Episode 101: The False Universality of “Common Sense”

Citations Needed | February 19, 2020 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Appeals to common sense and reason in policymaking and other political action abound in U.S. political media. For example, NPR has stated, “145 CEOs Call On Senate To Pass ‘Common-sense, Bipartisan’ Gun Laws.”

Adam: “Local Democrat pushes back on NY bail reform law: It’s about ‘common sense,’ not politics,” a Fox News headline reads.

Nima: The Nation has warned us that, “The Only Thing More Dangerous Than Trump’s Appeal to Common Sense Is His Dismissal of It.”

Adam: These are all part of a pattern. A political issue — whether health-insurance rates, immigration, foreign policy, or gun violence — reaches a real or perceived extreme, and media pundits and political figures claim that it needs to be managed via ostensibly neutral, reasonable notion of “common sense.”

Nima: But these claims are insidious. While common sense or reason may appear to be constructive guiding principles, there is no criteria for these terms. Despite what those who praise “common sense” approaches imply, these notions of common sense aren’t universal in any reasonable way. What’s sensible to a member of the Tea Party isn’t the same as what’s sensible to an activist seeking to end police violence. So whose “common sense” is really being promoted when we hear these pleas?

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll explore how appeals to “common sense” present politics as a matter of rationality rather than morality; how these appeals reinforce centrist right-wing ideologies and how the left and its media outlets can work to build an alternative common sense.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Dr. Kate Crehan, Professor Emerita at College of Staten Island and the CUNY Graduate Center. She’s the author of a number of books, the latest being Gramsci′s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives.

[Begin Clip]

Kate Crehan: One of the things that Gramsci really stressed is that a crucial part of progressive politics is, what he called the cultural front, is about trying to change people’s ideas about how the world works and how it should work at that kind of cultural level.

[End Clip]

Nima: We hear all the time that we just need to listen to the common sense, we need to make decisions based on our common sense, our shared values. What we know is just obviously true. We hear this all the time in political speech and so what we’re going to do today on this episode is talk a little bit about where that comes from and what it actually means. Political organizer, Jonathan Smucker, who authored the book Hegemony How-To has written this quote:

Common sense is what everyone knows so intuitively that it does not even need to be spoken aloud. It is as invisible as the air, as unnoticed as water is to a fish. In the Gramscian sense, common sense refers to dominant political assumptions, including assumptions about what is and what is not politically possible — or ever what is or is not seen as ‘political.’ Gramsci showed how ‘common sense’ is always a political construction; the current common sense [is] always the outcomes of earlier political contests. Elites articulate a ‘common sense’ that validates (and obfuscates) their power and privilege, while a political challenger has to redefine the common sense in ways that call the establishment’s authority into question.”

Adam: And much like, as common sense is invisible as the air, it is as ubiquitous as the air as well.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: Regular people are looking at this issue with common sense. You get it!

Man #2: Makes sense to me to read bills before we vote on them. Why should we be spending more money than we’re taking in? These are the kinds of common sense questions that I think people across the country, whether they’re conservative or not, whether they’re Republican or Democrats want to have answered.

Woman #1: You know, if I had a nickname for Amy Klobuchar, I would call her common sense. Amy, because many of my answers were just common sense.

Donald Trump: I hate the concept of profiling, but we have to use common sense. We’re not using common sense.

Barack Obama: It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise, but it reflected common sense.

Man #3: Using common sense and finding common ground to solve problems.

Woman #2: Exactly. That’s common sense.

Man #4: Common sense is common sense. Yes. It, it doesn’t change.

Man #5: They are basic common sense steps.

Man #6: What are Glenn Beck’s top six items for how to turn the country around?

Glenn Beck: Return to common sense. Return to common sense. Return to common sense. Return to common sense. Return to common sense. Return to common sense.

Man #7: Don’t you think that common sense dictates that we should take a pause and get this right?

[End Clip Montage]

Adam: Yeah, so common sense is great. We’ve talked about this episode for a long time sort of off and on because it’s so ubiquitous. It sort of feeds into almost every other trope we talk about because it’s like it’s tautological, “electability,” it’s power serving and also tautological like the idea of someone being “crazy.” Right? It’s so funny to me cause it’s, whenever I hear someone say “common sense,” I always imagine this rich guy at a Farmer’s Market in Iowa being like, “Common sense!” And it’s such an ingratiating term, right? It’s a term that is, like, “You and I, we get it. We have common sense. We’re not like those people.” It is, of all the terms we analyze it is a perfect distillation of both the reader and the listener being commanded to turn their brains off. Because there are some common, e.g. shared sense of what the world is. Shared knowledge.

Nima: Totally universal, right? Like, “Here in the Heartland, we all know that common sense means that you don’t deserve healthcare.”

Adam: And it’s so good because it’s so common and so sort of slick and it’s so, “I’m just a caveman.” You know, “I’m just, I don’t understand what these fancy gadgets are. I don’t know if I’m being talked to by the cellular phones —”

Nima: “Stop your high falutin talk. I just know the common sense.”

Adam: Yeah.

Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’

Nima: We want to do a little background on how this term came to be and why it is used all the time. So, by some accounts, the term “common sense” took on its general contemporary meaning in the 16th century. The phrase appeared in the 1535 book, Apology for William Tindale by George Joye. This wasn’t the first appearance of the phrase in print but it’s basically thought to be the one that most closely adheres to how we understand the use of the term “common sense” now. The term was also explored in multiple 18th Century British texts, including Richard Price’s Review of the Principal Questions in Morals and — of course — how can we do a show on common sense without talking about Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, which advocated for American independence from England, a cause that was particularly compelling to white slaveowners who had no qualms about committing genocide in order to steal land. But this offers a glimpse into why the term is so appealing to U.S. politicians now because it really does relate directly to this idea of ‘this is what the founding fathers had in mind.’

