While debating a point or two of politics with a friend tonight, she reminded me that she was a person of common sense. I don’t disagree. She is bright and accomplished, too. But when it comes to politics — and especially political ideas and strategies — do we want common sense or something else?
“Common sense” has become a kind of short hand for a lot of counter positions such as anti-establishment, anti-government, and anti-change. I don’t want to sound elitist — although I’ll openly admit it is probably elitist to say so — but I think common sense also means common people.
In debates across the political spectrum, but I think especially from the conservative right where a congruence between common sense and anti-government, anti-change positions of all sorts match up nicely with common sense.
The idea that someone brings common sense to the table is an attractive and safe one. It is intended to mean that someone is like you and me. We are the same. This means we who understand common sense see things — whatever those things are — in similar ways and understand each other.
Thus “common sense” often means trust me and too often that is good enough in politics. It is a strategy of identity, especially one meant to create a sense of a shared identity.
Is that what we want or need when we talk ideas and strategies? I’m talking about politics here, but I wonder if we might want something a little more than “common” sense in other walks of life as well.
Certainly it seems logical to seek someone who shares your interests. It is a a tall order, but in politics I think we want that and more.
For my part, I am not really interested in someone who sees the world only on par with his personal experience — someone who thinks everyone is like him or experiences the world like him — in the political lead. I’m not sure someone who generalizes from her personal experiences is the best options for the people as a whole. This sort of common sense looks inward, not outward. It doesn’t engage difference and change. Does it?
An ancillary trope in the common sense pitch appears in simple analogies such as comparing family budgets with state finance. Or perhaps making the argument that success in business will translate into success in government. These arguments generally are not germane (government as family) or in context (government as business). However they depend on the idea that common — common sense, common ideas, common experiences — is best and will prevail. However I think these are small ideas, not big ones, and insufficient for the broad scope that’s required to govern effectively.
In political leadership we need people who have the skill to work outside of common experience for the very simple reason that government serves the interests of people that no single leader or individual can ever fully understand from personal experience. A leader — in a democracy anyway, sworn to protect the rights and interests of all — must accept more than what is common to him or her.
It is important to keep in mind that our nation was founded on an idea of rights, not an idea of majority rule. In fact the Constitution exists to protect the personal rights of minority interests. The puts an extra burden on our leaders. What might seem perfectly right for one, may not be for another. Tackling this, I believe, exceeds “common sense” as I am discussing it here.
Perhaps I am over thinking what really is — let’s be honest — a lazy political argument. “Trust me, I am a person of common sense,” is another way of saying something while saying nothing. However as long as that pitch works, it is important to dig deeper and ask: What exactly does common sense mean?
Therefore we should look for “extraordinary sense” — literally “extra-ordinary” or perhaps extra-common — rather than common sense. We are human beings, we have our self interest and our egos, we seek others like us, therefore this isn’t easy. Nonetheless, I think it is important that we challenge ourselves while asking more of our leaders. In that way I don’t think it is common sense we should seek, but something more.
My two cents.