Is Congress Getting Stupider or Just Better at Writing?

The Atlantic Wire
Is Congress Getting Stupider or Just Better at Writing?
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Is Congress Getting Stupider or Just Better at Writing?

In recent years, Congress has gone from speaking at an 11th level to a 10th grade level, according to a report from the Sunlight Foundation featured on NPR Monday, and while it's easy to see this as an example of our dumbed-down discourse, it seems more like a sign that our politicians are becoming better at communicating.

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The conclusion of a dumber Congress is based on running the entire Congressional Record through the Flesch-Kincaid test, which assigns text a grade-level based on factors like the number of syllables in a word and words per sentence. The Sunlight Foundation found that since 2005, Congress's grade level has plummeted. They broke down their results in a bunch of ways, by party and seniority for instance, and the whole thing is worth a look. But we'd caution you against assuming that just because Congress scored at a "10th grade" level, suddenly CSPAN has turned into a Dawson's Creek re-run. Sunlight's Lee Drutman worries what the trend might 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. Gone, perhaps, are the golden days when legislators spoke to persuade each other, thoughtfully wrestled with complex policy trade-offs, and regularly quoted Shakespeare.

It's easy and fun to pounce on this as evidence that Congress is dumbing itself down. If so, they are not alone. As NPR pointed out, a study using the same test found that Barack Obama's most recent State of the Union was written at an 8th grade level, and Fox Nation ran an image of a boy in a dunce cap alongside the gleeful headline. 

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NPR had the pleasure of interviewing Congress's simplest speaker, South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney who speaks on average at about an 8th grade level. Mulvaney told them. "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." And "I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn't use big words if small words would do." This echoes the advice of every writing teacher we've ever had.

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Strunk and White put it even more plainly in their famed writing manual, noting, "Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able." Flesch-Kincaid rewards long words and winding sentences, but clarity rewards the opposite. The Sunlight Foundation, to its credit, notes this interpretation, too, but it still seems that most people will walk away from the report thinking only that our leaders talk like a bunch of high schoolers.

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We wondered how others might measure up, so we used an online Flesch-Kinkcaid calculator to find out. A recent post by this writer scored at a 10th grade level. (So you can see why we're not bashing Congress too badly.) We also looked at several New York Times columnists' most recent pieces. Opinion columnists write, and politicians speak,  to persuade, so it's interesting to see at what "grade level" they choose to do it. Notably cerebral  conservative Ross Douthat scored 15.08 with his Sunday column. And David Brooks pulled an 11.72. But Gail Collins and Frank Bruni came in below Congress's score of 10.6 with a respective 9.88 and 10.41. Paul Krugman, (a Princeton professor), scored the lowest of those we sampled with an 8.79. Given that some notably high-achieving writers are publishing at the same level at which Congress is speaking, we'd say that while Congress's score is dropping, they're not exactly spelling words out with toy blocks. It'd be worrisome if the trend continued much longer, but for now, it looks like maybe they just took a few writing classes.

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