This late spring and early summer I spent some time in rural Nebraska and Wyoming. What is so striking is not the overwhelming dislike of the Democratic Party in rural America, and particularly the President. What is striking is the difference in the definition of the worst phrase known to mankind – “common sense”.
When I was in New York in January I kept hearing the phrase “Newtown changed everything”. What we needed now was “common sense” gun safety reform.
In Nebraska and Wyoming, two states where almost any person you encounter is armed, “common sense” means not importing the same failed gun policies from big cities. In other words “common sense” means not implementing the same policies that have turned Chicago into a war zone. In Nebraska one farmer asked me how can the Mayor of New York and his allies talk about “common sense” gun safety, but not offer a single safety course for firearms?
In truth, Newtown changed nothing. The people that were always for gun control measures are still for it. The people that were against gun control measures before Newtown are still against it. And the people in the first category are less passionate then the people in the second. Both are surrounded by an ambivalent middle. This is why the polling on “common sense” gun control is drifting back to before Newtown.
In Boston in February when I asked friends and business associates about immigration, I heard very rational explanations about the need to bring people out of the shadows. In Nebraska and Eastern Colorado, immigration is about reducing blue collar wages through competition from new immigrants. One young field hand who took me turkey hunting asked how can we have almost 8% unemployment, wages depressed outside the oil patch, and bring in more immigrants? Which of those two views is “common sense”? I can tell you both sides believed they were talking “common sense”.
It is an incredibly divisive phrase. What it really means is the speaker has a point of view unbacked by any science or data. Rather than admit that, the speaker just says it is “common sense”. In other words if I make up a scenario, apply my own deductive reasoning, it is obvious I am right.
What is “common sense” is that this is a complex and diverse country. If you live in rural Colorado or even more remotely, rural Wyoming, your experience is incredibly different from the hustle and bustle of New York. The average working family survives on less than $75,000 a year for a family. You would have trouble surviving in an outer borough of New York on that income. But you can hunt and fish year round in Wyoming unbothered by the hustle and bustle.
It might make “common sense” in New York to mandate universal healthcare given the enormous cost to New York of the uninsured. But in rural Wyoming it is an infringement on the basic “common sense” reason people live in Wyoming – to get away from any mandate on how they live their lives. And they do not have a healthcare crisis in Wyoming, particularly given the energy boom.
Inevitably explaining your reasoning and the data is impossible after someone has heard you say their view runs against “common sense”. Language is important. If we are ever going to get beyond our current divided state, we are going to have to deal in facts, reason, and respect.
And that is not “common sense”. It is hard work each and everyday. Work that shows people you care not about what you think, but about what they think. That you are willing to learn from their very different life experiences. Because once you make that effort, they might be interested in what you think.