The Fight Over Common Sense: How the Tea Party and the Right Get Tom Paine Wrong

Every politician says they have it, but few understand its roots in American history and Tom Paine’s true legacy.

Does your local representative have some new legislation to propose this year? Chances are he or she will promote it as the embodiment of common sense. Tax cuts, health-insurance reform, even new laws requiring those running for election to prove their citizenship: No policy area is immune. “It’s not a birther bill, it’s a common-sense bill,” explained Republican State Senator Rick Brinkley, a lead sponsor of a recent Oklahoma initiative requiring that all candidates provide certified proof that they meet the legal qualifications for the office in question. And recently Godfather Pizza CEO Hermain Cain announced he was running for president of the United States on none other than a platform of “common-sense solutions.” Common sense has become the standard to which all good political decisions are supposed to conform.

In a fraught and polarized moment, a politics built on common sense sounds appealingly pragmatic and uncontroversial, the kind of the thing upon which we can’t help but agree. It also sounds deeply American in a folksy sort of way. In its latest incarnation—and especially among conservative grassroots groups with names like the Common Sense Tea Party who have rejuvenated this appeal—common sense conjures up a storied past in which “we, the people,” as opposed to pointy-headed experts and elites, ruled the day, and true leaders recognized the wisdom of this path. Consider the markers going backward through the centuries: Alabama Governor George Wallace’s celebration of “old cab-drivin’ logic” over the “pseudo-theoreticians’ logic” of intellectuals. Prairie and Southern populists of the 1890s demanding the return of politics to “the hands of the ‘plain people’” who are uniquely endowed with “the teachings of experience.” Jacksonians even earlier in the 19th century insisting on their man’s “native strength of mind” and “practical common sense” as “more valuable than all the acquired learning of a sage.” And at the beginning of it all, Tom Paine and his great pamphlet, which forever linked common sense with the spirit of 1776 and the making of the United States. Indeed, it is the author of the original Common Sense who has emerged as the grandfather of America’s current common sense nostalgia.

There is only one problem: In historical terms, this genealogy itself makes no sense. Paine may have invented an idiom that came over time to seem profoundly American. But “the Englishman” (as his opponents called him) had only very recently arrived on this side of the Atlantic when he penned Common Sense, and he was steeped in contemporary British and European thought. Moreover, even in his new home on the banks of the Schuylkill River, Paine appeared a hotheaded radical. In no way did he take his job to be channeling the everyday consensus of ordinary people, as the term “common sense” might suggest. Certainly, Paine espoused suspicion of too-powerful states, which makes him eminently quotable by Tea Partiers now. But his suggestion that the colonies not only separate from England to become an independent political body but throw over kingship and aristocracy in the process puts him decidedly outside the mainstream of North American thought in the winter of 1775-76. Paine’s subsequent support for the French Revolution, enthusiasm about plans for the redistribution of wealth, and especially, extreme antipathy to Christianity and churches of all stripes made “the Englishman” reviled on both sides of the Atlantic for most of the 19th century. Until his reappropriation by President Reagan in the 1980s, Paine, with his radically anti-authoritarian and prophetic brand of common sense, generally played the role of patron saint only for the most left wing of causes, from women’s suffrage to socialism. Which may explain why he is the one Founding Father without a monument or museum or official birthday marked in Washington.

Yet in another way, the Tea Partiers’ and, now, mainstream Republicans’ and Democrats’ adoption of Paine and his common sense are not so far off the mark we might think. Common sense always gets evoked to make ideas sound simple, practical, and beyond debate, whether in 1776 or today. But in truth it has never been thus. As Tom Paine knew just as well as Sarah Palin does now, to adopt the mantle of common sense is to claim to speak for the whole (“we, the people”—or, at least, the sensible among them) when pushing a particular point of view of a particular slice of the population. It is also a very effective mode of attack, a way to dismiss all opposition as mere nonsense. Common sense lies at the core of a very old form of politics that succeeds on the promise of an end to politics. From “common sense” birther bills to “common sense” Social Security reform to, most recently, the perplexing attack of Fox News’ “common sense conservatives” on the socially conscious rapper formerly known as Common Sense, we are still a far cry from hearing the true vox populi.