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Against Common Sense

Conservatives would have us believe that they hold a monopoly on common sense. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and many other right-wing rabble-rousers regularly portray themselves as defenders of the good, old-fashioned common sense of average Americans against an out-of-touch liberal elite. A growing cadre of ambitious politicians likewise aims to lead a crusade in the name of “commonsense conservatism.” Glenn Beck has even gone so far as to publish a runaway bestseller that explicitly piggybacks on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to argue against the danger of “out-of-control government” and the forces of organized foolishness that would foist it on the American people.

The unanimity is impressive. But it is also ridiculous. The fact is that the right’s appeal to common sense is nonsense. Unfortunately, though, it is a form of nonsense with deep roots in the American past and a very long history of political potency. Whether it continues to prove effective in the future will depend in no small measure on how cogently the rest of America responds.

The United States is a nation founded on an egalitarian creed—on the supposedly self-evident (commonsensical?) truths that all men are created equal and that all legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed. In such a nation, public appeals to authority would be much less persuasive than they had been throughout most of human history. Tradition, the divine right of kings, the will of God as interpreted by his designated clerical representatives—in America none of these authorities would benefit from the deference they have typically enjoyed in other times and places. Add in the ever-increasing social pluralism of modern life, and it becomes perfectly understandable why political actors and commentators in the United States would seek to win public disputes by appeal to the only authority still available—the authority of the people and their common sense. Whether such appeals are coherent is another matter.

In Common Sense, Thomas Paine famously inaugurated the American tradition of attempting to win contentious public arguments by praising the good judgment of average citizens. When Paine’s incendiary pamphlet first appeared, in January 1776, the colonies were divided about whether to declare their independence, with many colonists still loyal to the crown. Those on both sides of the issue recognized that taking up arms against the King of England demanded justification. Those who favored revolution did so for complicated reasons flowing from the ineptness of George III’s rule, which was increasingly viewed as arbitrary, dictatorial, and contrary to the economic interests of the colonies. A few, including Thomas Jefferson and Paine himself, went further, to supplement their case with abstract philosophical arguments about natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. But regardless of the rationale, it was almost universally acknowledged that proposing insurrection against British rule was a profoundly radical act—one involving a dramatic break from precedent and tradition. And yet Paine chose to portray the case for rebellion as transparently obvious—based, in fact, on nothing more than “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” Today Paine’s tract is thought to have done more than any other piece of writing to foment the American Revolution.

Not everyone was convinced by its argument, however. Later that same year, loyalist Lt. Col. James Chalmers penned a scathing polemic against Common Sense titled Plain Truth. In his own pamphlet, Chalmers ridiculed Paine’s presumptuousness in professing to speak for commonly held views in the colonies or good judgment in general. In Chalmers’s view, Paine’s position was a particularly irresponsible example of “quackery,” not an accurate reflection of common sense, which clearly pointed in the opposite direction—toward reconciliation with the English throne. The Revolutionary War thus began with dual acts of excommunication from the ranks of common sense, showing with vivid clarity that the concept was originally devoid of content, merely expressing the desire of one party in a dispute to claim as much popular support as possible for his side.

The Paine-Chalmers debate was the first in a seemingly endless series of rancorous clashes in the early republic over contradictory appeals to common sense. By the mid-nineteenth century, these clashes increasingly focused on the issue of slavery and Southern Secession from the Union. Readers of the Northern press during the 1860s were regularly informed that their opposition to the expansion of slavery was commonsensical, that Abraham Lincoln was a font of “homespun common sense,” and that Southerners were “as deaf as madmen” to common sense. Yet the view from the Southern states was, quite naturally, the reverse. In late 1860, for instance, the Charleston Mercury newspaper spoke for many in the South when it editorialized that “no man of common sense” could doubt that “the time for action” against the North had arrived.

While politicians and editorialists throughout the rest of the nineteenth century continued to employ the empty rhetoric of common sense, a group of Protestant theologians worked to provide the concept with some content. Drawing on the Scottish tradition of Common Sense philosophy—which asserted that commonly held opinions are our most trustworthy guide to truth—writers connected to the Princeton Theological Seminary naively suggested that spontaneous universal concord on every matter of moral, scientific, and spiritual significance should be possible. Men and women need only open their eyes to apprehend directly the timeless, objective, self-evident truth about all things: God, nature, right and wrong.

For these theologians, the very idea of a genuine (as opposed to a spurious) conflict between reason and faith, science and religion—let alone between opposing political views—began to seem inconceivable. They thus tended to trace disagreements to defects in the mind or morals of whomever dissented from prevailing religious, scientific, social, cultural, or political opinion. Maybe the dissenter had succumbed to the sin of pride, which led him astray. Or perhaps he made an innocent error of reasoning, or got caught up in futile metaphysical speculation. And then there was the most ominous possibility—that he was seduced by unbelief or false religion. Whatever the case, the disagreement was assumed to flow not from the intrinsic complexity of either the world or the nature of the mind but rather from an accidental failing rooted in a particular individual or group—a defect that could potentially be removed, thus restoring the inevitability of universal agreement based on self-evident common sense.

