But are they? Political and moral issues are often complicated. They involve setting moral priorities (that is, choosing between two different morally good things when they're in conflict) and understanding complicated empirical issues (that is, figuring out how the world works and trying to predict what will happen in the future).
Common-sense -- that is, self-evident truths that we all agree on -- is often hard to come by in political controversies. If certain positions really were common-sense, then why would we be arguing about them so much?
This "common-sense" rhetoric often involves the implication that the people who disagree with the "common-sense" position are devoid of common-sense. In other words, some form of name-calling is often implied in this sort of rhetoric, as the people who don't embrace the "common-sense" position are too stupid to accept the obvious, or are perhaps intentionally doing what they know is wrong (i.e., they're evil).
When someone resorts to this kind of rhetoric, we should demand that they show how their position is really obvious and self-evident, and how the people who disagree are rejecting the obvious.
EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS
"For more than two decades now, our immigration system, everybody acknowledges, has been broken. And the fact that the Supreme Court wasn’t able to issue a decision today doesn’t just set the system back even further, it takes us further from the country that we aspire to be. … Nearly 70 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate came together to pass a smart, common-sense bill that would have doubled the border patrol, and offered undocumented immigrants a pathway to earn citizenship if they paid a fine, paid their taxes, and played by the rules. Unfortunately, Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to allow a simple yes or no vote on that bill. So I was left with little choice but to take steps within my existing authority to make our immigration system smarter, fairer, and more just. … But today’s decision is frustrating to those who seek to grow our economy and bring a rationality to our immigration system, and to allow people to come out of the shadows and lift this perpetual cloud on them. … So where do we go from here? Most Americans -- including business leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement, Democrats and Republicans and independents -- still agree that the single best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass common-sense, bipartisan immigration reform. … This is an election year. And during election years, politicians tend to use the immigration issue to scare people with words like “amnesty” in hopes that it will whip up votes. Keep in mind that millions of us, myself included, go back generations in this country, with ancestors who put in the painstaking effort to become citizens. And we don’t like the notion that anyone might get a free pass to American citizenship. But here’s the thing. Millions of people who have come forward and worked to get right with the law under this policy, they’ve been living here for years, too -- in some cases, even decades. So leaving the broken system the way it is, that’s not a solution. In fact, that's the real amnesty. Pretending we can deport 11 million people, or build a wall without spending tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money is abetting what is really just factually incorrect. It's not going to work. It's not good for this country. It's a fantasy that offers nothing to help the middle class, and demeans our tradition of being both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. In the end, it is my firm belief that immigration is not something to fear. We don’t have to wall ourselves off from those who may not look like us right now, or pray like we do, or have a different last name. Because being an American is about something more than that. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal that all of us are created equal, all of us have a chance to make of our lives what we will. And every study shows that whether it was the Irish or the Poles, or the Germans, or the Italians, or the Chinese, or the Japanese, or the Mexicans, or the Kenyans -- whoever showed up, over time, by a second generation, third generation, those kids are Americans. They do look like us -- because we don't look one way. We don't all have the same last names, but we all share a creed and we all share a commitment to the values that founded this nation. That's who we are. And that is what I believe most Americans recognize. … And now we've got a choice about who we’re going to be as a country, what we want to teach our kids, and how we want to be represented in Congress and in the White House. … We get these spasms of politics around immigration and fear-mongering, and then our traditions and our history and our better impulses kick in. That's how we all ended up here. Because I guarantee you, at some point, every one of us has somebody in our background who people didn’t want coming here, and yet here we are."-- President Barack Obama, June 23, 2016, referring to the Supreme Court decision that day on Obama's executive actions on immigration enforcement.
