Exploring the Roots of Populism in ‘Common Sense: A Political History’

“The problem with common sense,” the old adage goes, “is that it is not so common.” That may be true, but Sophia Rosenfeld aims to show at least how “common sense” has acted as a powerful cultural and political idea over the past 350 years. Her book Common Sense: A Political History traces the roots of this concept back to the French Enlightenment and England’s Glorious Revolution, and follows it up to populist movements of the present.

While Rosenfeld’s book is nominally about a small but interesting subsection of intellectual history, it’s clear that Common Sense intends to cast a wider net. The book’s press materials mention Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, while the jacket namedrops Barack Obama and George W. Bush. A historian, Rosenfeld spends most of her book focusing on “common sense” before 1800. But her central thesis makes the case that these past ideas have a broad effect on the present. Indeed, Rosenfeld is convinced that the strands of anti-elitism and populism, the belief that the “common man” knows what is best for the country, even the entire sweep of 20th-century democracy, can be traced back to the earlier belief in a sensus communis.

What follows is a fascinating, albeit sometimes technical, history of the belief in what Rosenfeld describes as “the myth of a unified people, endowed with an irrefutable and consensual folk wisdom born of its collective quotidian experience.” The idea of common sense pops up in many different guises throughout modern history, and one of Rosenfeld’s more interesting points is that it is hardly ever utilized the same way twice.

Thus, we have conservative philosophers in 17th-century Britain invoking “common sense” as a way to combat the rising tide of skepticism and atheism, while at the same time on mainland Europe, progressive philosophers were citing “good sense” as a reason to rebel against the status quo. The most famous use of common sense, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, sparked a revolution in America, while common sense was used in France 20 years later to argue against the excesses of rebellion.

Throughout history, it appears, the idea of “common sense” can be used to support all kind of political movements; the populist appeal to the common wisdom of the people, it appears, is one of the oldest political tricks in the book. Rosenfeld rightly points out that common sense is most often utilized against some sort of “Other”, with politicians touting their own sensible ideas against some sort of radical, extreme ideology, whether that be liberal or conservative. In bringing the power of the vote to the people, democracy has also ensured that politicians must convince the people that they’re just another one of the folks.

The ambiguities and contradictions of common sense make for an interesting book — after reading the different manners in which the phrase has been used throughout political history, the reader gains an understanding of common sense as a political conservatism that nonetheless radically pushes against the status quo. Common sense is most often used by those people purporting to protect conservative ideologies and old-fashioned values, but at the same time want to upset and remake the current political order. It’s an interesting inconsistency that those who are most willing to fall back on good old-fashioned “common sense” for their arguments are often the most radical.

Ever the objective scholar, Rosenfeld stops short on providing her own views about “common sense”. But after reading the book, one could rightly wonder if such an concept even exists. Throughout history, different groups have laid claim to the idea, and Rosenfeld points out that it’s nearly impossible to argue against tenets that your opponent believes are due to “common sense”, whether that be God-given logical intuition, or the wisdom cultivated from a lifetime’s worth of experience. Additionally, Rosenfeld indicates how “common sense” is almost never used by political moderates; instead, the extremes of both sides of the political spectrum rush to claim it as their own.

Rosenfeld also refrains from judgment of modern political movements; the bulk of her book concerns the period between 1650 and 1800, with only one chapter dedicated to the specter of “common sense” that currently floats over all modern democracies. This is unfortunate, because the modern utilization of common sense is by far the most interesting part of the book, in which Rosenfeld addresses the ideas of modern thinkers like Hannah Arendt, as well as movements such as that Dadaists that were completely against common sense. But after the excruciatingly detailed exposition on the common sense movements of the 18th-century, this final chapter feels rushed and tacked on, as if Rosenfeld wants to make a general nod toward the politics of the present without actually committing to anything.

From the populist demagoguery of the Tea Party to the social leveling provided by the Internet, common sense is now a more powerful force than ever. Myth or no, the political effects of common sense will not be going away any time soon. Rosenfeld’s book may not necessarily provide an answer to all the thorny political issues of the present, but it does provide a fascinating look back through our intellectual history, and offers a excellent view of the foundations of modern populism.

RATING 8 / 10