And yet by the turn of the century, whatever cultural, moral, and religious consensus prevailed in the United States seemed to be collapsing on multiple fronts. The nation’s cities were filled with impoverished immigrants, many of them from non-Protestant (and in the case of Jews, non-Christian) cultures. At the same time, industrialization was transforming American life in unpredictable ways, disrupting small-town life, driving the young to seek their fortunes in those same cities, exposing them to unimaginable moral temptations and objectionable ideas. Meanwhile, the nations schools were beginning to introduce Christian children to disturbing new unbiblical theories about the origins of the human race. For many, the suggestion that human beings evolved from apes sounded both morally monstrous and fundamentally unscientific—a form of demonic speculation wholly divorced from a properly commonsensical study of the natural facts. And then there was the rise of theological liberalism—or “modernism”—in some of the nation’s leading churches, which showed that not even the nation’s Protestant clergy could maintain agreement on the fundamentals of the faith.

The political and cultural history of the American twentieth century was shaped in countless ways by two movements that arose in direct reaction to these destabilizing trends: populism in politics and fundamentalism in religion. “Common sense” now became a term of flattery, offering praise for the religious and cultural outlook of Americans who continued to uphold the naïve views defended by the Princeton theologians. These were the views of those who lived in small, homogeneous agricultural communities and who believed their way of life to be under assault by the decadence and corruption of urban economic and political elites. Populist leader William Jennings Bryan used the term “common sense” in this way during the 1890s, and he revived it at the end of his life when, in the Scopes Trial of 1925, he passionately defended the right of fundamentalist Protestants in Tennessee to insulate their children’s commonsense (i.e., literalistic) reading of the Bible from corruption at the hands of overly educated biology teachers, who wished to expose their students to the theory of Darwinian evolution. Though the verdict in favor of creationism was overturned on appeal, Bryan’s effort to defend the simple common sense of average citizens against the godless pretensions of educated elites was a populist time-bomb that would eventually explode in the American public square.

That explosion took place in the decade following the Second World War, with the paranoid anti-communist crusade of Joseph McCarthy. The Republican senator from Wisconsin may have overreached in his efforts to root out Communists and thereby turned himself into a one of the most reviled figures in American political history, but he also unintentionally managed to unleash a wildly influential style of politics. In the words of its greatest chronicler, historian Richard Hofstadter, this style of politics is best described as an anti-intellectual “dynamic of dissent” against artists, actors, and academics that proved to be “powerful enough to set the tone of our political life” for years to come. Those who followed in McCarthy’s footsteps have tended to believe that “the plain sense of the common man . . . is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise acquired in the schools.” Universities and colleges, by contrast, as well as any institution in which intellectuals exercise influence, are “rotten to the core,” since they fail to pay adequate obeisance to the intuitive wisdom of average Americans. For the McCarthyite tradition, nothing is more morally destructive than the arrogance of the educated, who are “pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish,” and very likely “immoral, dangerous, and subversive” of common decency no less than of sound judgment.

This is the catechism of the muscular “common sense” populism launched by Joe McCarthy. It has inspired the racist rantings of George Wallace and countless other opponents of segregation and black civil rights. It has motivated Rush Limbaugh and the dozens who imitate him on talk radio and cable news, from O’Reilly and Beck to Hannity and Michael Savage. And it has empowered the religious right in its ongoing efforts to turn back the secular drift of American society and culture since the 1960s. All of these sundry projects grew out of McCarthyism, and all of them understand themselves to be championing the common sense of the American people against the machinations of corrupt and decadent elites.

The McCarthyite style of invoking common sense entered the American political mainstream at the very moment when McCarthy himself was on the verge of self-destruction. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a moderate Republican, yet he learned something important from the Wisconsin senator about the uses of populist appeals. As president, Eisenhower went out of his way to align himself with “common sense and common decency,” and he delighted in taking potshots at the pretensions of scholars, experts, and “eggheads.” On one memorable occasion, Ike even offered his own definition of an intellectual—a man “who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” Plain-spoken average Americans apparently suffered from no such debility.

By the time Eisenhower’s vice president (Richard Nixon) ascended to the White House in 1968, the Republican establishment had mastered the art of appealing to common sense as a way to gain grassroots electoral advantage. Nixon’s own vice president, Spiro Agnew, spearheaded GOP efforts to portray Republicans as defenders of common sense against the slothful decadence of the counterculture, while Nixon himself spoke in 1973 of the need to temper America’s idealism (in his condescending words, its “warmhearted impatience”) with “another equally American trait—and that is levelheaded common sense.” With this statement, Nixon employed both forms of commonsense rhetoric: he identified his own position with common sense, presumably relegating his critics to the camp of the innately foolish, and he flattered those Americans who longed to blame the country's problems on a bunch of pampered college students and the elitist snobs who ran the Democratic Party.

