Daum: Speaking down to Americans
Lest you think the bullying and foot-stomping of Congress most resemble a tantrum-prone bunch of second-graders, think again. Data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group focused on greater transparency in Washington, has shown that today’s congressional “dialogue” is actually on a par with a 10th-grader’s verbal prowess.
By running our representatives’ speeches through what’s called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which associates longer sentences and more complex words with higher grade levels and scores them accordingly, researchers found that Congress’ rhetorical skills had taken a dive since 2005, when they were at an 11th-grade level.
The highest individual score went to Republican congressman Dan Lungren of California, who apparently communicates on the level of a graduate student. The lowest went to Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, also a Republican, who scored a 7.9 and is therefore equivalent to a seventh-grader (in fairness, 7.9 makes him nearly an eighth-grader; he’d presumably have read “Johnny Tremain”).
Unsurprisingly, many liberals have enjoyed this data. An article on the liberal news site Alernet, “Ten Dumbest Members of Congress,” pointed out that 17 of the 20 lowest-scoring members of Congress are Republicans and that, of those, 12 were elected during the"tea party” influx of 2010.
In response, conservatives are dredging up news from January, when the Flesch-Kincaid test found President Obama’s State of the Union address to be about on a par with Mulvaney’s abilities. In fact, a University of Minnesota/Smart Politics study found Obama’s annual addresses to Congress merited the lowest grade-level scores since FDR. Trumpeted Fox News: “Obama’s SOTU Written at 8th-Grade Level for Third Straight Year.”
But as anyone knows who’s seen the movie “Idiocracy,” in which a future America is populated by illiterates, there can be good reasons to address the nation as though you’re speaking to an auditorium of middle schoolers. For starters, statistics show that the average American reads on an eighth- or ninth-grade level. There’s also the fact that long sentences and "$5 words” are not necessarily the markers of sophisticated speech.
It’s fun to compare Flesch-Kincaid scores through the ages. The King James Bible scores an
11, and the Constitution scores a graduate-school level 17.8. It’s even more fun to use an online calculator to plug in random texts and see how they measure up. When I entered a passage from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” it came in at the fifth-grade level. OK, maybe not all that surprising given that “throat” and “damp” are pretty basic vocabulary words. But how is it that a chart linked to the Sunlight Foundation site suggested that James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is comprehensible to sixth-graders?
Obviously, like compatibility tests used by dating sites, such readability indexes (of which Flesch-Kincaid is not the only one) are ridiculously literal. They measure not meaning or depth of thought but characters and syllables and average number of words per sentence. They make no distinction between the spoken word and the written word, and they don’t account for the way speechifying has been streamlined and simplified over the years.
There’s a reason that George Washington’s first inaugural address — “among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order” — sounds quite a bit different from Obama’s: “I stand here today humbled by the task before us.” And it’s not just because Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” came along in 1918 and decreed, “Omit needless words.”
It’s because there is no longer a great distinction between public speech and everyday speech. A politician’s rhetoric isn’t confined to those who read it in a paper or gather for an in-person stump speech. Its very accessibility demands just that: accessibility.
It seems disingenuous to mourn the passing of a time when you needed a 17th-grade education to understand what your president was saying. Not as disingenuous, however, as using a hopelessly reductive study to assail one’s political enemies in the most predictable way.
That sentence, by the way, scored a 16.99. Guess I’ll never make it to C-SPAN.