Adam: Yeah. And there’s an article from 1971 by author and humanities research, Geoffrey Nowell Smith, entitled “Common Sense is always Reactionary” that analyzes the term. This is sort of O.G. version of this show. For those kids out there, we are not the first people to come up with this idea.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: So, Nowell Smith discussed how the concept of common sense was part of the European Enlightenment-era belief in Universal Reason, 18th Century individualism, and the belief that quote “natural man” unquote who, if left to his own devices and uninfluenced by existing social mores, would develop the right ideas about the world. So the article would say quote “But just as Robinson Crusoe, on his desert island, ‘spontaneously’ develops a primitive capitalist mentality, so both Universal Reason and ‘natural man’ acquired from the start a distinctly middle-class character.” He would go on to say quote:

It is not just that the content of common sense beliefs belonged to the middle class. The fact is, only the bourgeoisie could have invented such a concept. For the bourgeoisie is the only class in history for whom individualism is an article of faith and which has a vested interest in seeing itself in individual rather than class terms and thus as the embodiment of all mankind…The development of thought is a social phenomenon and not the product of an encounter between a disembodied mind and a previously unthought-about reality. The mind is not just a blank sheet on which the truths of ‘common’ sense can be imprinted. The common sense that the bourgeoisie exalted was what they considered ‘reasonable.’

Nima: Yeah. So you can see that from the inception of this term how it has been used and even in previous analyses of it, it’s pretty clear where it comes from. It’s the idea that there is this shared universal understanding of what is right and normal and obvious and that anything outside of that can be painted as irrational, as radical, as beyond the pale, as not sensible and certainly not widely shared. The early 20th Century Italian Marxist philosopher and politician, Antonio Gramsci, wrote about the notion of common sense in his very famous work, Prison Notebooks, while he was incarcerated by Mussolini’s Fascist regime. So, building on the work of Marx, Gramsci argued that the notion of “common sense” defaults to the interests of the bourgeoisie in a capitalist society, much like the quote that Adam just read from 1971. So, according to Gramsci, though — and this is decades earlier — capitalism sustains itself not just through politically motivated violence and coercion, but also through ideology, through narratives, where capitalists dictate what is considered “common sense” on a large scale. So this is how we get to the idea of cultural hegemony or guiding dominant narratives that run throughout our society and throughout our communities and kind of define what is and what could be for us in total and therefore any resistance to that, to what is assumed to be the power serving status quo, can be painted as impossible and therefore impractical.

Antonio Gramsci

Adam: And of course there’s a ton of political utility in asserting and thus establishing notions of common sense because what you’re doing when you’re doing common sense is you’re, there’s an old sales trick — my old man was a salesman for 35, 40 years — and it’s called the Xerox Method. And basically, I think it developed somewhere in the ‘80s, you don’t say, ‘Do you want to buy a car?’ You say, ‘Do you want to buy a red car or a blue car?’ Right? When you’re selling a car. You sort of move past the essential kind of axiomatic and the debate is framed as, okay, we all agree it’s common sense that we need to quote unquote “do immigration reform” now we’re just going to figure out whether or not we want full blown ethnic cleansing or if we want some kinder version of it. Right?

Nima: ‘What color cages do you want?’

Adam: Yeah, because it’s obviously very political and ill-defined. Common sense functions as a kind of malleable rhetorical device to sanitize positions which are actually not common or are historically very debatable or contestable. That range from centrist to sort of outright reactionary or oftentimes, in the context of the seventies and eighties, very libertarian. And so we’re going to start off by talking about the ways in which common sense is used to justify centristism and right-wing ideology.

Nima: So who better to articulate this idea of ‘what is just common sense?’ then Ronald Reagan. Commonly associated with this very phrase, very fondly remembered for this kind of rhetorical device about common sense by the US media, Reagan also used common sense rhetoric to evoke some sort of universal, apolitical sense of reason that like actually doesn’t really exist in the world. The idea that this isn’t a partisan issue, this is, you know, has nothing to do with real politics. ‘This is just obvious.’ ‘This is the way things have to be.’ So for instance, in his 1984 State of the Union address, Reagan stated this:

[Begin Clip]

Ronald Reagan: The key to a dynamic decade is vigorous economic growth, our first great goal. We might well begin with common sense in federal budgeting: government spending no more than government takes in. (Applause) We must bring federal deficits down. (Applause)

[End Clip]

Nima: Huzzah! Harumph, harumph, harumph. Yeah. So, you know, then you get that big 1980s Congress cheering ‘Huzzah! Huzzah for Reagan! Bring federal deficits down.’

Adam: It’s common sense, Nima.

Nima: It’s common sense. So, the very next year Reagan delivered a speech on Veteran’s Day in which he predicted that common sense will really always prevail in our society.

[Begin Clip]

Ronald Reagan: Peace also fails when we forget to bring to the bargaining table God’s first intellectual gift to man: common sense. Common sense gives us a realistic knowledge of human beings and how they think, how they live in the world, what motivates them. Common sense tells us that man has magic in him, but also clay. Common sense can tell the difference between right and wrong. Common sense forgives error, but it always recognizes it to be error first.

[End Clip]

Adam: It’s great. Right? Cause we talked about that in Episode 95 with the libertarian choice rhetoric where in the seventies all this money went into think tanks and rebranding and coming up with a kind of new revamped moral message for pushing back the liberal state that emerged in the 1960s and the kind of liberal consensus surrounding that. You can’t elect Milton Friedman to get up there and say ‘I’m a fucking asshole and I to, I want to poor people to starve.’ Right? You need a sort of moral —

Nima: It smuggles it in, right?

Adam: Right. Yeah. ‘Cause it’s like, Oh obviously you have to balance the budget. That’s just common sense. Right? You got the family around the kitchen table, has got to do the books and make sure that the ledger balances the left and the right side. I mean it’s sort of, but of course that’s all bullshit. That’s deeply ideological. But he just sort of sneaks it in there and says, common sense tells us we have to balance our budget. You know, common sense. Well, what about, you know the large bloated military you just talked about five seconds ago, Reagan? ‘Oh, well common sense we have to keep that.’

