Congress Speaks at Tenth-Grade Level; Florida Totally Average; Connie Mack Simplest Speaker in Congress

Categories: Politics
congress-speech-over-time.png
Sunlight Foundation
Cuttin' budgets, cuttin' syllables. (Click for larger.)
There has been a lot of blogspace spent on the Sunlight Foundation's latest study, which found that the speech patterns of members of Congress have gotten markedly simpler over the past 15 years or so.

"Is Congress getting dumber, or just more plainspoken?" its headline asks, and the whole country at once responded "DUMBER."

But it's easy to say "Old Senator So-and-So talks like a ninth-grader, he must be a doofus." Let's look closer, to find out who's really a doofus.

To answer the first question: No, Florida's delegation isn't catastrophically stupid, at least not by this metric. In the 112th Congress, Sunlight's data shows our politicians speak at about an 11th-grade level -- 11.3, to be exact. That doesn't sound so hot, but the best-spoken state, Maine, was at 12.76, and the worst-spoken, Montana, was at 9.5. Comparatively speaking, Florida's in the 61st percentile -- not blowing any vocabularial (?) doors off the place, but it's better than average.

The state's speaking level is lower in the 112th Congress than it is when it's calculated for each year going back to 1996, though -- over that time frame, we're at an 11.47 grade level.

But because everybody in Congress has been talking dumber lately, we actually compare worse when you take into account that higher score -- between 1996 and 2012, Florida is right in the middle -- number 25 out of 50 -- when it comes to sentence complexity.

Translation: Yeah, most states' delegations are speaking in simpler language these days. But Florida's fallen less than average.

Now, onto the juicy stats -- which of our politicians do we get to call imbeciles?

If you're basing your name-calling on this study, then the answer is Rep. Connie Mack, definitely.

Mack is unequivocally in last place in these rankings -- his speech in the 112th Congress was measured at a grade level of 6.69, the lowest level of any politician in either house. Dead last. Percentile zero.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw is next -- his 8.33 grade level is beaten by 97.5 percent of all members of the House and Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio is next-lowest in Florida, with 90.6 percent of all members speaking more complexly than he.

Rep. John Mica is the highest-ranked in Florida for the 112th Congress -- he's fourth in the whole country, speaking at a grade-14.79 level. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen did pretty well too: Her grade 13.14-level speech puts her ahead of more than 89 percent of her colleagues.

But what's it mean?

"It's 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," writes Sunlight's Lee Drutman. "Gone, perhaps, are the golden days when legislators spoke to persuade each other, thoughtfully wrestled with complex policy trade-offs, and regularly quoted Shakespeare."

He's right, in that Congress' speech patterns since 2005 have dropped a full grade level between 2005 and 2011 (for Republicans, it dropped more than 1.3 levels). But the data is based on punching member speeches into the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level analysis, which factors in only syllables per word and words per sentence.

Members of Congress talk more simply now, thanks largely to the influx of new Republicans. But simple doesn't mean stupid. For example, the phrase "It's OK that we don't agree. I won't call you a communist" has a grade level of 2.48. But whoever said it would look a hell of a lot smarter than most of the folks with higher scores.

You can check out individual politicians on the Sunlight Foundation's website. And here's the state-level data I cheffed up:


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17 comments
Sam
Sam

It is because more and more, the people keep putting CAREER politicians in office instead of a smart, hard-working individual from the private sector who serves a term and goes back to real work. 

FQS9000
FQS9000

They all think we are idiots and we are because we re-elect these dumb asses.  By we, I mean YOU.

tacoboy
tacoboy

eeerily reminescent of such 18th tomes: "The Protocols of Zion" where the state is overcome by incompetent leadership.

Daryl
Daryl

It's 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," writes Sunlight's Lee Drutman. "Gone, perhaps, are the golden days when legislators spoke to persuade each other, thoughtfully wrestled with complex policy trade-offs, and regularly quoted Shakespeare.....................LazyCash4.com..................

Hu Flung Poo
Hu Flung Poo

My goodness, they must have been able to find some transcriptions of President Obama's speeches and some of his unscripted, extemporaneous remarks. Likewise Vice-President Biden, When Biden speaks, on script or off the top of his head, the message that comes across is "stupid". When Obama speaks from a script the message that comes across is "pandering", and when unscripted it is "not as smart as portrayed".

Prof. G
Prof. G

Small correction: The word "data" is plural; the singular is "datum". It's Latin. So are memorandum/memoranda, stratum/strata, medium.media, honorarium/honoraria. Please make a note of it. Thank you.

Pete Pepper
Pete Pepper

 Unfortunately it would appear that most of the nation is also dumbing down.  Case in point, the statements from the "rhode scholar" with the pen name "hu flung poo" in which he never noticed that the subject of this article are those in Congress and not the President.Reading comprehension used to be an important skill, something that seems to be lacking these days.

Rich Abdill
Rich Abdill

The OED includes, with clear examples going back to at least as early as 1826, an accepted definition of "data" as a mass noun, allowing for singular conjugation of its corresponding verbs. Please make a note of it. Thank you.

Hu Flung Poo
Hu Flung Poo

It is precisely the point that they chose to analyze Congress, which publishes a Congressional Digest, an edited transcription of everything said on the record in session. (Of course, the often heard "I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks..." means that some staffer has cleaned up the most egregious grammatical and syntax errors - the scores would be even lower if they were analyzing their words as delivered.

It would be quite easy to include the President's remarks, which are released in transcript form, both as advance copies and as delivered. Its not a matter of reading comprehension - it is the amount of effort put into selectively analyzing the speech of some public figures,but not others. When you can just as easily dump a text file of President Obama's speaking record into the software for evaluation (Flesch Index, Gunning fog, etc.), but you don't...

causeican
causeican

I see your vocabulary is increasing,  Such an amazing use of the slang word for fornication.

Chaz Fan
Chaz Fan

Of which neither of you two are.

Pete Pepper
Pete Pepper

 No, its Rhodes scholar.  It references back to the ancient city.

causeican
causeican

No it's Rhodes Scholar "Genius". 

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