Members of Congress speak at almost a full grade level lower than they did seven years ago, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the Internet to bring about greater transparency in government. So is Congress getting dumber?
The organization conducted an analysis of congressional speeches, all of which are transcribed and entered into the congressional record. Using the Flesch-Kincaid test, the study’s authors were able to assign a grade level to every member of Congress.
As described in RedLine’s white paper on good copy, Flesch-Kincaid assigns a higher grade level to longer words and longer sentences. A lower grade level is assigned to shorter words and shorter sentences.
In 2005, members of Congress spoke at an 11th-grade level (11.5). Today, they are speaking at a 10th-grade level (10.6). Because Flesch-Kincaid is a readability test, these numbers mean that the average high school junior (seven years ago) and the average high school sophomore (today) could understand the respective speeches delivered in Congress. So are members of Congress getting dumber? Or are they simplifying their speeches on purpose?
The Congressman with the highest speaking level (16.01) is Daniel Lundgren, a Republican from California. The Congressman with the lowest speaking level (7.95) is John Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina. The top 20 and bottom 20 can be found in the Sunlight Foundation article. The top 10 and bottom 10 can be found in an NPR article on the same topic.
It may be tempting to equate a high score with high intelligence and a low score with low intelligence. But the numbers simply reflect one measure of linguistic complexity. Mulvaney, who was ranked lowest, says, “Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I’m not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well. I hope people don’t take it as a substitute for lack of intellect, but small words can be just as powerful as big words sometimes.”
As proponents of plain language know, simple phrasing can increase listeners’ or readers’ comprehension of language. Take President Obama. Considered by many to be a gifted speaker, he gave a 2012 State of the Union address that was at an 8th-grade level.