When can “stuff” be called “malarkey”? Apparently, in a vice presidential debate.
We’ve always known that politics is the art of arbitrage of words and meaning. Now, researchers are using parsing methods (PDF) like the ATOS readability formula, the Lexile framework or the Flesch-Kincaid test to index “readability” against grade-levels of U.S. schools. Longer sentences and multisyllabic words indicate higher scores, shorter sentences and monosyllabic words lower scores. While there’s controversy about the validity and efficacy of these methods, they nevertheless provide some sense of textual complexity and density for historical comparisons. Here, for instance, are the Flesch-Kincaid scores of some well-known texts:
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
If we go by recent findings, most of that list remains intellectually opaque to our youth. For example, in one large-scale survey (PDF) of the top 40 books being read in schools by 9th-12th graders, the average reading level was 5.3, not much above the 5th grade. Even more damning was the fact that when librarians compiled the “Top 25 Librarians’ Picks by Interest Level” from 800 books for high school students, recommended titles were at 4th or 5th grade reading levels.
Surely, politicians do better?
One would think those whose livelihood depends on their communication skills would do better. “That’s a lot of malarkey,” as our vice president would put it. A Flesch-Kincaid analysis by Sunlight Foundation found that while lawmakers still speak above the average American (who reads at 8th-9th grade level) Congress now speaks at “almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago”:
Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is at a 9.4 grade level. Most major newspapers are written at between an 11th and 14th grade level.
The degree of decline is not evenly spread between the two parties:
“Between 1996 and 2005, Republicans overall spoke at consistently 2/10ths of a grade level higher than Democrats, except for 2001, when a rare moment of national unity also seems to have extended to speaking at the same grade level. But following 2005, something happened, and Congressional speech has been on the decline since.”
The Sunlight Foundation study goes into detail as to what might have caused the disparity and why the length of Congressional service also makes a difference.
Readability = comprehensibility?
Of course, some think the “dumbing down” of political speech is a positive development. Simplification begets greater understanding. Or does it? It may also be easier to speak about simpler “stuff” more simply. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, another study found that President “Obama’s SOTU addresses have the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score of any modern president”:
With three addresses under his belt, President Obama has the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president. Obama’s average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 11.1 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors.
President Obama says, “My message is simple.” Our problems remain complex. Our populace’s willingness to listen to and ability to parse the message continues to decline. Hard to say what needs to change first: speakers, what’s spoken or listeners?