Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouts as U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress at the U.S. Capitol September 9, 2009 in Washington, DC.
What does it take for a politician to communicate with the American public? If you’ve been following the news lately, it’s speaking like a tenth grader, but is that accurate?
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission of creating government transparency, said it had analyzed the speeches of members of congress, and found that members now speak at a 10.6 grade level – down a full grade from the 11.5 grade level of political discourse seven years ago. Before you get too critical, remember that the majority of Americans only read at an eighth- or ninth-grade level, which means that most representatives are still speaking slightly over most Americans’ virtual heads. Several linguists and journalists have criticized the study for using something called the Flesch-Kincaid test, which only measures sentence and word length, not content.
In fact, South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney, who was ranked lowest in the study, told CNN that he is intentionally plainspoken.
“If you want someone to understand your message, you speak clearly and concisely.”
President Obama, for all his Harvard law degree and professorial resume, may agree. All of his “State of the Union” speeches score at an eighth-grade level.
A Poem, by Tony Peyser
Most Americans read at a level
Of eighth or ninth grade
Which is why many lawmakers
Have frequently made
A point when giving speeches
To always arrive at
An intellectual level that isn’t
Much higher than that.
Perhaps the next step for politicians
May very probably be
To embrace the texting culture & toss in
The occasional OMG.
In the same way that deli owners all want
Their bagels to be lox-worthy
The Beltway treats voters like they’re former
Contestants of Jeff Foxworthy.
If this dumbing down had been around
When voters for FDR pulled the lever,
After Pearl Harbor, he might have said,
“This day will live in … whatever.”
Is there something to be said for speaking simply? Do tests like the Flesch-Kincaid undervalue conciseness? Do these ratings have anything do with actual smarts? What do you think of the level of dialogue in Congress? How do you want your politicians to communicate with you?
Lee Drutnam, senior fellow, Sunlight Foundation; member of the team responsible for the study; adjunct professor, political science, John Hopkins University
Ben Zimmer, language columnist, Boston Globe; executive producer, Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.comTony Peyser, local poet in Altadena; he wrote daily poems for BuzzFlash.com and keeps his own politics and pop culture blog at PeyserPoem.blogspot.com