In Congress, talking like a 12th-grade student makes you a brainiac
A study of political speeches shows the average member of Congress now speaks at about a 10th-grade level — a full grade lower than a few years back.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Two years ago the laser-penned columnist Ann Coulter sent right-wing shock waves out to the left coast by labeling our senior U.S. senator, Patty Murray, "the stupidest person in America."
"This remarkably unimpressive woman has tried to turn being a flat-footed dork into an advantage by selling herself as a tribune of regular folks," the column said.
That was right before Murray whomped Dino Rossi in the election. So the whole episode was very embarrassing. For him.
But now a new analysis of the linguistic complexity of the speeches of members of Congress has found that Murray isn't such regular folk after all. She may even know what a 25-cent word like "tribune" means.
The Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group that clearly has too much time on its hands, entered every congressional speech since 1996 into reading-comprehension software to judge the changing sophistication level of our national discourse.
It's plummeting, you won't be surprised to hear. In its public utterances, Congress now speaks at the level of a high-school sophomore — a full grade level lower than it did seven years ago. "The Dumbing Down of Congress," the study was called.
In the current session, the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate spoke to the public from a low of a sixth-grade language level to about 16th (a college senior). By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level (roughly master's degree territory).
The nation is said to speak, read and write at an eighth to ninth-grade average (so as dumb as Congress may be getting, it's still talking down to us.)
I just used the word "dumb," which isn't really right. The test, called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, uses sentence length and the number of syllables in words to judge language complexity. It isn't assessing the quality of the ideas.
The group also analyzed the politicians' uses of so-called "SAT words" — those multisyllabic words that bedevil high-school test takers. Some, such as "sagacity," which means "wisdom," have not been uttered a single time by anyone in Congress this year. Whereas "spurious," "demagogue" and "inconsequential" all, not surprisingly, got ample airtime.
Back to Patty Murray. It turns out her speeches are classed up with SAT words at nearly twice the rate of any other member of the Washington state congressional delegation. Her speeches this session were delivered at a 12th-grade linguistic level — two grades higher than the congressional average. And four grades above the complexity of Ann Coulter's column that called Murray the stupidest person in America!
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, has been speechifying at only a ninth-grade level this session, the lowest of the local delegation. But dating to 1996 he's averaged an 11th-grade level and he's retiring, so give him a break.
The highest in the delegation? Former Rep. Jay Inslee, who spoke at a 12.5 grade level before stepping down to run for governor. And Sen. Maria Cantwell, who this session has spoken at the level of a high-school senior, the same as Murray.
So is Murray an intellect to whom Coulter owes an apology? Don't ask me — this column doesn't even read at an eighth-grade level and I had to strain to pump it up that high. (You can score your own writings, and those of your enemies, at readabilityformulas.com.)
But when the University of Minnesota analyzed one of President Obama's State of the Union speeches and found it was written at an eighth-grade level (six grades below JFK's State of the Union in 1961), Fox News ran the story alongside a photo of a kid in a dunce cap.
Think they'll now pose Murray in a mortarboard?
Nobody's dumb enough to wait around for that.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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