According to a study by the Sunlight Foundation that’s getting a lot of play, Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did seven years ago. You may not be surprised, I’m sure, to find that the study also claims conservative members of Congress speak on average at the lowest grade level.
Lawmakers of both parties still speak over the heads of the average American, who, apparently, only read between a 8th and 9th grade level.
By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 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. All these analyses use the Flesch-Kincaid test, which equates higher grade levels with longer words and longer sentences.
You will notice that the more contemporary the document or speech, the lower it scores on the scale. Politicians tend to speak more concisely and use common language these days. No doubt, knowing that every word you mutter will be covered online and on television often makes simplicity a necessity.
Generally, the study finds, the most moderate members of both parties “speak at the highest grade levels, and the most extreme members… speak at the lowest grade levels.” Prevaricating, no doubt, always has a high word count.
But what do these grades say about the usefulness, intelligence or honesty of the content? Nothing, of course. Harry Reid has used the word “compromise” 1,820 times. To test out the relevance of the grading, I dug around for some of the dumbest things I’ve ever written — obviously, this opened up a treasure trove of material — to see if there was any correlation between grade level and the seriousness of the ideas.
For instance, my satirical manifesto for the Occupy movement scores a Flesch-Kincaid Grade level of 13. Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address, a vision for the future of the American people, only scored a level of 10.
My defense of profanity received a Flesch-Kincaid Grade level of 11. The Ten Commandments received a 9.
My piece arguing that civility is overrated, garners a grade of 13, while great speeches like Bluto’s Address to the Denizens of Delta Tau Chi Fraternity (a Flesch-Kincaid Grade level of 2) and “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” by Patrick Henry Speech (7) scored far lower.
Thousands of professors and pundits across the country prove that there is no link between reading level and intelligent ideas.