Dumbing the Presidency

David Broder uses Elvin Lm’s book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency to argue not only that presidential speeches have steadily dumbed down over the years, which we might have guessed, but that this dumbs down public policy, too.

In what must have been a heroic effort, he applied standard techniques of content analysis to state papers of every president from Washington to the second Bush. His tool is something called the Flesch readability score — a measure of the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. The higher the Flesch score, the simpler to get the meaning.

Applied to the annual State of the Union addresses, the average score has doubled from the first few presidents to the last few. Those “messages were pitched at a college level through most of the 18th and 19th centuries,” Lim says. “They have now come down to an eighth-grade reading level.” The same trend, but more pronounced, is found in inaugural addresses. Their average sentence length has dropped from 60 words to 20.

Simplification has its advantages, if it serves to increase public comprehension. But it comes with a huge risk: The complexity of real-world choices can be, and often is, lost.

[…]

But the problem Lim sees is more than dumbing down. “As presidents have taken the rhetorical path of least resistance by serving up simplistic sentences to citizens, they have correspondingly offered an easily digestible substantive menu devoid of argument and infused with inspirational platitudes, partisan punch lines and emotional and human-interest appeals.”

These trends, too, are charted by Lim. Basically what has happened, he shows, is that rather than seeking to persuade voters by arguing for their policies, presidents increasingly have sought to build trust by identifying themselves with those voters and their “common sense” view of the world. “Whereas all of the presidents through Woodrow Wilson appealed to ‘common sense’ just 11 times in their recorded papers, presidents since Wilson have done so more than 1,600 times,” he writes.

What’s interesting is that the trend started not long before college education would become a normal aspiration for middle class Americans. A far greater percentage of Americans are have university degrees than in Wilson’s day, let alone Washington’s.

One presumes this is just a manifestation of Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “the medium is the message.” Early presidents were addressing an educated elite who would hear their speeches in person or read them some time later. Wilson’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, was “the first president to have his inauguration heard on the radio and the first president to make a radio broadcast.” Harry Truman was the first to be sworn in on television. Ronald Reagan was the first president to serve exclusively in the CNN era of 24/7 news coverage. It’s quite natural that politicians speaking to the masses will speak differently than those addressing the elite.

Beyond that, our everyday language is simply less formal than it once was. Even very educated people, such as attorneys and professors, who can produce impenetrable writing in their professional capacity, tend to speak and write on a much less “sophisticated” level in normal discourse. Whether this is a function of our having been “dumbed down” by television or some combination of other factors is beyond my expertise.

The broader point about the impact on public policy is interesting. I suspect, however, that it’s more a reflection of the expansion of suffrage, the vast increase in the scope of government and the resultant rise of interest groups, and the fact that the debate is condensed into 14 second sound bytes more so than the informality of presidential language that has led to demagoguery.

Pat Lang is more cynical than I am, which is quite a feat.

“Levelling” has become the Zeitgeist. Actually it has been the goal of many for a long, long time. The numbers in the study mentioned above illustrate that trend over centuries. “Elitist” has become a term of absolute condemnation. The downward drift in general education is now undeniable. College audiences are now so poorly informed about general culture that even the simplest references to popular literature, film, etc. are greeted by blank stares. Many audiences at college lectures are difficult to talk to because everything one says is “news to them.”

[…]

Today, outside the elites of a few universities, we have little in the way of intellectual life in this country. We also have little in the way of political life. NBC’s Political Director just referred on MTP to the “Republican Brand.” My. My. Marketing rules.

Again, television is partly to blame, as generations of us have been trained to passively absorb information rather than grapple with it in text form. But much of this is overstated. Yes, the average college student is less intellectual than his 1940’s predecessor. Mostly, though, that’s because so many more people are going to college. So, yes, this is a function of “leveling” but not in a sense of aspiring to the lowest common denominator.

Also, the proliferation of choices has destroyed the concept of “general culture.” Once upon a time, everyone read the same books, watched the same movies, and saw the same television shows. With 300 channels and Netflix, that’s largely gone.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Elitists, e.g. John Quincy Adams, have been making this same complaint since Andrew Jackson ran for president the first time and political parties were in their infancy. The reality is that we’ve elected intellectuals to the presidency just twice and each time they’ve been indifferent presidents.

    Everything has been “dumbed down”: news coverage, newspaper writing. Why should presidential speechmaking be any different?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW I think that television is to blame only indirectly. What’s really to blame is the difference in how presidential speeches are written. Now they’re written by committee, with predictable results.

    But that’s what they’re going for—predictable results. So, just as McDonalds has done with food and Hollywood with movies, presidential speeches are bland and uninteresting. But they do have predictable results.

  3. Hal says:

    hmmm…. something about revealed preferences and individual choice….

    already said that, though.

  4. steve says:

    At the risk of using one of this years overly used words, I think this dumbing down has removed nuance from the political debate. The war in Iraq is good or bad. No discussion of the incredibly complex history of the place. The convoluted politics. The problem I have then, is that it is unclear to me if these politicians know any of these details. Are they totally dependent on their advisers?

    Steve

  5. James Joyner says:

    hmmm…. something about revealed preferences and individual choice….

    Not sure where you’re going in this context. What choices are we talking about?