Comment: Much of this is demonizing and distortion, as Obama's speech doesn't recognize that different people have different reasons for opposing his actions on immigration, and propose different paths for dealing with the current state of immigration policy. First, Obama's remarks leave the impression that, if we don't support his executive actions on immigration enforcement, we therefore are opposed to immigration in itself – likely for reasons of bigotry (i.e., wanting to keep out people who "look different") – which is demonizing. Some people oppose Obama's actions on procedural grounds (i.e., that they're not consistent with the presidential powers laid out in the Constitution); some object to the actions because they believe it is unfair to reduce the penalties on immigrants who broke the law, even to the point of giving them an advantage over immigrants who are obeying immigration law; some object to that the reduced immigration enforcement encourages further illegal immigration, and so on. It's false and derisive to treat opponents to his executive actions as being motivated by "fear-mongering" against immigrants. Second, those who oppose Obama's proposed immigration reforms (legislative or executive) don't necessarily support leaving the system as is, or deporting the 11 million immigrants who are here illegally, or building a wall to keep out those who "don't look like us". That's just a distortion. Finally, Obama's opponents on immigration policy aren't somehow standing in opposition to "rationality" and "common sense" – is he saying they're stupid? – and they aren't necessarily out of step with America's traditions; that's just more demonizing.
"Now we have to overcome some big challenges, I will admit that. First, too many of our representatives in Washington are in the grips of a failed economic theory called trickle down economics. Now, I do not doubt their sincerity. But it has been proven wrong again and again. But there still are people in Congress who insist on cutting taxes for the wealthy instead of investing in our future. They careen from one self- inflicted crisis to another. Shutting down the government, threatening to default on our national debt, refusing to make the common-sense investments that used to have broad bipartisan support, like rebuilding our roads and our bridges, our tunnels, our highways, our airports. Or investing in better education from zero through high school and college. … And if the evidence were there to support this ideology, I would have to acknowledge that. But we have seen the results. Twice now in the past 30 years, a Republican president has caused an economic mess and a Democratic president has had to come in and clean it up."-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 22, 2016.
Comment: There are lots of things going on here. Where has it been proven that so-called "trickle-down economics" is a failed policy? Where has this policy been tested rigorously – that is, against an otherwise-identical control group? Such experiments are difficult to craft, and almost never occur on a large scale. It may be true that there have been cases where trickle-down economics has been implemented and bad economic news has followed, but it's propter hoc reasoning to jump to the conclusion that the former caused the latter. Correlation isn't necessarily causation. (Perhaps the bad economic news would have been even worse without the trickle-down policies, it's impossible to know unless you set up a control group for comparison.) Also, who has proposed not investing in our future? Perhaps people have proposed tax cuts for the wealthy along with spending less on investment than Clinton supports, but is there anyone who has said we shouldn't spend any money on education or infrastructure? This sounds like a straw man she's setting up to knock over. Finally, Clinton also resorts to "common sense" rhetoric, as well as "bipartisan" rhetoric (if the Republicans aren't supporting common-sense investments, then how can they have bipartisan support?).
"The notion that the answer to this tragedy would be to make sure that more people in a nightclub are similarly armed to the killer defies common sense."-- President Barack Obama, June 16, 2016, referring to the Orlando nightclub shooting by Omar Mir Seddique Mateen.
Comment: Perhaps having other people similarly armed isn't the right solution – that point is certainly arguable – but how does it defy common-sense? If it does go against common-sense, are the people who support this position stupid?
We need common-sense gun laws, common-sense gender equality and religious pluralism and common-sense privacy laws.-- Pundit Thomas Friedman, June 15, 2016.
Comment: This is "common-sense" rhetoric. What counts as common sense on all these issues? And, if someone disagrees with the "common-sense" position, does that mean they're stupid?
"Three years ago, a bipartisan, commonsense bill would have required background checks for virtually everyone who buys a gun. Keep in mind, this policy was supported by some 90% of the American people. It was supported by a majority of NRA households. But the gun lobby mobilized against it. And the Senate blocked it."-- President Barack Obama, January 1, 2016, during the president's weekly address.
Comment: Obama is arguing for this legislation on the basis that it is bipartisan, common-sense, and has popular support.
