Who’s dumber: Congress or Martin Luther King Jr.? The dumb report on congressional dumbness

Are conservatives stupider than liberals?

That’s one way to read the lively parlor-game data released this week by the Sunlight Foundation, a 6-year-old educational concern that attempts to make government more transparent. Sunlight’s report—which assigned grade levels to how members of Congress talk—revealed that the most right-wing of our representatives express themselves, on average, at the lowest grade level in Congress.

“No abortion,” you can imagine these simple-minded conservatives saying. “It is bad.”

According to the report, Democrats have a more sophisticated way of expressing themselves. Democrats evidently use multi-syllabic words—like “moreover”—and more complex sentence structure than their colleagues on the right. Replete with internal clauses—the ones that can throw off listeners and muddy a point—the rococo stylings of Democrats evidently go hand-in-hand with the promotion of their pet causes, like universal health care and of course their longstanding war on antidisestablishmentarianism.

Republicans dominate the extremes of the list—both the speaker at the highest level and the one at the lowest are members of the GOP. Their average grade level is 10.4; that of Democrats is 10.8. Sunlight has also made a point to say that eloquence, or verbal complexity, anyway, is on the wane among lawmakers. Congress as a whole now apparently speaks like high school sophomores, one grade level lower than it did in 2005.

[Related: Is Congress getting dumber?]

I like the foundation’s freestyle, groundless and yet stirring account of why this might be so: “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.”

If you skim Sunlight’s findings, and bring to them a sporting quotient of party prejudice, you might conclude that Republicans are, say, “idiots” and Democrats are, oh, “showoffs.” To use the pre-K-level idiom preferred by the biased twerp in each of us.

If, however, you listen to a sampler of speeches by various congresspeople at a range of oration grade levels, you might find something completely different. I listened to Daniel Lungren, whose speech at grade 16.01 (first week of summer school after college graduation?) outranks every other congressperson, give a Memorial Day greeting in 2009. (The Sunlight report analyzes each figure’s speeches since 1996.)

Lungren, a Republican from California, sounded low-key and didn’t stutter, but he repeatedly used the euphemism “fallen” instead of “died.” Trying to get choked up and earnest about the Civil War dead—the Civil War “fallen”—he sounded fakey and insincere.

I also listened to John “Mick” Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, who is the low man on the grade-level totem pole. He is said to speak at a seventh-grade level.

Like many English Ph.D.s who have taught writing to undergraduates, I was ready to condescendingly award this kid points for “clarity” and “forthrightness” while privately calling him illiterate. But no such condescension occurred to me once he started to talk. Mulvaney is terrific—a natural orator who toggles nimbly between irony and seriousness, doesn’t miss a note and—unlike most seasoned politicians—never goes on rhetorical autopilot. He stays in the room; his emotions in the moment color his speech; and he responds to his audience.

After thanking the organizers of the June 8, 2011, town hall meeting in Lake Wylie, S.C., Mulvaney—in a deceptively casual and even self-deprecating way—elegantly prevented boredom by setting the stage for a short, engaged talk with a clear timeframe. He sowed anticipation in the audience for a spirited Q&A. He set people thinking about their questions and set up a reward system for attention-paying. And he unobtrusively laid out the topics of his speech. That is rhetoric.

“Basically, it’s about half an hour’s worth of information that we’ll go over. And then at the end I’ll shut up and answer questions for pretty much as long as you all want to sit around. I think when we did this in Rock Hill, we did questions for almost an hour and a half, maybe two hours. And I will take all of the questions. There are folks here who want to talk today about Medicare and Medicaid. There’s folks who want to talk about defense spending. I will answer all the questions that I can possibly answer.”

Mulvaney was an honors scholar at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, he attended Harvard Business School and he got a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is the man who the Sunlight Foundation now says uses the diction and syntax of a seventh-grader? The least evolved speaker in Congress?
Something is flawed here. I’m beginning to think that the Flesch-Kincaid test, which invented the “reads at an nth-grade-level” metric, is a crock.

Rudolf Flesch was an Austrian who immigrated to the United States, advocated phonics in the teaching of English and published “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in 1955. In the 1970s, he and J. Peter Kincaid, a psychologist and Navy scientist, first created their readability test for the military’s use with technical manuals.

The notoriously opaque U.S. Constitution merits a whopping 17.8 grade level, and the Federalist Papers come in at 17.1. Oh well, sorreeee you fancy founding documents of the Republic!

On the other end of the scale, the Gettysburg Address lands at an 11.2 grade level. “I Have a Dream” gets the grade of a freshman: 9.4. 

Feeling as though I could now face the test myself, I plugged this column into a Flesch-Kincaid readability index calculator. It came in at grade 11—slightly below Lincoln at Gettysburg but safely above Martin Luther King Jr. and “I Have a Dream.”

I’m better than King. Somehow I’m not convinced.