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Is Congress Becoming Less Literate?

Congress is apparently now speaking at a 10th grade level. The Sunlight Foundation recently analyzed the Congressional Record and found that the average member of Congress speaks at 10.6 grade reading level on the standard Flesch-Kincaid scale. That’s down almost a full grade level from 2005.

Why has Congress started speaking in smaller words? The Sunlight Foundation found the grade level of congressional speech has steadily dropped since 2005. Back then—and for the entire previous decade—Republicans generally spoke at a higher reading level than Democrats. Since 2005 both parties have been speaking more plainly, but the most dramatic shift was among Republicans. As a group, congressional Republicans went from speaking at 11.6 grade level to a 10.3 grade level. In general, the more conservative the Republican the lower the readability level of their speech (there wasn’t much correlation between ideology and readability among Democrats). That was particularly true among the freshmen Republicans. The fourteen members of Congress who spoke at the lowest reading level were all Republicans.

The simple, contemptuous explanation—that the conservatives in Congress are dumber or less educated—is certainly mostly wrong. It’s worth noting that Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), Congress’ plainest speaker, graduated with honors from Georgetown and has a law degree from the University of North Carolina. A higher reading level just means bigger words and longer sentences. It’s a measure of how difficult a text is to understand, not how sophisticated or well-written it is. In fact, a higher reading level can be a sign of obscure or awkward writing. By the same token, speaking at the level a 10th grader could understand is not the same as speaking like a 10th grader. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is actually around a 9th grade reading level (you can analyze your own writing here). The average 9th grader may be able understand King’s speech, but certainly could not have written it.

The plain speech of conservatives in Congress is probably more a product of the anti-elitist populism of the Tea Party movement than anything else. In that way, it’s part of a broader pattern in American politics. Earlier this year, Eric Ostermeier pointed out that President Obama’s State of the Union addresses have all been written at an 8th grade reading level. Fox News ran the story next to a picture of a child in a dunce cap. But State of the Union addresses have been getting steadily plainer among presidents of both parties since the days of John F. Kennedy. Gone are the wonderful ornate phrases and classical allusions of the past—a shift that reflects the increasing inclusiveness of American democracy. In the end, it may on the whole be a good thing for politicians to speak to the ordinary citizens, rather than over their heads.

Opened book image from Tischenko Irina / Shutterstock.com

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