"John, if there’s one or two more of these attacks, Lord forbid, between now and the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. I mean, I know his proposal is very controversial, but what we’ve got in the United States and we know it now from the FBI are ISIS cells and ISIS personnel and ISIS sympathizers. We don’t know how many exactly they are. We have no way apparently of really vetting them. That woman got in this country and was a terrorist hell-bent on murder when she arrived with her new husband, or the husband-to-be. So, I think the problem, and what Trump is touching in onto, is that Americans want to know basically are the folks coming into the country, are they coming here to kill us, do we have any way to know that, and if we don’t, maybe we ought to have a moratorium on immigration from the Islamic world. And to a lot of folks, I know, that’s fascism or Mussolini, to other folks, it makes common sense."-- Pundit Pat Buchanan, December 12, 2015.
Comment: Buchanan is using "common sense" rhetoric.
"Did you ever notice that a global warming catastrophe is never predicted for next year or next month? Have you noticed that ever since Hurricane Katrina, they've been hoping for more of them, so that they can use that to prove it, and there haven't been any more? We haven't had a major hurricane strike the country in 10 years, and yet they claim that Katrina was evidence galore of global warming? I go through all of these things that you've heard for years, just the common-sensical ways of rejecting this premise."-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, November 3, 2015.
Comment: Limbaugh seems to be accusing people who believe in global warming – though he doesn’t name anyone in particular – of rooting for failure. He's also claiming that it's common sense to disbelieve global warming.
Fresh on the heels of the House’s vote Tuesday to revive the Export-Import Bank, Hillary Clinton urged the Senate to follow suit, calling the decision a “no-brainer."-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, October 28, 2015, as related in a Politico story by Gabriel DeBenedetti.
“It became a political football. Whether for ideological or political reasons, there are people in Washington against it, and that makes absolutely no sense,” she said Wednesday at a “Politics & Eggs” lunch at Saint Anselm College, criticizing opponents of the bank — like her primary rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“For the life of me, I don’t understand the arguments,” she said, pointing out how the bank helps New Hampshire businesses. “The Export-Import Bank’s sole purpose is to support United States business abroad."
Comment: Clinton is saying that it is common-sense to support the Export-Import Bank, and deriding opponents of it as stupid.
"We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun. And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation. … And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic."-- President Barack Obama, October 1, 2015, remarking on the Umpqua Community College shooting earlier that day.
Comment: Obama is saying that his views on gun policy are "common sense", while those of his opponents are not. He's correct, however, to say that discussing gun policy after a shooting is appropriate, and not "politicizing" in any illegitimate sense.
"Despite the best efforts of who knows how many people, the inexplicable has happened. On the day before the 14th anniversary of 9/11, the United States Senate sustained the Iranian Nuclear Deal, freeing Barack Hussein Obama to lift sanctions on the Iranian regime, which will for the most part immediately provide them with between $100 billion and $150 billion. … The whole thing is inexplicable. There is so much that doesn't make any sense anymore. So much in our politics that's happening every day doesn't make sense to people anymore. And no matter how artful you are at explaining it, it still doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense because it appears that we've lost patriots. It appears our government is not filled with patriots anymore. That's what's inexplicable. … Okay, so why would Obama want the Iranians to have a nuke? Well, you can answer the question in a number of ways, which I have. But it's not going to satisfy anybody. Because at the end of the day, they're still going to get nukes, and it doesn't make sense! It doesn't make any kind of common sense whatsoever if you come from a position where the United States has the moral authority to be the good guys. If you believe that, this doesn't make any sense."-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, September 11, 2015.
Comment: Limbaugh is demonizing those who support the Iran deal as not being patriots. he's also saying that it's "common sense" to oppose the deal.
AVILA: And briefly, just on another subject, out in San Francisco, on the shooting that happened there. The administration has been focused on prioritizing criminals as far as deporting those who have violated our immigration laws. Is this a failure in this case where this man apparently -- a criminal -- came over time after time and still was able to keep coming and was not deported? Is there a problem between the cooperation between some cities in this country and the United States government? Where do you see the problem?-- White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, July 6, 2015, being questioned by ABC News’ Jim Avila regarding the July 1, 2015, killing of Kathryn Steinle by Francisco Sanchez.