Nima: Well, obviously because of the Ruskies, Adam, jeez.

Adam: Yes.

Nima: And so Reagan did this throughout his entire presidency up through his actual farewell speech in 1989 Reagan claimed that common sense — what else? — told us to cut taxes and and obviously oppose Communism. And this is how he did it. He said this:

[Begin Clip]

Ronald Reagan: I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.

Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something, the people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people’s tax rates, and the people produced more than ever before.

[End Clip]

Adam: Yeah, you know, the thing with Reagan is that he’s, again, his whole shtick was left-wing commentators have been making this point for 35 years, is that it’s just complete folksy bullshit, right? It’s all affect. It’s like doing evil things with a friendly smile and common sense is the great way you would phrase that because he doesn’t want to sit there and make the audiological argument that this is good or pull out a bunch of charts. So he just says, ‘Oh, shucks, you know, back, you know, simple country lawyer.’

Nima: Right.

Adam: Common sense. And it’s like, Oh, okay. Like, there’s this almost poetry in the anti-intellectualism, and he speaks like a charismatic preacher and he does what charismatic preachers do really well, which is he flatters the audience. ‘You understand common sense, people said, it was the Reagan revolution but aww shucks you and I both know it was just common sense.’ Like it’s very —

Nima: “Well, I’ll accept that.”

Adam: Yeah. He’s always flattering the listener. It’s actually, it’s quite brilliant — rhetorically speaking it’s deeply sinister — but it’s brilliant because it’s, it’s, there’s always this sort of ‘you and I get it.’

Nima: And what’s kind of amazing is, you know, as you said just now, Adam, like it is this ultimate kind of folksy anti-intellectualism clap trap. But who better to turn that into something that makes absolutely no sense then Joe Scarborough, now obviously host of MSNBC and Starbucks’ Morning Joe. But Joe, the Morning Joe, wrote a fawning 2014 article in TIME magazine, headlined, “Reagan: A Legacy of Optimism and Common Sense,” in which he said this, which makes no sense, that for Reagan, “common sense was intellectualism.” So just, yeah, sure, why not? (Laughs.)

Adam: It’s great because the reason why, what’s one of the reasons that people like Scarborough hate Trump so much — of course they would’ve liked him had he brought him into the campaign — but the reason why they detest the sort of stylistic is that Trump doesn’t launder his evil through this folksy bullshit. He’s just like, yeah, ‘I’m an evil prick. Let’s go do evil things.’ And they don’t like that because it makes things like long term entitlement cuts and stuff more difficult because they’re associated with this vulgarity as opposed to this, you know, grandfather with the sweater next to the fireplace, he’s going to gently explain to you why we need to make ketchup a vegetable and starve poor Black kids and ignore the AIDS crisis because ‘aw shucks is just common sense.’

Nima: Yeah, exactly. And so a 2015 article in the Christian Science Monitor chronicles politicians’ use of this term. Chuck McCutcheon, who authored the piece, cites a study that finds that like actually the bullshit about common sense in political speech, is certainly bipartisan.It is used almost equally by Republicans and Democrats. It is not just this like faux GOP folksy garbage. Everyone does this. Paul Ryan in October 2012, while touting presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s record in Massachusetts saying this: “This is the kind of climate and cooperation and common-sense reforms we need in Washington.” The fact that Romney would, you know, just govern with common sense, reaching across the isle in, you know, blue state Massachusetts.

Adam: So Obama did this thing where he would like to meet Republicans “halfway” and begin the negotiation there. And then of course invariably he would get rolled either because he himself was conservative or he was just not very good at it because there was this assumption that there was in fact common sense, that Republicans sort of shared a common sense. But as we’ll sort of discuss more later, they don’t share a common sense. Their common sense, especially after the 2010 Tea Party, the whole common sense was shifted somewhere else that later vomited out Trump. Right? And so this is from the article quote:

[The use of common sense] soared during the first year of President Obama’s term, when Democrats were trying to push through a variety of bills that they said fit the description of common sense. Obama himself has talked wistfully of a ‘common-sense caucus’ of Republicans who might be willing to bolt from their party to work with him.

Adam: So even when it’s used by Democrats, it’s still used for conservative ends, which is to say a sort of slight incrementalism. And so you’re Scott Boras, right? You’re the, your Mike Trout’s agent and you walk into a negotiation and you say, ‘Look, I don’t want to ask for too much. What do you think is reasonable? And we’ll start the negotiation there, right?’ Like you wouldn’t hire that person as your agent. And so this sort of brilliant liberal thing is to sort of begin by conceding this nebulous middle or starting from the nebulous middle and one of the ways you do that and one of the ways you do that in a way that the media loves, right? The Washington Post editorial board, the Jake Tappers, they love this, as you say, ‘we’re going to start with common sense and we’re going to create a common sense caucus,’ which is, if I’ve ever wanted to give a three word term a wedgie, it’s “common sense caucus” because that is the nerdiest thing, lamest thing I’ve ever heard.

Nima: But, yeah, I mean or Alabama’s Common Sense Tea Party Patriots, right? They’re just Tea Party patriots because they believe in common sense.

Adam: Yeah, and so the Tea Party, of course used it as well because the tea party was framed as a populous movement. Of course it wasn’t. It was a largely astroturfed, largely by the Koch brothers, John Birch 2.0, the John Birch Society, the original John Birch anti-Communist radicals was founded by the Koch brothers’ father in the 1950s. It was rebranded as the Tea Party and a lot of those groups employed language about common sense or had common sense in their names. There was a group called Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog that tracks federal spending. And then, of course, they were the ones who named Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” that became a lightning rod in the 2012 election, especially Sarah Palin loved it. Taxpayers for Common Sense has a former DoD appointee on its board. So there’s always this veneer of populism in the people in common sense then you look behind it and it’s some 97-year-old guy drooling on himself who like, you know, worked at Raytheon. ‘Oh, it’s common sense.’ Okay, well, nevermind then, let’s not look under the hood there.

