Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dear Democrats and Republicans, Stop Invoking "Common Sense" to Argue Your Case

In past diaries, I have ranted about the increasing vacuousness of terms like "middle-class," "balance," and "common sense" in political discourse.  This past weekend, Obama's weekly address reminded me of why "common sense" is such a pet peeve of mine.

Obama loves to refer to the Gang of 8 bill (now with added border state pork!) as a "common sense" bill:
Right now, the United States Senate is debating a bipartisan, commonsense bill that would be an important step toward fixing our broken immigration system
And, a few days ago, a report from the Congressional Budget Office definitively showed that this bipartisan, commonsense bill will help the middle class grow our economy and shrink our deficits, by making sure that every worker in America plays by the same set of rules and pays taxes like everyone else.
Now, the bill isn’t perfect. It’s a compromise. Nobody is going to get everything they want – not Democrats, not Republicans, not me. But it’s consistent with the principles that I and others have laid out for commonsense reform.
"Common sense" was Obama's go-to phrase during the gun control debate.  His budget, too, in his own eyes, was a "common sense" budget, which the "common sense" caucus in Congress would apparently lap up.

Obama is not the only abuser of this most vapid of terms.  We all know that Republicans love to use "common sense," too.  Just look at how Texas Republicans speak of SB5 as a "common sense" bill.  The same goes for national Republicans on their recent efforts to undermine reproductive rights.  All in the name of "common sense."

My dearest Democrats and Republicans, everyone in between, and everyone outside, please stop using the term "common sense."

The term "common sense" is no more than a cheap rhetorical trick employed to evade debate.  If a proposal is "commons sense," it is pre-argumentation.  It does not need critical analysis or vigorous, democratic debate because. Why?  Because everyone already agrees. You don't debate "common sense." It just is. To deny "common sense" would be foolish.  The invocation of "common sense" always marks an effort to define the Overton window in your favor, manufacturing a center and a fringe.

Let's pause for a moment and actually look at the definition of "common sense." According to Merriam-Webster, "common sense" refers to "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts." In other words, it is inherently simplistic.  No one should be making policy according to a "simple perception" of facts.  Policy calls for complex and critical analysis of the facts and the weighting of priorities. Sound and prudent judgment have a role in policymaking, for sure, but prudence evokes the action of managing a personal checkbook more so than creating a national budget or establishing a domestic agenda.

The Cambridge Dictionary, on the other hand, defines our lexical bĂȘte noire as "the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way."  Common sense, in other words, refers to our shared cognitive inheritance, the simple life lessons that we all gain by existing in the world and which we need to function in society.  Common sense exists in the aphorism rather than the polemic, or even the essay.

If it's raining, you should carry an umbrella. If it's snowing, you should wear a coat. Don't walk in dangerous areas alone at night. There remains room for interpretation and nuance in all of these (How much rain or snow?  How heavy of a coat?  How dangerous is the area?), but they are lessons we learn from our own experiences and the experiences of others.  And they become what we call "common sense."

Policymaking stems, not from "common sense," but from the interaction of the positive and the normative.  On the one hand are the facts, the data, the raw numbers.  On the other hand are the priorities, the principles, and the moral vision.  Policymaking, then, is (forgive the slight simplicity here) morality + spreadsheets + a budget.

The problems with the two major parties today stem from an imbalance between these two factors, between the empirical and the prescriptive.

Republicans tend to emphasize priorities and a specific moral vision at the expense of facts. When the facts do not comply with the moral vision of today's Republicans, they simply choose to discard the facts.  The Republican response to climate change perhaps exemplifies this lack of intellectual integrity, but the dynamic is also evident in issues like sexual assault, reproductive health, poverty, and that laughable mantra that we have "the best health care system in the world."

Democrats, because of an unfortunately strong technocratic streak, have a tendency to reduce policymaking to a numbers game at the expense of moral vision. Numbers themselves cannot prescribe, and the cold mind of the technocrat does not dabble in questions of justice. Hence, we see chained CPI dressed up as a "technical fix"--tweaking the way to perpetual solvency regardless of the lived reality of its effects on seniors.  $4 billion in cuts to SNAP?  It's simply a matters of numbers.  The stock market's success,  the housing boom, and a slight tick downwards in the unemployment rate show the economy is rebounding greatly.  Polls bear an inordinate influence on policy, and there is a faith in technology and data for solving problems (like climate change and education, for example) that fails to grapple with human behavior and which frankly borders on hubris.

Let's go back to the "bipartisan," "common sense" immigration proposal with which we began this discussion.

Is a 13-year "path" to citizenship more commonsensical than a 5-year or 10-year?  Was it "common sense" that drove the Gang of 8 to decide on a 10-year provisional status and then 3 years permanent residency rather than an 8-year provisional status followed by the 5 years of permanent residency, as the 2007 bill prescribed?

Was it "common sense" that drove the Gang of 8 to leave out LGBT couples from the bill?

Does "common sense" demand that we demote family reunification as a factor for consideration?

Does "common sense" prescribe 20,000 additional border guards?  Rather than even more? Rather than none?

Does "common sense" demand an additional 350 miles of border fencing?  Rather than even more?  Rather than none?

Does "common sense" tell us to implement drones and other surveillance technologies along the border?

Frankly, it does not.

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