Common Sense and Democracy

Natalie Johnson had just experienced the most frustrating day in her professional life.  She had been hired by the Fairfax community to see if common ground could be found on a community development block grant.  Without common ground, the grant request would be rejected.

She arranged for a group of representative citizens, nominated by the community leaders, to meet to establish a common set of values to be the basis for the grant.  In spite of all her efforts, there were no common values.  There were even disputes about values that she never found in dispute.

She presented her experience to the community leaders to discuss next steps.  Again she found that there were deep differences.

As Natalie reflected on the situation at Fairfax, she decided to try a different approach.  She asked the County Clerk to give her 20 names using the process for jury selection.  Natalie hoped that this approach would give her a truer sense of what the community valued.  And it worked.  She was able to get a real sense of the community values as well as outcome goals for the block grant proposals.  While the community leaders grumbled about some of the values statements, they decided to go ahead with the proposal.

Originally the phrase “common sense” was meant to convey a sixth sense which connected our five senses in forming judgements.  Over time, the phrase “common sense” became associated with a shared wisdom of all people.  It’s how we think about what’s important.

When you think about it, common sense forms the basis of a democracy.  If a society doesn’t share a common sense, how might it hold together when challenged by external forces?   A society without common sense may be susceptible to the influence of a person who plays to the values of a segment of society without trying to build a common sense of the entire population.

When a society doesn’t share a common sense, it is more likely to tolerate shameful acts by its leaders.  That’s because those shameful acts may not seem shameful by all of society.  Likewise, there is no attempt to build an inclusive society because there is no common sense value in uniting the population.

Common sense is hard to achieve.  It requires leadership which appeals to the best of who we aspire to be as individuals and as a society.  It requires leaders who are role models.  It requires reinforcement of our values in decisions, presentations, and acts of legislation based upon our common sense values.  But most of common sense is something that can only be achieved if all of us practice it in our lives every day.

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“Common sense is genius dressed in working clothes.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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