Congress Talks at a High School Level

In a body known for such talented orators as Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen and Senator Robert Byrd, it’s disheartening to learn that a new study has determined that the average member of Congress speaks at the same level as a high school sophomore – that’s nearly a full grade lower than in 2005.  According to the independent watchdog group, Sunlight Foundation, some people will view its findings as “a dumbing down of Congress” while others will interpret the report as “more effective communications” from lawmakers.  To contrast, the typical American reads between an eighth-grade and ninth-grade level.

Representative Mick Mulvaney, a freshman from South Carolina, scored the lowest, speaking at a 7.94 level, a level between the seventh and eighth grades.  Mulvaney, who received his bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University and law degree at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, said he follows a simple rule: Avoid using big words when a little one will do.  “Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I’m not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well,” Mulvaney said.  “I hope people don’t take it as a substitute for lack of intellect, but small words can be just as powerful as big words sometimes.”  California’s Representative Dan Lungren was ranked the highest by the Sunlight Foundation, speaking at a 16.0 level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wonders if political polarization is dumbing down Congress. According to Klein, “Polarization has changed the way that members of Congress vote.  But it turns out it may also be changing the way they talk.  Generally speaking, the most moderate members on both sides of the aisle speak at the highest grade levels, whereas the most politically extreme members speak at the lowest grade levels.  Before 2005, Republicans had spoken at a higher grade level than Democrats; now it’s flipped.  Newer members are also likely to speak more simply than more senior ones, so freshmen Republicans are most likely to speak at the lowest grade level in Congress.

Sunlight plugged speeches by members of Congress into a searchable database and then applied the Flesch-Kincaid test to determine the lawmaker’s score.  Longer words and longer sentences equal a higher grade level, according to Flesch-Kincaid.  Sunlight found that members of Congress, on average, spoke at a 10.6 grade level, a change from 11.5 score in 2005.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, who ran the speeches through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional dialogue said “We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there’s been a real drop-off in the last several years.”  According to Drutman, an infusion of new members into Congress – many aligned with the Tea Party movement — could be part of the reason for the overall grade-level decline.  “Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down, and that pattern is particularly pronounced on the right.”

The Sunlight Foundation noted that two speeches viewed among the best in American history the Gettysburg address by President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, or the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. only scored at 11.1 and 9.4 grade levels.  Another point is that before 2005, Republicans spoke at a slightly higher grade level than Democrats.  Since that time, Democrats have spoken at a slightly higher grade level than Republicans.

Writing for The Atlantic, Eric Randall points out that “Strunk and White put it even more plainly in their famed writing manual, noting,  ‘Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.’  Flesch-Kincaid rewards long words and winding sentences, but clarity rewards the opposite.  The Sunlight Foundation, to its credit, notes this interpretation, too, but it still seems that most people will walk away from the report thinking only that our leaders talk like a bunch of high schoolers.  We wondered how others might measure up, so we used an online Flesch-Kinkcaid calculator to find out.  A recent post by this writer scored at a 10th grade level.  (So you can see why we’re not bashing Congress too badly.)”

According to the Sunlight Foundation’s analysis of some of the country’s most prominent documents, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level; the Federal Papers at a 17.1 level; and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 level.  An analysis determined that President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union (SOTU) address had an eighth-grade comprehension level – the third lowest score of any SOTU address since 1934).

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