EARNEST: Well, Jim, for this particular case, I’d refer you to DHS. I can’t speak to the details of this particular case. … I would say -- and it bears repeating in this case -- that these efforts would be significantly augmented had Republicans not blocked common-sense immigration reform. You’ll recall that the piece of legislation that was blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives actually included the biggest-ever increase in border security. And that’s why it’s particularly disappointing that congressional action -- or congressional inaction, in this case -- has blocked efforts to put in place common-sense reforms that would be good for our country, good for our economy, and good for public safety.
AVILA: I hear your reluctance to comment on this case, but this case is being used by opponents of the administration to say that your policy is not working and that repeat criminals are coming across the border.
EARNEST: And what I’m saying is that those critics are individuals who oppose legislation that would have actually made a historic investment in border security. So I recognize that people want to play politics with this, but if you take a simple look at the facts, the fact is the President has done everything within his power to make sure that we’re focusing our law enforcement resources on criminals and those who pose a threat to public safety. And it’s because of the political efforts of Republicans that we have not been able to make the kind of investment that we would like to make in securing our border and keeping our communities safe.
Comment: Earnest engages in “common-sense”, “politicizing”, and “obstruction” rhetoric. There is a legitimate debate about what immigration reform should look like, and whether it needs to include all thing things that President Barack Obama would like it to include. Opposing Obama’s views on immigration does not amount to opposing common-sense. More, it is not “politicizing” Steinle’s death to mention it in or claim it to be relevant to the debate about immigration.
On immigration, Hillary Clinton is a work in progress – and has been since she entered politics more than a dozen years ago. Depending on which audience she is trying to please, she assumes one of two conflicting personas: Restrictionist Hillary or Reform Hillary. In 2003, Restrictionist Hillary told conservative radio host John Grambling that she was “adamantly against illegal immigrants” and that “we’ve got to do more at our borders.” … Then there is Reform Hillary, who has emerged recently now that Clinton is once again running for president and needs the support of Latino voters who favor a more honest and more common-sense approach to the problem. … Reform Hillary celebrated Cinco de Mayo by speaking at a mostly Latino high school in Las Vegas, where she called for illegal immigrants to be given “a path to full and equal citizenship.” She also accused Republicans who support legal status for the undocumented but not citizenship of pushing “second-class status.” But what was Clinton pushing? A poison pill. “Full and equal citizenship” will never get through Congress. So by setting the bar impossibly high, Reform Hillary all but ensures nothing will be done. This suits her fine because she doesn’t want to be known as a pro-amnesty Democrat any more than Obama did, and she’d rather have a wedge issue than a workable solution.-- Pundit Ruben Navarrette, May 24, 2015.
Comment: First, Navarrette is accusing Clinton of flip-flopping. Second, he is engaging in "common sense" rhetoric. Third, he seems to be demonizing those who are "restrictionists" as not being in favor of honesty and common sense. Lastly, he resorts to "wedge issue" rhetoric.
"Now, it’s pretty commonsense that an education bill should actually improve education. But as we speak, there’s a Republican bill in Congress that would frankly do the opposite."-- President Barack Obama, weekly address, February 14, 2015.
Comment: Obama is indulging in "common sense" rhetoric. Naturally, Obama and Republicans disagree about which policies will improve education, though Obama's remarks make it sound as if Republicans are trying to do the opposite.
"In two weeks, I will send this Congress a budget filled with ideas that are practical, not partisan."-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.
Comment: This remark is along the lines of "ideological" or "common sense" or "bipartisan" rhetoric. Partisanship is a result of disagreements about what ideas are practical or not. Does anyone support ideas that they think are impractical?
Examples from 2014.
Examples from 2012.
(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)