Nima: So the Tea Party use of this, I think, is this faux-populism, but liberals suffer from this as well. You know, the idea that you can attack Trump and Trumpism because what does it do? It lacks “common sense.” For example, you have a March 2017 article in The Nation with the headline, “The Only Thing More Dangerous Than Trump’s Appeal to Common Sense Is His Dismissal of It.” While it does offer a criticism of the right-wing use of the term “common sense,” it really does that only to then turn around and echo one of the chief liberal grievances with Trump: that he doesn’t pay attention to — what else? — the facts, which therefore prohibits him from doing what is — what else? — rational. Right? And so everything Trump does is rational to him thereby undermining this argument of this universally held notion rationality. It is rational for Trump to act the way that he is acting because he cares about wealth and power. For instance, this a quote from the article:

Trump began his quixotic campaign for president as the embodiment of a familiar kind of right-wing, common-sense populism. Instead of deference to well-trained scientists, academics, journalists, and even governmental authorities, he touted the true wisdom of ‘the people.’ In place of fancy studies built on research, data, and modeling, he promised plain-spoken, off-the-cuff reports on the state of our world and obvious, practical solutions to our problems.

Adam: The piece would go on to say quote:

By undermining faith in traditional sources of intellectual authority, from the major news outlets to the National Institute of Health and the CIA, common-sense populists recast all those who participate in the ‘knowledge industry’ as biased enemies rather than objective analysts working in the interest of the common good.

So this writer’s hand-wringing, in part because Trump doesn’t acknowledge the sort of objectivity of the CIA —

Nima: (Laughs.) — of the CIA, right.

Adam: Many people in the Global South would dispute that. So his, again, Trump’s problem is not that he’s a proto-fascist, not that he’s a racist, but is that he’s projecting some sort of common knowledge. Ezra Klein has made a career off hand-wringing about this. He always talks about sort of the, he calls it the accepted or shared reality. ‘Before polarization, we had an accepted reality’ that presumably people like, you know, Ezra Klein who, who are given $200 million by Comcast to run Vox, they are the arbiters of accepted reality, which is sort of a high brow version of common sense, right? And that Trump doesn’t accept this reality. Instead of combating his common sense with an alternative vision of common sense there’s this hall monetarism, this kind of raising your hand, calling on the teacher or asking to speak to Trump’s manager, right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: We’re not saying he’s wrong or that he’s a Fascist or racist, but in fact he’s not deferring enough to some eggheads in the CIA.

Nima: Yeah. He’s not really showing his work enough.

Adam: Yeah. And this happens, we talk about this with strategy concern trolling, right? Like, ‘Oh, he doesn’t have a strategy for Iran. So if he summarily executes Iranian generals, it’s fine as long as he follows it up with like a ten point power presentation.’

Nima: Or listens to the common sense wisdom of the CIA.

Adam: Because this is common.

Nima: So there are really endless examples of the use of common sense in our political discourse because appeals to common sense can be seen throughout gun control debates, policing issues, criminal legal system reform debates, immigration, foreign policy, healthcare. It’s certainly worth noting here that many activists have called for tangible, clear and effective solutions to all of these various issues. But these curiously don’t fall under the category of “common sense” as they’re discussed in our political media. Rarely, if ever, do proposals labeled as “common sense” include things like demands for disarming or abolishing police or decriminalizing immigration, putting an end to coups and sanctions and invasions and occupations, instituting single payer healthcare. These are never deemed to be common sense. Rarely do media organizations challenge politicians proposing common sense reforms to actually comment on these types of demands, which are always seen as being completely irrational and radical.

Adam: So, one of the spaces liberals use common sense a lot is in gun control and this is a popular, I assume it polls well, that’s kind of assumed why they talk about it and they’ve been doing this since the nineties, the idea of common sense gun control. Now the problem with that is that banning automatic or assault weapons or even guns in general is sort of not common sense, right? That’s not on the docket.

Nima: Thomas Paine clearly said that we should all have AR-15s.

Adam: Right. So common sense becomes things: terror watch lists, right? Which is sort of a very, polls well, right? Don’t you want to create a terror watch list? If you’re on the no fly list, you should not be able to buy a gun. Now of course what’s missing from that is that the terror watch list is extremely racist and anti-Muslim and arbitrary.

Nima: And incorrect.

Adam: And so there’s not a lot of thought put into it cause it sort of polls well. Or you know, sort of mental illness, right? You’ll sort of see common sense appeals that we need to reform guns to prohibit weapons for the “mentally ill” or “mentally unstable.” But this of course flies in the face of the fact that less than 1 percent of annual gun homicides involve people with mental health diagnoses. In addition, people with mental health diagnoses are far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of gun violence. And the third prong to that, of course, is that we want to do what we always do, which is throw poor black people in jail by passing harsher prison sentences. So when Rahm Emanuel or Michael Bloomberg passed these “common sense” gun laws in the wake of mass shootings, which of course are in the suburbs, there’s this sense of ‘Oh well a common sense thing you do is you put people in cages for five, ten, fifteen years for having guns.’ So the common sense solutions to a national crisis of mass shootings, which there indeed is, is never to existentially ask questions about, you know, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, uh, you know, misogyny, etcetera. These things that animate proximity to militarism by the way, is a huge indicator as well. Never really examine those things cause that’s not common sense. You need to examine, we need to pick off the lowest hanging fruit that Republicans may agree to.

