NPR reports on a finding that the use of language in Congress is regressing. In 2005, members of Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade-level on the Flesch-Kincaid Scale, which measures the length of sentences and number of syllables in words. Our representatives have since been demoted to the 10th grade.
The study’s authors avoid drawing political conclusions. But they observe that all of the 10 members who speak at the lowest level are Republicans. Here’s a sample of their utterances, courtesy of Georgia’s Rep. Rob Woodall: “What do they say about socialism, Mr. Speaker? It’s a great plan until you run out of other people’s money. Guess what? We’ve run out of other people’s money. I just want to show you a chart.” That earns an 8.01 on the Flesch-Kincaid scale.
The implication is that stupid conservatives are dumbing down Congress. I’m not so sure. Mr. Woodall’s words aren’t elegant. But their meaning is clear, and they provide an effective transition to the information on his chart.
By way of contrast, consider this excerpt from the oratory of Vice President Joe Biden:
[I] Used to say in the United States Senate, if you’ll excuse a point of personal privilege, were it not for the teachers I had in grade school, when I stuttered so badly, I could ‑‑ could ‑‑ couldn’t ‑‑ say ‑‑ say my name — Were it not for those teachers who told me how smart I was, what a good boy I was, how capable I was. I would have never overcome that impediment.
According to this calculator, Biden is speaking at the 17th grade level. (I had to edit the punctuation to make the calculator work. Others may get different results.)
In the first place, then, there’s no reason to think that a higher grade level corresponds to better rhetoric. As South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney observes in the NPR piece, “small words can be just as powerful as big words…” More generally, neither party has a monopoly on windbaggery. I encourage readers with a taste for such things to review impromptu remarks by such noted orators as Ted Kennedy. They are far from Lincolnian.
But the study does point toward a real concern: the decline of public deliberation. One reason to prefer simpler language is that it is more easily excerpted for television. It can then be transmitted directly to the voters who are its intended audience. When legislators speak primarily to voters rather than each other, however, they’re no longer deliberating. Instead, they’re engaged in a rather unpleasant form of theater.
I don’t know if anything can be done about this. Congress has never been a gentlemen’s discussion club, even before television and the more efficient sorting of voters into electoral districts. Meaningful parliamentary debate is distant memory even in the U.K., where it once reached its modern peak. But a legislature that only reflects or seeks to reflect public opinion rather than pursuing reasonable consensus will deserve and receive little respect. And that’s a circumstance in which the expansion of executive power is especially tempting.
By the way, this post (quotes excepted) comes at the 10th grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale.