Regarding Commonsense Conservatism

Being of the liberal persuasion, and thinking a few of those dreaded progressive thoughts, or just being a registered Democrat, you do get used to being told that you may have all those degrees and such, and know lots about a lot of things, but you really don’t have a lick of common sense. This is usually accompanied by a patronizing metaphoric pat on the head – it’s not your fault, really. You went to college, and unlike George Bush, you took it seriously. No one told you that the only thing college is good for might be winning at Trivial Pursuit now and then. It seems you didn’t get the memo. Or maybe, for all your knowledge and experience, and your finely-honed analytic skills, you’re really dumb as a rock. All that information and all that thinking turned your mind to mush – you lost perspective, and now you wrap yourself around your own axle all the time, when things are actually quite simple. Just watch Fox News. You’ll get the idea. People think too much. They’ve lost their common sense.

And at Fox News you’ll find Sean Hannity – dropped out of NYU and Adelphi University to pursue his broadcasting career, while working as a general contractor and a bartender in Santa Barbara. He talks to presidents and writes books, although he says he’s too busy to write and dictated his two books into a tape recorder while driving in to do his radio show. But he is respected for his common sense, isn’t he? And he makes a ton of money. And there’s Glenn Beck – what with his Attention Deficit Disorder and accompanying hyperactive issues and drug and alcohol problems, which he willingly discusses. He didn’t make it through the first week of the one course he took at Yale, after Joe Lieberman pulled some strings to get him in. He dropped out. And he is wildly popular – and he wrote that bestseller, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense – and he’s leading the next American Revolution. That’s Fox News, where those with substantial educations from first rate schools keep quiet about that sort of thing. They’re selling common sense, not opinion informed by careful analysis of all the facts available. It’s a brand thing.

And then there’s Sarah Palin – four or five obscure colleges on and off over many years, including Matanuska-Susitna College, the renamed community college in Alaska, and finally getting her bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism – and then becoming a sportscaster. Obama may have done Columbia and Harvard Law, and edited the Law Review, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, but many think she is far more qualified than Obama to be president. She has common sense, he doesn’t. At least that’s the argument she makes. Many buy that, and buy her book, and buy Beck’s book.

And they make those purchases, and watch Fox News, because, historically, Americans prefer common sense to careful, deliberate analysis. That Obama won the last election was an anomaly – Bush had screwed the pooch, giving common sense a bad name with his scorn for careful, deliberate analysis, but without the corresponding depth of that all-American common sense. McCain and Palin may have campaigned saying over and over that they too scorned careful, deliberate analysis, just like Bush, just like real Americans, and not like that hyper-thoughtful over-educated and dangerous nerd Obama, but they weren’t at all like Bush – they had real common sense. But it was too late for that. The nerd would do.

But the essential conflict remains. There are those who say let’s think about this. And there are those who ask what’s there to think about? And on Wednesday, December 2, the day after Obama’s West Point speech, it all played out again. After careful, deliberate analysis he decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan, but added an expiration date, as they say – by July 2011 this will work, or it won’t, and we’ll leave to try something else. McChrystal and everyone on the right wanted more troops – well, you got ’em, so prove that’s the answer to this beyond-complicated problem. Show us.

Of course, when you are the party out of power, this is clearly unfair. You’re not supposed to get what you ask for. That’s not how this game is played. And it’s even worse when you are told to prove your position – you said this will work, so show everyone you were right.

The answer to the dilemma here, when faced with a tightly argued proposition, was to fall back to the common sense argument that the argument may have the virtue of being all thoughtful, but it had little to do with common sense:

The top Republican on the Senate committee, John McCain voiced doubt about Obama’s withdrawal plan in Afghanistan, echoing fears that it could allow Taliban militants to wait out the U.S. troop surge and reassert themselves later.

McCain said the goal of securing Afghanistan and eliminating safe havens for al Qaeda extremists was admirable, but an “arbitrary” U.S. pullout date was dangerous.

“A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies,” he said.

That’s just common sense. Make them think we’ll never leave and they can’t just sit around and wait until we do, then take over the joint. In fact, McCain was quite blunt – “The way that you win wars is to break the enemy’s will, not to announce dates that you are leaving.” It’s quite simple, really.

See Sarah Palin on March 1, 2007 – “I’ve been so focused on state government that I haven’t really focused much on the war in Iraq. I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president, Condoleezza Rice and the administration, I want to know that we have an exit plan in place.”

And now – “Talk of an exit date also risks sending the wrong message. We should be in Afghanistan to win, not to set a timetable for withdrawal that signals a lack of resolve to our friends, and lets our enemies believe they can wait us out.”

It seems that she changed her mind, or the old common sense kicked in – or that she says whatever occurs to her at the moment, or whatever is useful – or that coherent and thoughtful views are for the elites with all their fancy-pants education. It’s hard to tell. Had she been president after the elderly President McCain passed on to the big flight deck in the sky, it’s hard to see what we’d be doing now. It would be an adventure.

But, as before, Matt Steinglass puts Afghanistan in perspective:

Afghanistan is a tiny, economically irrelevant country halfway around the world that has never had a stable central government. I don’t think the likelihood of our creating a stable, self-sufficient, non-Taliban government there is very good. And I don’t think the benefits of creating such a government, to the US, are really so high. And I think even the benefits of creating such a government for Afghans have been overstated. But let’s say we have a 75% chance of being able to do it. There is surely a maximum price tag at which we are willing to value that outcome. What is it?

Well, that is the big question, isn’t it? What does your common sense tell you?

And as for a “war tax” to at least pay for this adventure, Matthew Yglesias sees that as an unlikely idea:

I haven’t seen anyone even really attempt to persuade me that this policy makes sense in cost-benefit terms. And I think the reaction to David Obey’s “war tax” idea is telling – nobody seems to really think there are national interests at stake that are critical enough to be worth paying slightly higher taxes for. But if a war’s not worth paying for, how can it be worth fighting?

But McCain and Palin tell us that a) if we want to win, then b) we have to never even think of letting up, until we break the enemy’s will, and thus c) we cannot even think about ending this, much less mention we’d like to, and d) we have to spend any amount of money that takes, even if it bankrupts the nation and causes the collapse of the world economy, and e) the number of our troops who must die in this effort should have no limit either. That’s the chain of common sense they posit. And once we win, whatever that is, we can stand down and be fat and happy, and proud. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Andrew Sullivan doesn’t think so:

The way our politics of fear is now constructed, there is no limit to the costs involved in nation-building in every conceivable failed state that could be a safe harbor for Jihadists. We cannot have the adult conversation about how much terrorist damage the US should tolerate compared with the costs of trying to control this phenomenon at its source. We are not mature enough as a country to have that conversation. And Obama has decided it isn’t worth confronting that question now.

And that may be the right choice on Obama’s part, and Damon Linker explores in Against Common Sense – an interesting item in The New Republic that explores the dynamics at play:

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.

He argues that the unanimity is impressive, but also ridiculous, and pretty much who we are as a nation – “a form of nonsense with deep roots in the American past and a very long history of political potency.”

Linker says this was so from the get-go:

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.

He just wonders whether such appeals are coherent in any meaningful way, although he sees what Thomas Paine was up to way back when, “attempting to win contentious public arguments by praising the good judgment of average citizens.”

That made some sense:

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.

But of course even then what was transparently obvious to everyone was open to question:

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’ 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.

Yep, everyone claims to have the real common sense, but literally, there may be no such thing. It’s just words, or just claims presented as if they must be true, obviously. Any fool can see that X is true! No, any fool can see that Y is true. And that leads nowhere.

And Linker notes this plays out again and again:

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.

And that only made things worse:

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.

That sounds a lot like the last presidential election – the problem with Obama was those defects in the mind or morals – palling around with terrorists and not breaking with Jeremiah Wright soon enough. And that was stronger than Obama going around saying that McCain was a good man, and a real hero, but he hadn’t thought things through and was overlooking key facts and his policy positions were thin and logically shaky. It just wasn’t strong enough. Appeals to common sense, an odd sort political communism, are not always all-powerful. Sometimes they just don’t work, because what is common disappeared, as was inevitable:

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 nation’s 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.

In short, the some Platonic Ideal what was common, and thus obvious, and true – but never really was – simply collapsed. Too much was going on. Still we had populism in politics and fundamentalism in religion, sort of a last stand of something that never was, which Linker notes was culturally and geographically limited:

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.

Of course that explosion took place in the decade following the Second World War. We got Joe 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.”

That sounds familiar too. So universities and colleges, as well as “any institution in which intellectuals exercise influence” were obviously “rotten to the core.” Thanks, Joe. Linker quotes him – 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. And the rest is history. Linker goes on at length to connect McCarthy to Nixon to Reagan to the younger Bush, to O’Reilly and Beck to Hannity and Michael Savage, and to the current Commonsense Conservatism. It’s rather obvious:

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.

And that is followed by a discussion of how new research in artificial intelligence, linguistics and cognitive science, and psychology are systematically redefining common sense, It means little, and it seems that the only people who could be said to lack common sense would be certifiable sociopaths. What is common sense is a social concept that binds us, whatever it is, and it can be almost anything, depending on the circumstances, and the subgroups. So it comes down to this:

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.

And of course it will not be repudiated by all intellectually honest participants in American politics. It may make no logical sense, but common sense is so very useful, as a club.

Still, Matthew Yglesias argues that common sense is an extremely poor guide to technical issues:

It is 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 is 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 is 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 is 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.

And it’s common sense to think that the earth is flat. Hell, look out your window, right now. See?

Actually, someone should mention that to John McCain – you know, tweak him a little. This nonsense about common sense just has to stop. That’s only common sense, after all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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