The problem with common sense, goes an old joke, is that it is not so common. A less-recognized problem is that sometimes it doesn’t make sense, either.
Those contradictions were on display during a tense exchange Wednesday between senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, who asked Miller to provide some proof that low-skilled immigrants are causing job losses for American citizens. Here’s a short excerpt from the much-longer dialogue:
Miller: Let's also use common sense here, folks. At the end of the day, why do special interests want to bring in more low-skilled workers? And why historically—
Thrush: Stephen, I'm not asking for common sense. I'm asking for specific statistical data.
Miller: Well, I think it's very clear, Glenn, that you're not asking for common sense, but if I could just answer your question.
Thrush: No, no, not common sense. Common sense is fungible. Statistics are not.
Moments later, having skirmished over studies, Miller once again returned to the powerful justifying force of common sense: “The reality is that, if you just use common sense—and, yes, I will use common sense—the reason why some companies want to bring in more unskilled labor is because they know that it drives down wages and reduces labor costs.”
The recourse to “common sense” is probably not accidental, especially for a student of political movements like Miller. Nearly every contemporary politician is guilty of falling back on the phrase, but for centuries, populist movements in particular have invoked common sense as a justification for policy goals and as an antidote to expert opinion. Like President Trump, the people invoking it have often done so, as Sophia Rosenfeld writes in her book Common Sense: A Political History, as part of “a populist style of conservatism that celebrated authoritarian governance alongside the traditional ways, values, and language of ordinary people.” (This would have been a much simpler, and faster, story about the Thrush-Miller exchange had I trusted my gut, rather than falling into the trap of seeking out expert opinion.)