Skim the headlines about a new study that says members of Congress don’t sound as smart as they once did, and you might think Americans are represented by a bunch of uneducated buffoons.
“Congress Talking Dumber,” blares the New York Daily News. “Congress Sounding Increasingly Like Teenagers,” says the Los Angeles Times. “Sophomoric?” NPR wonders. “Congress At Loss For Words,” Politico adds.
Many members of Congress may well be buffoons in the sense that they have made the institution dysfunctional, but the suggestion that they are idiots because they now speak at a 10th-grade level instead of an 11th-grade level is elitist bunk.
Here’s a quick rhetorical comparison from the NPR story to illustrate the point:
Which sentence would you rather hear? I struggled to find the point in Lungren’s mountain of words, even with the luxury of reading it, but I understood Woodall’s simple message right away.
The study is based on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, which ranks people’s speaking ability based on the length of their words and sentences. Sentence context and the target audience, both of which are essential to effective public speaking, are irrelevant to the analysis.
In an era where political sound bites and 140-character tweets win communications battles, it’s not even logical to imply that members of Congress should be talking like stuffy college professors or constitutional lawyers. That’s why President Obama delivers State of the Union addresses at an eight-grade level and the language of modern political debates is in the same range.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., has the right attitude about the results, which placed him in the rhetorical cellar. “We look at it as a badge of honor,” he told the Times. “It’s a conscious decision on my part. We are trying to be clear and trying to be concise. … I don’t think people see the polysyllabic words — or the number of words — in a sentence as a sign of your intelligence.”
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