Nima: But you see this even in an era prior to our current kind of mass shooting nightmare when in the mid nineties this opinion piece ran in the Indianapolis Star. This is from May 3, 1995 and it’s talking about — what else? — common sense reforms in the wake of a more violent society. And that was, you know, gun-related crime, but also in the wake of the, uh, Oklahoma City bombing. So the article says this: “We are not helpless in the face of gun related crime, “going on to say that there are “several common-sense reforms that would make it easier to get guns away from criminals rather than the law-abiding. First, police should aggressively stop and frisk anyone whom they suspect may be carrying an illegal weapon. All probationers and parolees should be followed closely and their weapons confiscated if discovered. Also, technology to detect concealed guns at a distance would aid police in knowing whom to frisk.”

The article goes on to say this:

Civil libertarians will complain that stop-and-frisk tactics by police will disproportionately target young black men, sometimes pulling innocent men into the net, and that may be true. The question the rest of us have to ask, especially black women and children who are most likely to be victimized by criminals, is: Is it worth it?”

Adam: Right. So the common sense response to a white supremacist bombing is to criminalize Black people. Um, this is common sense. And, you know, I want to be clear. I do think some quote unquote “common sense” or that which is framed as common sense solutions to gun control, say like background checks, whatever, seem perfectly reasonable to me and not necessarily racialized, but so much of it is. And of course the common sense narrative doesn’t also include US militarism. Pete Buttigieg himself, of course, who constantly talks about common sense gun laws, this is his favorite go to. He tweeted out a picture in 2017 after the Las Vegas shooting of himself with a rifle in Afghanistan where he, you know, I think he drove a convoy briefly and he said, “I did not carry an assault weapon around a foreign country so I could come home and see them used to massacre my countrymen.” Right. Common sense doesn’t say maybe we shouldn’t be occupying a foreign country.

Nima: Right. Common sense doesn’t say ‘don’t be in Afghanistan if you’re an American soldier.’

Adam: Yeah. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of guns and it’s not even close to foreign countries. Right? We throw weapons into various conflicts, Libya, Syria, etcetera, etcetera. Stopping that is not, tethering that to the broader gun control conversation, can’t do it — cause why? — it’s not common sense.

Nima: One of the most frequent uses I think of the idea of common sense reform is when it comes to immigration, the actual movement of people across imaginary lines in the dirt. For instance, when neocons use the term and are involved in the development of this kind of immigration legislation, it’s of course always going to be thoroughly Fascist and yet still claimed to be common sense. So for instance, in 2018, the “Common Sense Caucus,” the most punchable phrase, consisted of a group of Democratic and Republican senators, reached an agreement that would provide funding for Trump’s border wall and cuts to family reunification programs amounting to what immigrants rights groups called a mass deportation bill. But the White House website had a page called “Common-Sense Immigration Reform that Keeps Families Together” on which, of course, it just talked about basically setting up concentration camps that rip families apart.

Adam: So meanwhile, the liberal vision of common sense for immigration approaches, a sort of lighter version of ethnic cleansing, right? It seeks to quote “reevaluate” or quote “remake” the barbaric ICE or border patrol system mostly based on optics. That quote unquote “reflects our values” while stressing the need for quote unquote “strong borders” national security, increased technology, prioritizing support for immigrants who quote unquote “contribute” to our society. As we discussed in our Nation of Immigrants, Episode 62 with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, this idea of the sort of good immigrant is lifted. This is the common sense notion of immigration. So both Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have used the term “common sense” when describing immigration. Buttigieg says, “Common sense immigration reform must include a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living, working, paying taxes, and contributing to our American story, including DREAMers.” Warren’s website says, “It’s long past time for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform.” And then that of course talks about remaking “CBP and ICE in a way that reflects our values.”

Nima: Remaking them. Not getting rid of them.

Adam: Well, yeah, but I mean in fairness, even a lot of people say they want to get rid of it, don’t really want to get rid of it. So that’s a different, that’s a different episode, but common sense immigration reform, common sense, comprehensive, common, it’s common sense. And of course that’s just, it becomes a sort of lighter version of, of ethnic cleansing, which I would say is better than Trump. I think we’d all agree on that. But what you’re really doing is you’re not, by appealing to common sense, you’re not having to sort of establish first principles, right? You’re not centering the humanity of the affected party or you’re centering some general sort of accepted morality of how it affects America and “our American dream” story, which was a really hacky way of putting this, very Pete Buttigieg.

Nima: It does something else too, which is it establishes a benchmark of normalcy upon which is kind of assumed to be shared and generally good. So common sense always has to do with what is understood currently as common sense. Right? Which is, I mean rife with problems, but what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t envision a new common sense. It’s assuming that the common sense is already agreed to, it’s just not policy yet. It doesn’t envision something that is not currently understood as common sense, but needs to be the the kind of reframing the new narrative of what it would mean to have a different type of society. It just stays in the realm of like what the current conception of possible is, which really winds up being just maintaining what already is.

Adam: Yeah. You know, Elizabeth Warren is not saying we need to sort of rethink how we view arbitrary borders, right? It’s, we need common sense. And then it’s basically just because all the people she takes are from cap and laundered through cap and the Obama administration. It’s just Obama 2.0. A little bit more progressive I would assume. But more or less the same thing. This is also a very common term you hear in healthcare, which I’m sure is not a surprise to a lot of people listening. Repeatedly, common sense is used to sort of limit the scope of how we can talk about healthcare and to dismiss single payer as being outside of the realm of common sense. So the right-wing Heritage Foundation published an article in 2012 headlined, “Saving the American Dream: The U.S. Needs Commonsense Health Insurance Reforms.” That’s the same Heritage Foundation that was the original architect of Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. And this was used, in 2010 this language was used in an op-ed in The Hill about the rising cost of insurance. So like you see people like Pete Buttigieg and Biden, who dismissed single payer healthcare for public option or Medicare for All and who want it, is constantly trafficked in this common sense language because they don’t want to take away your private insurance.

Nima: Who would disagree with that, Adam?

