Are Congressmen Getting Dumber?

Tamara Keith, writing for NPR, comments on the interesting research by the Sunlight Foundation that may indicate members of Congress are getting dumber. Speeches from Congress members have been analyzed and Sunlight has found that the average grade level at which the members speak has fallen by almost a full grade since 2005.

The research was made possible because every word spoken on the floor of Congress is documented in the Congressional Record which dates back to the mid 90s. Lee Drutman, a scientist at Sunlight, plugged the entire record into a searchable database and analyzed the results.

"We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there's been a real drop-off in the last several years,"

Sunlight used the Flesch-Kincaid scale to measure grade level and found that in 2005 Congress spoke at an average 11.5 grade level. This has since plummeted to 10.6.

The Flesch-Kincaid scale assesses grade level based on sentence length and average syllables per word. This means that a Congress member with a wider, more obscure vocabulary is likely to score much higher than a man of simpler words. That's also the rub. As one low scoring Representative, Rob Woodall, notes:

"My mother will probably be embarrassed to hear this news," Woodall says, "but I'm glad to know I'm not obfuscating our challenges with words that are too complicated."

The decline in grade ranking of Congress is largely down to the low Flesch-Kincaid scores of the newest intake from 2010. Drutman remarks:

"Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down"

However the fresh intake who are scoring low on the scale don't seem to be taking the results too seriously and instead note that they have an alternative interpretation.

Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and language guru, puts it this way: "It's not an issue of dumbing it down; it's an issue of cleaning it up."

As the average reading level of an American is between eighth and ninth grade the old habit of using the most complicated phrasing possible has fallen out of favor with the fresh congressional breed who are more keenly aware of social media and the importance of clear communication with the public than their predecessors, especially in a new informational world where the public have much greater access to congressional speeches than ever before in history.

"Life has changed," Luntz says. "They not only expect but they demand that members of Congress communicate in a way that is more understandable and more meaningful to them."

05 23, 2012
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