many times politicians invoke the term today, there can be no such thing as a single, simple, common-sensical solution to the problems confronting the nation. The mind-boggling complexity of the issues surrounding climate change, economic recovery, multiple wars and, yes, federal and state budget deficits outstrips the authority of common sense either as the basis of workable policies or as a critique of those already on the table.
The divisions in American public opinion also pose a challenge to “common sense” rhetoric. The federal budget and the family budget are decidedly different beasts. Once we get past the level of real common sense — as in “don’t put your hand in the fire if you don’t want to get burned” — one person’s common sense is generally another’s misguided thinking.
The political appeal to common sense is thus best understood not as a call for clearheaded solutions but rather as a form of pandering — an effort by pundits and politicians to channel real popular anger and to lather voters with collective flattery. Calls for common sense like Beck’s or Palin’s start from the premise that the hard-working majority can instinctively tell right from wrong. That their enemies — self-serving Washington politicians, greedy Wall Street bankers, immoral Hollywood entertainers, out-of-touch scientists and “experts” — cannot be trusted. (After all, these are the elites who got us into the mess we’re in.) And that it’s time for the rest of us in the majority to “unite” and apply our “innate common sense,” in the words of Beck, to the real issues confronting the world.
For all the various stripes of common-sense conservatism also contain an unrealizable promise: that when the reign of common sense begins, politics as we know it will finally go away. Unreasonable taxes, high-handed authorities, political parties, debate and conflict — all will disappear. Which may be why common sense always comes back into favor at times of perceived crisis and strife, such as 1776 or today.
Some of Paine’s earliest foes — as well as Paine himself — understood that all this talk of common sense amounted to a lot of emotional manipulation and spin, that there really was no such thing, especially in the context of a revolution. As one hostile respondent to “Common Sense” pointed out later that same tumultuous year, Paine’s slogan came riddled with ambiguity. Had the bard of common sense meant to imply with this phrase “that his Opinion is the Common Sense of all America, or that all those who do not think with him are destitute of Common Sense?” Neither, of course, could be considered remotely true, according to the anonymous author of “True Merits of a Late Treatise.” Other respondents, including loyalists Charles Inglis and William Smith, insisted that Paine should, for accuracy’s sake, have called his pamphlet “uncommon phrenzy” or simply “Non-Sense.”
But what the author of “True Merits” put his finger on was that Paine had deceptively tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, he had situated himself rhetorically on the side of America’s people, promising — despite having arrived on these shores from England only a few months before — to express their most deep-seated, unarticulated emotions. (Paine was a great fan of the pronoun “we.”) On the other, he had made a point of telling his readers what they should be feeling, no matter how divisive, if they did not want to be taken for idiots.
Paine had planned to call his manifesto “Plain Truth.” But the more circumspect Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush ultimately supplied the title that, with its hint of anti-elitism as well as nonpartisanship, helped cover over the contradictions and cement the case — for independence, an end to monarchy and the triumph of a politics that began with the wisdom of the people.
As a tool of persuasion, the appeal to common sense worked well in 1776. It may be working again. We should be prepared for a whole new round of tributes to its guiding force as the debate about budget cuts segues into the 2012 presidential campaign. Yet we’d do well to not take any of these claims at face value. As Rush himself pointed out, after a good number of years of disillusioning exposure to the rough and tumble of politics in the early republic, when wise men “do homage” to common sense, it is generally “where advantages are derived from it in promoting their interest or fame.”
Sophia Rosenfeld is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and the author of “Common Sense: A Political History.”
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