Adam: Yeah, I mean, look, it’s just, I think we’ve made our point to death here, but it’s just, it’s just folksy mugging, right? It’s sort of doing all the thinking for you so you can go ‘well yeah, that seems about right.’

Nima: Well, right. And it’s also gatekeeping. To say that it’s power serving is redundant, but there’s this quote from political theorist Chantal Mouffe, which is this:

Things could always be otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. Any order is always the expression of a particular configuration of power relations. What is at a given moment accepted as the ‘natural order’, jointly with the common sense that accompanies it, is the result of sedimented hegemonic practices.

Adam: Yeah, because common sense is by definition morally incurious. It doesn’t try to envision a better world because that which is new or radically new is by definition not commonly known or commonly understood. So the goal of politics is to sort of manage expectations or to manage lowered expectations rather than to assert a better vision of the world. And so that necessarily turns everyone into spectators and then it becomes how do we sort of tweak common sense to sort of suit what we all agree on is good and right, which necessarily turns you into a very myopic political actor.

Nima: To discuss this and more we’re going to be joined by Dr. Kate Crehan, Professor Emerita at the College of Staten Island and the CUNY Graduate Center. She’s the author of a number of books, most recently, Gramsci′s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives. Dr. Crehan will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Dr. Kate Crehan. Dr. Crehan, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kate Crehan: A pleasure.

Adam: So we spent the first half of the show dissecting notions of common sense and related concepts like reasonableness or seriousness as kind of tautologies that reinforce the sort of prevailing ideology of power. Now obviously these things are colored by power and specifically one’s proximity to it and then it seeks to define not only what it supposedly is, but also what’s possible. Right? So it sort of limits not just the way the world is, but what it could be in ten, fifty, a hundred years. Can we talk about what Gramsci says about common sense to sort of kick off this conversation and how our notions of common sense have evolved over time.

Dr. Kate Crehan

Kate Crehan: Sure. So the first thing to say is that Gramsci, Antonio Gramsci, was of course writing in Italian and the term that he uses “senso comune” is not actually an exact translation for common sense. And the important thing is that unlike the English term common sense, senso comune doesn’t have this automatic positive connotation. It’s a much more neutral term. It refers to just all of those ideas, beliefs, assumptions that are taken for granted. I mean the key thing that defines common sense really is that it is something that does not need to be proved. All you have to do is state it and any, in quotes, “reasonable” person will immediately recognize its truth. If you have to bring in evidence, if you have to prove it, it’s not common sense. So that’s the first thing to note. Now for Gramsci, common sense was an enormously important aspect of political narratives, both from the right and the left. And for Gramsci, he felt that or thought that, in any given time and place you have this whole sort of confused, chaotic assemblage of notions, many of them contradictory, some of which have more authority and power than others. And those on the whole will reflect the way that those in power in that society see the world and the other views of the world do exist. And uh, understandings of the world from those people who are oppressed or subordinate within that order will see things differently and will articulate to some extent what their understanding of the world is. But precisely because they are subordinated it’s very, very hard for them to formulate those in a kind of coherent, articulate way. However — and this is really important in Gramscian thought — Gramsci felt that in order for there to be substantial change in society, radical change, there needed to be new narratives which would be generated by the experience of the subordinated and the oppressed. And those new narratives would be worked on also by intellectuals. Progressive intellectuals would produce articulate and coherent and powerful political narratives. And a lot of the power of those narratives would come from a kind of new progressive common sense. And if you want to think of a kind of example of what that might look like, you can think of say the Occupy movement which came up with this slogan “We are the 99%.” Now that’s not something that is kind of argued for or evidence is provided for that. This is something that captures the sense of many people that the way the economy works, the way society works is to the benefit of a very small minority and at the expense of the large majority and it’s that kind of, what Gramsci said was new common sense, that he thought was crucial for the creation of powerful and effect oppositional narratives to the status quo.

Nima: This makes me think of something you wrote in your book and it’s this quote, “We can think of common sense as naming the comfortable, predictable certainties that provide us with much of basic moral furniture.” And I think that speaking to this basic moral furniture, as you’ve said, like, how does that get rearranged around, you know, rooms of powers, say, to create a new kind of hegemonic narrative when there is so much opposition to that. And is it really just a trick of using a really good slogan or how is that needed to be backed up by organizing movement-building, power-building?

Kate Crehan: Well, I think to give you a concrete example, one of the most basic assumptions of modern society is that everybody has equal rights or should have equal rights. And that is kind of taken for granted. You know, Gramsci will seriously argue that people don’t have equal rights, at least in theory. And that would be something I think that would fall into Gramsci’s category of this good sense, that there’s these nuggets of good sense that are within this great morass of common sense. This notion that we all have equal rights was really a crucial turning point, I think, when it began to be used in the struggle for the legalization of gay marriage. Once the argument started to be made that everybody has a right to marry, then why can’t LGBT people get married? And that became a very, very powerful argument, I think, and this is in fact an instance where we can see the sort of consensus in, the states at least, changing very, very rapidly. Really. I mean, I think if you said thirty years ago that gay marriage should be legal, people would just have laughed at you. I mean it was just a ridiculous notion, but this is something, I think it’s a good example of how things can change.

Nima: Mhm. I mean, do you see that as having changed because of a focus on rights or were there other important narratives lifted up formerly maybe backgrounded or less dominant narratives that then became more dominant stories of love or acceptance or if you have this, why can’t everyone have this? Like what do you think was maybe the tipping point and was it really a narrative about rights universally held?

