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.