How 'Common Sense' Became A Political Catchphrase
If you watch Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, there’s a phrase we can all but guarantee you’ll hear. It’s two words and its used by politicians from every party.
Have you figured out what that phrase is yet?Ted Cruz sure has:
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have too:
Even Governor Pat McCrory has made it a regular part of his repertoire:
These days, ‘common sense’ has become such a political cliché that it got Sophia Rosenfeld wondering, "why that term crops up in contemporary political life so often?" Rosenfeld decided to start researching the use of 'common sense' by politicians. Eventually, she wrote a book about it.
As a history professor at Yale, her view of contemporary is a bit broader than most. It first appeared, she says "in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution in England" when they overthrew the king in 1688. "It starts to get used more and more frequently as a term that’s going to solve the problems of fighting in politics."
Back then, politicians used 'common sense' to find common ground. Rosenfeld describes it as "we’ll just settle for something that’s obvious or clear to everyone who isn’t absurd or crazy." But, she adds, it didn’t take long for politicians to figure out the phrase 'common sense' was "something you can fight with really effectively."
And boy have they, especially here in America.
First came Thomas Paine’s pamphlet arguing for American Independence. Paine made 'common sense' a term for radical thought. A mantle, Rosenfeld found, many grabbed onto. "For instance, abolitionists arguing against slavery. It’s used by feminists arguing for women’s suffrage."
For a long time though, references of 'common sense' and Thomas Paine were uttered mostly by the political left. Until Ronald Reagan decided to make it his own according to Rosenfeld. "And Reagan loves this notion of restoring common sense to American political life".
The use of 'common sense' as catchphrase has ebbed and flowed since then. Sophia Rosenfeld believes there’s a reason it’s come back into fashion today. "The more contentious politics become at any given moment, the more often people have recourse to common sense." Which means the utterances of 'common sense' this election will be far more common than the sense it implies.