Kate Crehan: I think so. I mean I think as you said, the right to love. You started off asking me about this notion of sort of a basic moral furniture and this is the kind of assumption I think that has that kind of status of that basic moral furniture. Of course it’s only a sort of skeleton that needs to be fleshed out that needs to have, yes, all kinds of other arguments, that needs to have, it needs a movement to develop it and work on it. But I think one can see at the heart of that movement a very important assertion of rights.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: I want to move from the kind of philosophical to the practical in terms of how it plays out on a day to day. Not that the two are mutually exclusive I know. So we discussed at the top of the show, the kind of faux populism of the term common sense. I find it simultaneously kind of really funny when people evoke common sense because it’s um, it’s sort of the textbook definition of smarm. It’s like ‘You and I, us common folk we know not like those egghead academics. It’s common sense.’ It’s so, it’s simultaneously funny but also quite pernicious because within common sense of course a lot of bad things are smuggled into it. Can we talk about the sort of way in which common sense as a sort of rhetorical tick in politics kind of does the thinking for both the speaker and the listener?

Kate Crehan: Right. I think here the thing is that in a way common sense is the name of the game. I mean the aim is to get whatever your belief, idea, program, whatever accepted as common sense. If you can do that, then it becomes very difficult to argue against. So yes, people are always trying to assert that their opinions, their programs are simply common sense.

Nima: Right. It’s a really powerful currency, both rhetorical and political.

Kate Crehan: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Adam: Well, right. Because what it does is it absolves one of the tasks of having to explain themselves, right? Because if I say, ‘Look, obviously it’s common sense we can’t have gay marriage, but like let’s have civil unions. This is common sense.’ It’s like, well, that’s just where the conventional wisdom is at at the time. It’s not a morally or intellectually interesting thing to say. It really is kind of inherently conservative unless you’re part of some political project whose purpose is to create a new common sense. Right?

Kate Crehan: Right, right. Yes. Yeah, and this is something, one of the things that Gramsci really stressed is that a crucial part of progressive politics is what he called the cultural front, is about trying to change people’s ideas about how the world works and how it should work at that kind of cultural level.

Adam: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to, I don’t want to sound like a left-wing Steve Bannon, but definitely in the last few years I’ve thought very heavily about the ways in which the right has so many more cultural products than the left has. And you see this, especially in criminal justice reform, when you talk about crime, right? Like 99% of shows are cops and lawyers putting people in jail. And then if you’re a criminal justice advocate, it’s like, well, there’s this other form of violence that’s prison. You spend basically an hour explaining to people how cruel and violent prison is and that it’s not necessarily a punishment for violence, but is in fact itself violence. There’s all this kind of moral architecture you have to build that you cannot appeal to common sense, right?

Nima: New moral furniture.

Adam: Yeah, new moral furniture and it’s a pain in the ass. And the reason is because so much money and institutional power obviously goes into those cultural products and the left for institutional reasons, that of course, makes sense, right? There’s not as much money by definition on the left. It sort of doesn’t have that until, maybe until Netflix’s When They See Us where you sort of saw the other end of it. That was probably the first time I saw that in a pop culture context in probably twenty years. So yeah. It’s interesting you mentioned the idea of creating a new common sense because it’s definitely um, it’s definitely a lot of work, right? Because you have to rewire people’s brains in pop culture.

Kate Crehan: The thing is that it’s always easier to sort of go along the grains of an existing hegemony. So yes, I mean, you know, we have this existing narrative of law and order, of crime of, you know, you need to punish people, you know, you have all that this kind of existing narrative, so it’s much easier to kind of produce TV shows, films, whatever, but go along with that narrative. It’s much, much harder to produce something that really is oppositional.

Nima: Yeah. I think what we’ve been talking about, obviously, has so much to do with power and how power is wielded in our society through culture, through politics, where those two intersect, which is most often completely a venn diagram, that’s a single circle. But can we talk about some of how this idea of common sense is so weaponized and in that weaponization, the foundational concepts of racism, sexism and misogyny, basically the common sense as understood is that where there is a white male dominant culture, and not to just sound like some raving Leftie —

Adam: Well. (Laughs.)

Nima: But I am. But when we’re talking, even in just kind of generalized terms, there are examples like this, you know, African American activists since the early 1980s were blaming a government conspiracy for the crack cocaine epidemic. And then, you know, when Gary Webb does his reporting a decade later, it’s revealed that those conspiracy theories were not actually conspiracy theories. They were correct. What they were saying was actually true and the CIA now even concedes that that was what was going on. Similarly with people talking about sexual assault wielded by people in power. And it was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, okay, got it feminists, whatever.’ And now with the things like #metoo and just far more reporting on that kind of thing, like common sense dismisses the lived experiences of people who are not in power as like its starting point. How does that fit into our idea of then how to shift power through organizing and through creating new narratives?

Kate Crehan: I think this organizing is the key term here and I think to bring another theorist in, someone who fits in very well here is W.E.B. Du Bois with his notion of double consciousness. And what this is about is the way that those people who occupy the subordinate or more subordinate positions in society — people of color, women, etcetera — they are forced to live their life and sort of navigate through it, adopting the dominant common sense understandings about the way the world works. But they also have their own experience, which tells them that it’s really not like that. And it’s really different. And there’s this kind of double consciousness. And I think the aim of organizing is precisely to kind of bring this submerged consciousness, which is often in a sort of rather fragmented form, but to bring this to the surface and to build on it. And I think here the Black Lives Matter is a really interesting example of this, of people of color knew perfectly well that there was discriminatory policing that in many ways the justice system didn’t seem to care about black lives. And sort of bringing that to the surface and this thing I think of finding a formulation, a slogan if you like, that captures this in a sort of powerful emotional way is a very important part of that kind of organizing. And that, because the thing is, I think it’s not that none of us have kind of completely formed, settled ideas that we have somewhere sort of in our semi consciousness, but rather, is then and the people that we mix with and you know, what we see, what we read, etcetera, are continually forming us, are continually shaping how we see the world. And a good, powerful political movement actually brings all those fragments together in some kind of powerful organized form. And I mean in a very horrible example, if you like, but a very effective one is Trump who, it’s not that the followers of Trump already had, you know, a Trumpian narrative already formed there. He very effectively brought together their fears and anxieties and sense of grievance and sense that the things were going down hill, etcetera, etcetera. He brought them together into this kind of classically kind of common sense narrative.

