By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
To the surprise of virtually nobody, Congress is sounding simpler.
Which may not be the same thing as dumber. Although, on the other hand …
The Sunlight Foundation, a good-government group, has analyzed the Congressional Record and found that the average member of Congress speaks at a 10.6-grade reading level on the standard Flesch-Kincaid scale. That’s down almost a full grade from 2005.
And the member of Congress who speaks at the lowest grade level of them all just happens to be from Florida. It’s Connie Mack IV, a Republican from Fort Myers. His utterances in the current Congress are just below the 6.7-grade level.
Mack hasn’t always sounded like a middle schooler, however. For most of his seven-year career in Congress, he has spoken at the 12th-grade level.
Back in 2005, Republicans usually spoke at a higher grade level than Democrats. But that has flipped. Now, the more conservative the Republican, the lower the readability level of the speech. The correlation doesn’t hold for Democrats. It’s especially strong among freshman Republicans. The 14 members of Congress who spoke at the lowest level are all Republicans.
Before anyone starts cracking dumb-and-dumber jokes, we should note that this trend is not necessarily indicative of lesser intelligence. As writer Robert De Neufville points out in the Politeia blog, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina and Congress’ plainest speaker, graduated with honors from Georgetown and has a law degree from the University of North Carolina. A higher score on readability means bigger words and longer sentences. And as we all know, people have said plenty of dumb things in multi-syllables.
“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,” De Neufville writes.
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.
Plainer speech is almost certainly related as well to our television age, in which images and quick sound bites substitute for long-windedness.
Still, this designation must be counted as an embarrassment for Mack, who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack III and the great-grandson of the legendary Baseball Hall of Famer Connie Mack, owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics.
Mack’s opponent in the Republican primary for U.S. Senator Bill Nelson’s seat, George LeMieux, wasted no time with the ridicule.
“Last place is nothing new for the prodigal son,” said LeMieux spokeswoman Anna Nix. “This year alone, Mack earned the worst attendance record in the House of Representatives and has come in dead last in three Senate primary straw polls, including the Florida Federation of Republican Women and statewide Tea Party leaders. If Florida Republicans nominate Connie Mack the Fourth, he will surely come in last to Bill Nelson in November.”