But it was Ronald Reagan who took the appeal to common sense to a whole new level in American politics—combining with greater skill than anyone before him a rhetoric of populism with the conviction that his agenda was self-evidently right. Reagan honed this synthesis in a series of provocative lectures throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, speaking out, in the name of common sense, against the establishments of both political parties. In his two terms as president, Reagan frequently portrayed his crusades in favor of cutting taxes and increasing spending on national defense as expressions of the common sense of the American majority. This is certainly how he described his presidency in his farewell address to the nation, delivered on January 11, 1989. In these remarks, the president cast the so-called Reagan Revolution as The Great Rediscovery—a “rediscovery of our values and our common sense” after a protracted period of confusion during which the nation lost its way, embracing manifold forms of sophisticated foolishness.

In this as well as in other ways, George W. Bush went out of his way to recapture the spirit of Reagan. But he did more than embrace the Reagan legacy. With the help of his advisor Karl Rove, Bush moved beyond Reagan, to portray himself as the authentic voice and sincere champion of the grassroots “dynamic of dissent” that Richard Hofstadter first identified in McCarthyism and that had exploded in power and influence during the intervening decades. For much of the Bush presidency, staunchly conservative talk radio and cable news, right-wing Internet weblogs, and reactionary evangelical pastors uncritically conveyed and defended the administration’s position on foreign and domestic policy, while whipping their audiences into a populist frenzy and channeling it into enthusiastic, almost ecstatic support for the president. Everything about Bush—from his economically libertarian and socially conservative policies to his swaggering gait, mannered Southern drawl, and studied inarticulateness—was intended to convey the message that he was “one of us,” an average American bringing his hard-won common sense to bear on the most challenging problems of our time, many if not all of which could be traced to the influence of the godless liberal elites who “really” run the country from their decadent enclaves in New York and Hollywood.

It was in the crucible of the 2004 election campaign that Bush sought to identify his administration’s policies most fully with common sense. Bush set the tone for the election cycle in an early remark about judicial appointments: “We need common-sense judges who understand our rights were derived from God. And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench.” Having established that common sense yields the jurisprudence favored by the religious right, Bush encouraged his party to champion common sense in other areas as well. The plank in the 2004 Republican Party platform that supported permanently banning gay marriage described the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act as a “common-sense law.” Congressional Republicans defended their efforts to renew the USA Patriot Act as a “common-sense approach to improving domestic security.” Meanwhile, the Bush campaign repeatedly attacked his Democratic opponent John Kerry for “opposing common-sense measures like the ban on partial-birth abortion.” And then there was the constant stream of advertisements that repeatedly portrayed Kerry as an elitist snob.

Today, with the GOP tearing itself apart over public policy, the right appears to agree about little besides the political necessity of continuing to praise the good, old-fashioned common sense of average Americans and contrasting it to supposedly out-of-touch, over-educated outlook of liberal elites. Indeed, some (like Sarah Palin) have doubled down on the appeal to common sense, placing it at the core of their political ambitions. Whereas Republicans once used populist flattery to get themselves elected so that they could accomplish specific public-policy goals, they’ve now began to treat such flattery as an end in itself, as a form of ideologically vacuous identity politics.

Such appeals are unlikely to succeed, at least at the national level—and not only because there simply are no longer enough culturally alienated white people in the United States to catapult a presidential candidate to victory. The deeper reason why the appeal to common sense is liable to become a dead end in the coming years is that research in numerous fields—including artificial intelligence (The Open Mind Common Sense ProjectThe Cyc Project), linguistics and cognitive science (Ray Jackendoff, Steven Pinker), and psychology (Jonathan Haidt)—has the potential to transform the way we think about common sense, and not in a way that is likely to vindicate the right-wing approach to the topic.

Take Haidt’s work in psychology, which identifies several moral ideals—harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity—that appear to be broadly universal across cultures and history. If (as seems likely) scientific research one day demonstrates that this list, or one like it, contains the sum total of human common sense, it will be intellectually interesting but politically irrelevant. Such a finding would imply, after all, that the only individuals who lack common sense are those who show no care for another person, no attachment to fairness, no loyalty to or respect for anything or anyone, and no admiration for purity of any kind. The only people who could be said to lack common sense, in other words, would be certifiable sociopaths.

Accordingly, Haidt claims to have found that American liberals and conservatives merely differ on which aspects of common sense they prize most highly—with liberals tending to esteem fairness and care and conservatives leaning toward loyalty, respect, and purity. If this finding ends up being confirmed by further studies, it would show not that one ideological outlook or another is more commonsensical than other, but rather that the content of common sense is somewhat fluid or changeable within certain broad parameters—and that to a considerable extent it mirrors our political opinions and ideological commitments (or vice versa).  

That Americans disagree with one another on political and cultural matters is not an indication that those on one side or the other are out of touch with common sense. On the contrary, it is a consequence of our freedom—our freedom to disagree, to think for ourselves and to stake out political and ideological positions consonant with our divergent histories and experiences of the world, as well as with the differing natural tendencies and capacities of our minds. As an attempt to gain electoral advantage by demagogically short-circuiting open-ended public debate among equal citizens, the appeal to common sense deserves to be repudiated by all intellectually honest participants in American politics.