When Thomas Paine wrote his aptly named 1776 pamphlet, 'common sense' was the leitmotif he felt best captured the reasons for rejecting British rule. He felt 'common sense' would usher in an era of democracy, republicanism, and federal rule, all of which John Adams, second president of the democratic, federal republic, thought resembled a 'disastrous meteor' due to hit America; if only they had the nukes to stop it.
So while Thomas Paine was trying to hide his smugness in the 'safety’ of France, at this point engaged in bloody war with most of Europe, John Adams stepped into his smouldering crater of an office in order to assess the damage of this new political era: the era of so-called common sense.
Politicians love 'common sense'. The phrase has been applied to austerity by Cameron, and Scottish independence by Alex Salmond. Paul Ryan pledged allegiance to 'common sense conservatism', whilst Donald Trump Jr spoke of learning from those with 'doctorates in common sense', Trump University's latest postgraduate option. If this sense is so common, why can't anyone seem to agree on what it actually means?
In many ways, the phrase is an interesting exercise in semantics, so slippery in nature it’s no wonder modern politicians love to gobble it up and inflict it upon the entire population. In an age of populism and anti-establishment sentiment, the phrase speaks to the collective feeling that we're being fobbed off by the big guys. Because political scientists use fancy words, and economists are just puppets of the state, right? What we need are solutions written by the people, for the people, spelling mistakes n’ all.
Society's suspicion of the elite makes it far too easy to discount the opinions of others as the product of corruption and deceit; when this is the case we come to rely more on our own perceptions and anxieties than factual detail. But whether used to justify neo-Nazism or removing the tea bag before you add the milk, the 'common sense' approach actively encourages the rejection of rationality and reason in favour of instinct, making simplicity rather than sensibility the main agent in our decision-making process.
The rise of Donald Trump and the popular vote in favour of Brexit exemplify this idea in the Western hemisphere, but perhaps popular support for the 'common sense' mass execution of drug users and pushers in the Philippines is indicative of the wider appeal of this brand of political outreach, or perhaps even its fundamental position in the psyche of modern humanity. Gove's assertion that Britain has 'had enough of experts', whilst almost universally condemned, was a surprisingly accurate statement. When Leave voters were asked to consider the referendum, only 26% said they trusted academics and even fewer felt this way towards economists. Even the media, said by many to shape political opinion like a tailor might a small square of fabric, was trusted by only 11% of those polled. Well over 60% of this same group felt it was better to rely on the feelings of 'ordinary people'.
Commentators often discuss our susceptibility to misleading ideas 'thrust upon us' in a world post-reason, but what they ignore is our own complicity in this process, as we rationalise these messages in terms of our own subjective experience and biases, instead of verifying them against inescapable truths.
In America, the 41% of voters on course to vote for Donald Trump seem, whilst often convinced of Clinton's absolute evil, to have also been influenced by this same doctrine. The simplicity of Trump's solutions has seduced them, but when he returns to his vast wealth and shiny buildings they'll be stood naked and bereft, wondering what happened to all that bygone glory and short-lived expectation.
To characterise common sense as a new idea would be inaccurate, however. Common sense, though not always existing under that name, existed well before Thomas Paine popularised it with his radical battle cry against oppression. Christianity was such a fundamental part of existence for most Europeans from the early medieval period onwards, that to question its nature never mind its existence would have constituted a gross misdemeanour. It was a society underpinned by superstition. Likewise, only recently changed perceptions of women have been fuelled for centuries by a fundamental, perhaps not even malicious, belief that this arrangement was in some way 'natural'; that to have things any other way wouldn’t be 'common sense', but a perversion of established order, then dictated absolutely by God.
If, however, we consider our medieval predecessors barbaric and superstitious for simply abiding by their 'sense', what will future generations think of us and our collective values? It’s slightly concerning to think that in an all-vegan, anarchistic future world our silly ideas of property, individual liberty and pet ownership might be considered the 'trappings of an undereducated, unenlightened "Space Age" civilisation'. Will we be another society underpinned by ridiculous superstition, just like we paint our ancestors? When common sense is so subjective, why do people put it on such a high pedestal?
Perhaps, to some extent, it is the wealth of material available which makes 'common sense politics' so popular, however ironic that seems to be. When confronted with conflicting facts and figures, the endless spin of politicians, and the hundreds of opinions which become available every day, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it all, frustrated at our inability to be completely informed. Perhaps by writing this I’m only making things worse.
More cynically, we can blame the politicians of recent history. Did the government’s decision to invade Iraq, condemned now but supported by over half of the public at the time, trigger a loss in faith? Blair’s initial popularity is notable, but as his approval plummeted, did we subconsciously reject received knowledge and vow to trust nobody but ourselves, and what we think is correct? Did the corruption of Nixon and Johnson make the American public, considerably more deferential towards authority before these two administrations, reconsider their belief in American government and foster an attitude of scepticism still present today? Or was it Bill Clinton’s sexual deviance and the financial crash of 2008 which achieved this same effect? Maybe people are just getting grumpier; maybe there’s just something in the atmosphere.
The number of rhetorical questions in that paragraph explains some of what people are going through today: everything is shrouded in so much uncertainty, it’s near impossible to engage in modern politics. Simplification is much easier, particularly when it’s tailor-fit to our own biases and worries. Politicians pick up on this. Perhaps, as fallible individuals rather than the evil caricatures we often imagine, they themselves are going through this very same thing. But to have our opinions dictated by common sense is ridiculous. Of course we should have values and principles, but to allow everything we think to be prescribed by a personal 'feeling' aimed at an ideal is to hide reason and evidence in a thick, impenetrable cloud.
Demagogues like Donald Trump threaten justice and freedom in our society, but he’s only as powerful as common sense allows him to be.
Jonathan Tevendale is a16-year-old pupil of Mallaig High School. He is the current Scottish Schools' Young Writer of the Year