And you thought you were the only one watching politics implode. It seems congress now speaks at a 10.6 grade level, or that of a high school sophomore, down from an 11.5 grade level in 2005, according to a new report from the Sunlight Foundation.
What’s sad is the average American only speaks at an 8th or 9th grade level, so technically the politicians are actually better catering themselves and their tone to those who might support them. Major newspapers write at an 11th to 14th grade level, which still sets well below the 17.1 grade level of the Federalist papers or the 17.8 grade level at which the U.S. Constitution is written.
All analyses were done using the Flesch-Kincaid test, which give more points and higher grade levels for longer words and longer sentences.
The Sunlight Foundation notices several patterns in the data.
- Controlling for other factors, it is generally the most moderate members of both parties who speak at the highest grade levels, and the most extreme members who speak at the lowest grade levels. This pattern is most pronounced among freshmen and sophomore members.
- Prior to 2005, Republicans on average spoke at a slightly higher grade level than Democrats. Since then, Democrats have spoken on average at a slightly higher grade level than Republicans.
- Some of the decline in grade level since 2005 is because junior members speak at a lower grade level than senior members, and some of it is because senior members have simplified their speech patterns over time.
- On average, the more words individual members speak on the floors of Congress, the simpler their speech tends to be.
For more detail on these and other findings, as well as a more complete methodology, you can find the full analysis here.
For a complete list of lawmakers and the grade level of their speech, click here.
To see which top SAT words come up most often in the 112th Congress – and who speaks them most often, click here.
Some of these patterns are incredibly interesting. The more moderate members tending to be the most educated speakers is predictable. As moderates, they naturally are wiser as well as less likely to get elected because, let’s face it, voters these days love their extremes. If they got better at talking stupid they might see longer terms in office.
The Republican party has deteriorated in recent years and hardly represents any of the true conservative values it did some decades ago. Now they are forced to embarrassingly deal with constant support for climate skeptics, Obama “birthers”, and shady lines between church and state. I see it as no surprise that the Republicans relinquished being the more educated party to their democrat counterparts, but for balance sake I hope we see the scale even out.
The report notes that Obama’s State of the Union speeches clocked exceptionally low.
Earlier this year, when the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics noted that Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address clocked in at an eighth-grade level for the third year in a row, and that Obama’s average grade-level of 8.4 was well below the average of 10.7 for the previous 67 addresses, Fox News ran the story alongside the image of a child in a dunce cap, and right-wing blogs mocked the President’s intelligence.
Others pointed out that maybe speaking clearly was a good thing. After all, the SOTU speech was pretty much right at the level of the average American’s reading level. And writing gurus like George Orwell (“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”) and Strunk & White (“omit needless words”) famously advise simplicity.
Whether congress is getting dumber, or they’re just getting better at talking to dumb people, detail and clarity involving political communication is on the decline, and this is bad for the growth of society.
The chartist pundit @Not_Jim_Cramer includes a couple more stats for thought. First, the correlation between SAT reading scores and grade level of the State of the Union Speeches. It seems not only are our politicians getting dumber, so are our people.
Witness the steady decline in grade level over time of State of the Union speeches as measured by the Flesch-Kincaid test. It’s hard to blame any one president for this trend, although it certainly makes our last two look awfully foolish.