Congressional Discourse Getting Dumber

You probably only need to turn on C-SPAN to realize this, but a new study finds that the level of discourse on Capitol Hill has gotten dumber:

Most congressional observers agree that the level of discourse on Capitol Hill is coarser and more partisan than ever before. A new study suggests it’s also dumber.

Congress collectively speaks at almost a full grade-level lower than it did seven years ago, with Republican lawmakers ranking as the smartest and least-smart-sounding talkers, according to a new study by the Sunlight Foundation sure to earn the ire of at least some congressional offices.

The study rightfully notes that what some might consider “the dumbing down” of congressional speeches could be interpreted as an attempt to more simply and effectively communicate with constituents. That effort could be in part because the study says that Congress generally speaks at a higher grade level than average Americans.

Using the Flesch-Kincaid test, which equates higher grade levels with longer words and sentences and higher numbers of syllables and characters, the study concludes that lawmakers speak at a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. Americans generally speak at between an 8th and 9th grade level.

That’s an impressive level of discourse, but lower than some of the country’s greatest oratory hits. The U.S. Constitution, for example, ranks at a 17.8 grade level; the Declaration of Independence earns a 15.1 grade level; the Gettsyburg Address comes in at 11.2; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech weighs in at a 9.4 grade level.

Here’s how the Sunlight Foundation ranks Members of Congress using this scale:

Bottom Congressional Speakers:

1.) Rep. John “Mick” Mulvaney (R-S.C.): 7.95 grade level

2.) Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga): 8.02

3.) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): 8.04

4.) Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.): 8.09

5.) Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.): 8.13

6.) Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.): 8.14

7.) Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.): 8.44

8.) Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.): 8.60

9.) Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.): 8.61

10.) Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): 8.62

Top Congressional Speakers:

1.) Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-Calif.): 16.01

2.) Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.): 14.94

3.) (tie) Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.): 14.19

3.) (tie) Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.): 14.19

5.) Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii): 14.18

6.) Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry (R-Texas): 14.13

7.) Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine): 14.02

8.) Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.): 13.94

9.) Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.): 13.83

10.) Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas): 13.74

The question, I suppose, is whether it’s really a bad thing that a politician is speaking at, say, an 8th grade level, or whether it’s a good thing that they are speaking at nearly a College Senior level as Congressman Dan Lungren is according to this scare. The art of political communication doesn’t exist in the ability to use big words, but in the skill of being able to communicate ideas effectively. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to communicate so that the largest number of people can understand you, no so you sound like a College Professor.

Not so say that there isn’t a whole lot of dumb on the floor of Congress, of course.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Quick Takes, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. reid says:

    You know you want to do it… what’re the averages over all Rs and Ds? How about those in congress less than 10 years or under the age of 50? I’m afraid in many cases they’re not just communicating at an 8th grade level, they’re thinking at an 8th grade level. After all, intellectualism is something to be mocked in this country anymore.

  2. Rogertheshrubber says:

    And apparently, Dear Leader is below even that:

    http://freebeacon.com/house-gop-speaks-at-higher-level-than-obama/

    Smartest President ev-ah!

    RTS

  3. Being in Gerlach’s district, I am rather amused by the suggestion that he has a “high level of discourse”. He’s one of the politicians who seems to have no fixed vies on anything and does whatever the polls say is most popular today. Maybe it takes a lot more words to BS effectively.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    The Founding Fathers were Elite’s. The best and the brightest and the wisest of the time.
    Unfortunately they installed a system of Government…We The People…that will inevitably devolve to the lowest common denominator. Popular Government can be no better than the population. The Tea Party is the most perfect example of this law in action…a group of people who complain about high taxes during a period of historically low taxes and in the face of a President who has lowered the taxes of 99% of the country. A group of people who didn’t complain when a spendthrift was in office…but now complain in the face of a President who has offered the biggest debt reduction deal in history. A group of people who claim to want Small Government…but then complain about the job losses that shrinking Government entails.
    Of the 10 members speaking at the lowest grade level, all but two are freshmen, and every one is a Republican. I checked the bottom 5…and they are all members of the Tea Party Caucus.
    I rest my case.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    @Rogertheshrubber:
    He has to dumb it down, after all he’s speaking to the Republican House:

    1.) Rep. John “Mick” Mulvaney (R-S.C.): 7.95 grade level
    2.) Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga): 8.02
    3.) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): 8.04
    4.) Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.): 8.09
    5.) Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.): 8.13
    6.) Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.): 8.14
    7.) Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.): 8.44
    8.) Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.): 8.60
    9.) Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.): 8.61
    10.) Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): 8.62

  6. Hey Norm says:

    @ al-Ameda…
    The shrubber linked to a partisan hack website that alledgedly used the same methodology…but I’m dubious. I’d have to see the same organization come to the same conclusion.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    @Hey Norm:
    I followed the link too. The fact is, the Bottom 10 is all Republican, so if in fact Obama dumbed it down to speak to Congress – he had to.

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The art of political communication doesn’t exist in the ability to use big words, but in the skill of being able to communicate ideas effectively. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to communicate so that the largest number of people can understand you, not so you sound like a College Professor.

    Bingo!

    That’s not limited to politics. It also is the case in business management, advertising, criminal and civil jury trial practice, customer service, employee training, etc., etc., hell, dozens of arenas. Scores of arenas. Pretty much everywhere outside the detached and cocooned halls of academia.

    The first rule of persuasive writing and speaking is to know your audience. The second rule is don’t forget rule No. 1.

  9. george says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Oddly enough, eight of the ten highest level are also Republicans – must make for interesting GOP meetings. (And yes, I know in reality most politicians speak very differently in private than they do publically).

  10. So a few Southern Republicans eschew thesaurus words like… well, like “eschew”. Big whoop.

    There are many legitimate reasons to hate these people. This isn’t it.

  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Interestingly enough, one of the complaints of a group of students in the freshman English class that I taught one year was:

    “He talks like he’s a college professor.”