Someone else can feel free to pinpoint exactly when this trend began, but the trend is of liberals/Democrats in Congress accusing conservatives/Republicans of being stupid, and conservatives/Republicans accusing liberals/Democrats of being supercilious (or, as they might say, “a superior sumbitch“). If either side wanted more ammunition, they just got it thanks to a new, fascinating, but ultimately kind of pointless study by the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation. (Not that everyone else is anti-transparency; Sunlight just cares more.)
Using a Flesch-Kincaid reading level test to determine the results, the study shows that the average reading level of congressional speech has dropped from level 11.5 in 2005 to 10.7 this year. The very lowest of those levels is the Republican one, an interesting departure from the mid-90s, as you’ll see in the accompanying line graph. You may also notice that the disparity between parties is larger than it used to be; that new members rank lower than veterans; and that both the highest- and lowest-ranking individual members are Republicans.
This is all very interesting, but what does it mean? Even Sunlight senior fellow Lee Drutman admits he doesn’t consider the results either good or bad. When I first became aware of this study, most of the reaction sounded something like “Ewww, look at how stupid Congress has become.” If this was definitely the case, I would be just as alarmed. The one place you want people smarter than you is the government, even if they don’t always sound that way.
And that’s the crux of the problem: Sounding less intelligent than your predecessors doesn’t mean you are. Watch as the exact same thought is expressed at completely different reading levels, shown in parentheses:
I believe you would be glad to know that a pizza delivery has just been effected. (8)
I ordered a pizza. (6)
By the way, for those who recognize that first sentence: I saw it on a snarky blog. Don’t judge me. Anyway, this test is primarily based on the length of a sentence and how many syllables the words are. Sure, it’s a safe bet that someone who has a big vocabulary is smarter than someone with a small one. But how do you know how big someone’s vocabulary is until you give them a more accurate test? And for anyone who wants to do that, don’t waste your money.
Nobody in America doesn’t believe Congress is full of idiots. We can tell by their refusal to put aside ideology and accept the reality of what they need to do to get the country moving again. No post-graduate reading level can cure that.