Tommy, Can You Hear Me?

Damon Linker at TNR:

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.


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.

The Sisyphus Journals:

Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic today in his article “Against Common Sense”, traces these more perfect, more Good Americans’ unswerving confidence in the righteousness of the Truth of their vision, a vision of America and what it ought to be that is based on their conviction of the infallibility of their Common Sense. Sarah Palin belongs to them, proves them right, come as she has as a prophet of the credo of the Truth of Common Sense.


It happened in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, and it can always happen here. To believe otherwise might feel noble — and it certainly sounds it to those who share Jericho’s and my ideals –, but it dismisses dangerously a swathe of those who also call themselves Americans and will continue to make themselves heard and seek to influence the political structure that will determine the laws of the nation in which we all live or with which we are all associated emotionally.

They are Americans, and while they might not be as numerous as those of us who elected Brck Obama president, they do not want what we want, and they do not see America in the same terms as we do, and even if they actually do, they will not admit it. They will work to oppose us by whatever means they have. The Republican party is their party, and it is supported still by enough to keep it relevant for the time being without having to change its face, the face it has adopted since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” sought to appeal to what some now call “the unwashed hordes” of southern Dixicrats and other social conservatives. They had enough influence to change a major political party in their own image. Ought we discount them thus? Just how much do you want to insult and alienate them? How far do you want to push them, and how powerful do you want to make their leaders and spokespersons?

How, instead, to present our political philosophy and agenda in terms that come closer to meeting an opposing world view and find the common points that might exist in them, despite the huge differences in how we chose to live and what we chose to accept socially?

Before we come apart at the seams.

Bleakonomy on Linker’s use of Pinker:

This is kind of baffling, in that he has spent the entire article demonstrating how the rhetorical trope of appealing to common sense is used as a counter to egg-headed things like linguistics and cognitive science. While Linker (and I) may find Steven Pinker’s research fascinating, I think it will have precisely zero impact on the way “we” think about common sense. The very people who are most likely to be swayed by appeals to their common-man, Joe Six-pack plain thinkin’ are the least likely to find their pride in same transformed by research into artificial intelligence. If anything, being told by ivory-tower academic elite types that their “common sense” is merely another way of describing their biases will make them more inclined to cling to it as a rejoinder.

I still think the article is worth reading. But I think Linker is wrong when he predicts that academic research of any kind will have any change in the way populist rhetoric is styled. Anyone could have told him that. After all, it’s just common sense.

Matthew Yglesias:

As long as we’re on the subject, however, it’s worth just making the basic point that common sense tends to be an extremely poor guide to technical issues. It’s common sense that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, and there’s absolutely nothing commonsensical about the correct answer to the Monty Hall Problem. It’s common sense that something called a “strong” dollar must be good, but in fact whether or not it’s good depends on the situation. It’s common sense that when families across the nation tighten their belts, the government should too, but it’s wrong. In fact, the reverse is true and the government ought to get more parsimonious when the private sector is flush, and vice versa. It’s common sense that if you can’t smell or taste or see atmospheric carbon dioxide it must not be a big problem, but it is!

And sensible people recognize that common sense is not, at the end of the day, a particularly reliable guide. It’s common sense that the way to make a heavier-than-air object fly is to imitate birds and have wings that flap. But nobody thinks that anymore, just as nobody today would deny that it’s possible that invisible rays emanating from uranium can give you cancer.

Will at The League:

The divide between voters and policy-makers has been explored elsewhere and is probably an inevitable consequence of politics in any egalitarian democracy. But as society becomes more complex, so does policy-making, and the gulf between the electorate’s intuition and sophisticated expert analysis continues to grow. Perhaps the most significant example of this divide is the now-infamous bank bailout, which remains incredibly unpopular despite its near-unanimous support among political and financial elites.

Linker seems largely unconcerned by all this, and indeed is more worried by the prospect of “common sense” infecting a political platform than any disconnect between appeals to populism and actual policy. That voters should be reasonably well-equipped to make informed judgments, however, strikes me as pretty integral to the health of our democracy. In some cases, we may be able to avoid the problem of deliberation altogether (occupying Afghanistan, for example, although that also depends on your point of view). Other circumstances make a clash between common sense and expert opinion almost inevitable. In the midst of a systemic economic crisis, we didn’t have the luxury of plugging our ears and ignoring the debate over the bank bailout. And with other, equally complex challenges looming on the horizon (health care, entitlement reform, climate change), the problem of democratic deliberation seems more pressing, not less.

If I had a solution to this dilemma, I probably wouldn’t be writing overlong blog posts. But I will offer one modest suggestion: In the wake of “Climategate” and a bank bailout dominated by financial insiders, the integrity and transparency of expert deliberation should be more important than ever. On many issues, I am more than willing to defer to informed opinion. The pettiness of revealed in the leaked climate emails and the borderline dishonesty of Bernanke and Paulsen in the midst of the economic crisis, however, makes it more difficult than ever to trust our governing institutions. I don’t want to rely solely on “common sense,” but given the choice, I’d take my own intuitions over self-interested insiderism any day.


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