Nima: Well, how do you think that that intersects with the Gramscian idea of the pessimism of the intellect versus optimism of the will? Is that wielded in those Trump rallies, Nuremberg rallies, you know? Like are we seeing a similar thing where intellect is then seen as, you know, this extremely negative thing or is there a different way to read the Gramscian notion of pessimism versus optimism?

Kate Crehan: Quite frankly, I find it very difficult, I mean, I try to avoid the Trump rallies, but I find it very difficult to see anything intellectual in them whatsoever. But no, Gramsci’s notion, this slogan, which was used in The New Order newspaper that he and the communists put out “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” What this is about is the pessimism of the intellect here is the need to be absolutely realistically realistic to look with a sort of total, objectivity and kind of hard nosed look at what you’re facing, what you’re up against, what are the possibilities, where are the points at which you might be able to intervene in a political context, for instance. But at the same time, the optimism of the will is this kind of sense of possibility and the idea that change is actually possible. So that is this kind of emotional, really powerful emotional element, which for Gramsci was a key part of any political movement. And then you have at the same time, you have this careful analysis of what is possible so that you don’t have reckless initiative, which end up with people being harmed, damaged, whatever.

Adam: You talked earlier about sort of different common senses politically, specifically Trump with Trump and Trump rallies, which I think is interesting because there was a moment last month where Trump was giving a speech and he said, quote, “Anybody have a new dishwasher? I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry for that. It’s worthless! They give you so little water. You ever see it? Air comes out.”

Kate Crehan: Right.

Adam: And liberals were making fun of that. Like has Trump never worked a dishwasher. What is, why is he talking about dishwashers? But as someone who of course who grew up watching Fox News in a right wing family, I knew exactly what he meant, which is that complaining about EPA regulations for appliances has been a right-wing grief since the nineties. Like if you read manifestos of right-wing terrorists, like half of what they complain about is EPA regulations, right? It’s a premise of Reagan era Ghostbusters. It’s a huge right-wing grievance thing that the EPA regulates your light bulbs, etcetera, etcetera. That was just a totally different common sense. Right? It’s taken for granted in those circles. You can’t even really in some senses really combat Trumpism without understanding their language and their grammar.

Kate Crehan: Absolutely. And this is what Trump has a kind of brilliance at. He sort of is able to respond to all these varied kind of anxieties and irritations and particularly this real resentment of the political correctness police.

Adam: Oh yeah. He’s a master of narratives and narrative building. Right? Like this is why all the fact checking is so amusing to me. Cause it doesn’t matter if it’s true. He’s a narrative builder.

Kate Crehan: Absolutely. And I actually, I wrote something on Trump’s rhetoric and relating it to Gransci’s notion of common sense. And one of the things I quoted, which is quite interesting, is a linguist who talked about the way that Trump’s very inarticulateness, the fact that his sentences don’t make sense makes these powerful emotional words that he uses and that he sort of drops in at the end of the sentence is much more powerful.

Adam: Right. Yeah. The sort of bumbling act is part of the routine. It’s not a, I mean he’s also probably just bubbling in general, but it’s also like, like his sort of brutishness and aloofness and the guy clearly never studies, right? He doesn’t read.

Kate Crehan: No, no, no, no, no.

Adam: That’s the perfect id. Right? And it’s very clear the guy spends all day reading comments on Twitter and YouTube from like @redstategunlover37. He really understands what the red meat is. So I think that’s interesting because why that matters is that in 2020 or you know, to put it in sort of crude political terms, if you’re going to combat Trumpism, it’s not enough to just, I personally think to do what Clinton did, where you basically fact check him to death and talk about how crazy he is.

Kate Crehan: No.

Adam: We need a competing narrative. We need competing common sense.

Kate Crehan: Absolutely.

Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. Dr. Kate Crehan, Professor Emerita at College of Staten Island and the CUNY Graduate Center. Author of a number of books, most recently Gramsci′s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives. Dr. Crehan, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Kate Crehan: A pleasure.


Adam: Yeah, I guess I’m fascinated by the idea of creating alternative moral common senses.

Nima: Building new moral furniture.

Adam: Right. And um, I definitely think that viewing common sense as both something that can be sinister and horrible, but also something that can be a powerful counter narrative is interesting because again, what traditionally what most liberals are bad at is counter narrative. So they’re bad at, they’re not bad at narratives in general, right? Because it’s an ideology that is by definition reactive. It is by definition about preserving status quo and preserving capitalism. It’s not about providing a counter moral narrative. I don’t know for a fact, I could be wrong, what I believe is that if you do submit a counter narrative, if you do submit or try to build a new common sense as a political project, you’re going to be way more successful because that inspires people to care about what it is you’re doing.

Nima: That there is a new aspirational vision for how things could be, which opens up the idea of new possibilities that can be seen as realistic, not just kind of like idealistic, but that when they’re embedded in organizing, when they’re embedded in movement building and power building and solidarity, they can be realized. Those visions don’t have to be just completely fantastical if the narrative can be shifted to a new understanding of what a political reality and a cultural reality could be. But a lot of that also has to be accompanied with new common sense and new narratives about how we got to our current state.

Adam: And deconstructing and critiquing and reducing the stature of and questioning the current common sense. Right? I mean, you see this, in my opinion, you see this more profoundly with how we talk about healthcare now than we did even five years ago. The conversation, you know, maybe I’m in my bubble a little bit, but even if you look at polling, the common sense around healthcare is totally different. And I think that that’s what happens when you start to pick apart common sense and say, well is it necessary that thousands of people die a year due to a lack of healthcare, etcetera, etcetera? So that’s an exciting concept I think moving forward. I think both the destruction of and building of new common senses is useful.

Nima: So that will do it for this episode on common sense. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, an extra special shout out goes to our critic levels supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, February 19, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.