Study Suggests Congress May Be Getting Dumber


capitol-congressThink members of Congress act like a bunch of high school students? You might be on to something. A recent study from the Sunlight Foundation found that members of Congress tend to speak at about a 10th- grade level.

The Sunlight Foundation analyzed every word spoken by every member of Congress on the floor of the House or Senate. Sunlight imported the words into a searchable database and then “ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse,” according to a buzzy story from NPR.

The finding: Congress is speaking at a lower academic level. Back in 2005, members of Congress spoke at a level equal to a high school junior. Now, the numbers have dropped off. Congress talks like a bunch of sophomores. Sunlight used something called the “Flesch-Kinkaid” scale to determine speech level. Longer sentences and words with more syllables equal higher grade levels.

Some interesting factoids from the Sunlight Foundation’s study:

-“Prior to 2005, Republicans on average spoke at a slightly higher grade level than Democrats. Since then, Democrats have spoken on average at a slightly higher grade level than Republicans.”
-On average, Congress members who are moderate speak at a higher level. Those on the far right and left speak at a lower level.
-Don’t assume you speak at a higher level than your representative. The average American speaks between an eighth- and ninth-grade level.

It is tempting to see these results and say, “Congress is getting dumber,” but a piece from the Atlantic suggests another theory. Perhaps Congress is just getting better at getting its points across. After all, why make an issue or speech or anecdote more complicated than it has to be?

{The Upshot/ Newscenter}


  1. Flesch-Kinkaid isn’t about fancy talk, it’s about clarity and vocabulary. If anything, what it means here is that Congress is dumbing down its speech patterns. Could it be that the Republicans need to dumb down their speech to be understood by the Tea Partiers who are taking over, while Democrats know that they can speak on a higher level and still be understood by their voters?

    Bring back Ike Eisenhower’s concern for education, and you just might see speech levels rising for a change.

    Note also that moderates are brighter than extremists on either side. Being a moderate means that you have to think things through, not just parrot what you read off your favorite political blog.

    Disclaimer: I’m a moderate – not a comfortable position to be any more, with everybody rushing to fall off the political spectrum on either end. And somehow, the more extreme the opinions, the louder and more chutzpahdik the rhetoric.

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