Congress Is Getting Stupider, According to Lexical Analysis
If you've ever felt stupider after watching Congress bicker about some issue for a couple of hours, you're not wrong. The nation's lawmakers are, in fact, dumbing themselves down, according to a new report by the Sunlight Foundation.
An analysis weighing congressional speeches against the Flesch-Kincaid scaleóbest known as that numerical score that tells you how smart you are when you run the word count diagnostic in your word processing softwareóreveals that legislators speak at a 10.6 grade level.
That's down from 11.5 just seven years ago. In the span of less than a decade, Congress' rhetorical skills have receded nearly a full grade, the Sunlight Foundation discovered. The report readily admits the unreliability of the Flesch-Kincaid test, which grades language on complexity, not clarity. But it is still a decent metric for judging the quality of one's words.
That quality is declining on Capitol Hill, and it's a bipartisan effort. Democrats in the 112th Congress speak at a 10.8 grade level, with Republicans declaiming at a 10.5 mark. But the GOP could take some solace in the knowledge that a reading of Democratic scores showed that the further left a member of Congress is ideologically, the more his or her grade tends to decline.
Still, it's not entirely a measurement of innate dumbness. Maybe, the Sunlight report argues, the drop in Congressional perspicacity could be attributed to more floor speeches being delivered in campaign-speak and Internet-friendly sound bites:
Itís hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the decline. Perhaps it reflects lawmakers speaking more in talking points, and increasingly packaging their floor speeches for YouTube. Gone, perhaps, are the golden days when legislators spoke to persuade each other, thoughtfully wrestled with complex policy trade-offs and regularly quoted Shakespeare.
Sunlight's analysis was compiled by running the database of Congressional speech kept by the website CapitolWords.org through the Flesch-Kincaid system. Yet it's quite possible all that talk about homespun wisdom and Main Street values espoused by heartland politicians could be why Congress is more distant than ever from the clerisy that the legislative branch likes to think itself.
But this is not to say that Congress is without its loquacious types. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) yaks at a 20.5 level, nearly five full grades better than the second-most verbose member, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.). Lungren is not without his intellectual chops. Before his current stay in Congress (he first served from 1979 to 1989), Lungren was California's attorney general. He has degrees from the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University Law Center. Then again, his high score on the Flesch-Kincaid rubric could be more attributable to 62-word clunkers like this:
Yikes. That much self-admiration makes it difficult to tell if Lundgren was talking about himself or about U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Complex? Sure. Clear? Not at all.This Justice Department, in my judgment, based on the experience I've had here in this Congress, 18 years, my years as the chief legal officer of the state of California and 35 or 40 years as a practicing attorney tells me that this administration has fundamentally failed in its obligation to attempt to faithfully carry out the laws of the United States.
Then again, Congress is also sporting some genuine rubes. Of the bottom 20 members, many are first-term House Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, led by Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, with a middle-school worthy 7.95 Flesch-Kincaid score.
Democrats shouldn't get terribly inflated about that, though. Republicans also dominate the top of the rankings. As for President Obama? He might be one for aspirational grandiloquence on the campaign trail, but don't readily assume that his oratory is off the charts. Obama's three State of the Union addresses have averaged an eighth-grade level, well off the 10.7 mark set by the 67 previous presidential speeches to Congress.
And if any of this post seems like the work of a smug and elite journalist, that's because it is, according to the Sunlight Foundation's report. Major newspapers (yes, yes, this is a website) clock in between the 11th and 14th grades.