The Dumbing Down of Congress

by Translation Guy on June 8, 2012

Congress is more simple-minded than ever, according to a recent study by the Sunlight Foundation. “Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level, according to a Flesch-Kincaid readability test of every sentence entered into the Congressional Record since 1996.”

“In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it’s down to 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores,” reports NPR.

Looks like it’s all the Tea Party’s fault too. According to political scientist Lee Drutman, it’s the new crop of Republican freshmen who are scraping the bottom of sentence complexity.

“Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down, and that pattern is particularly pronounced on the right,” he says.

Lowest of the low is South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney, with a score of 7.94, which lands him in the middle of middle-school English complexity.

Shockingly, Mulvaney graduated with honors from Georgetown and earned his law degree at UNC Chapel Hill. Even more shockingly, his father was a high school English teacher.

And most shockingly of all, Mulvaney’s low Flesch-Kincaid score puts him on the same dumbness level as President Obama whenever he gives a State of the Union speech. Those speeches score at the same junior high level as Mulvaney, and are the lowest scoring State of the Union speeches in the history of the Republic.

So what’s causing all this low-grade speechifying?

It’s probably all your fault (un-American readers excepted). All those dang policy nerds in DC have got to dumb it down for the rest of us, since the general level of public discourse in the USA is at an 8th or 9th grade level.

Some say this is further evidence of the dumbing-down of America. Not true! We have always been dumb. (Same goes for you foreigners too, if your governments are any indication.)

Anyway, at 1-800-Translate we always operate on the KISS principle to keep it simple, and consider a high Flesch-Kincaid score on our translations to be a fail, and not a pass.

As a readability tool, Flesch-Kincaid has a lot of problems, which I will get to next time and which might actually be useful to you, but in today’s post, I wanted to validate Sunlight’s analysis against my own methodology, which I’ve just decided to call the “TranslationGuy WindBag Bloviation Scale™”, also known as the “BS Score®.”

First up, Mick Mulvaney, SC (R) who has the lowest Flesch-Kincaid score in the House. Listen to him here in a C-SPAN interview from 2010.

Now this guy is supposed to be the most succinct speaker in Congress? I listened for almost three minutes, and he was, like, hard. I mean C-SPAN hard.

This earns him a BS Score® of 4.2 (Noticeable shaking of indoor items, rattling noises. No significant damage.) As a Congressional baseline for simple expression, Mulvaney has set the bar pretty high.

Next we tested Dan Lungren, CA (R) whose congressional utterances posted the highest of all, with a score of 16.01, which means you gotta be in grad school to follow this guy.

.…Please stand by….

….OK. We’ve got our emergency power back… Sorry, we have experienced total equipment failure. Lundgren communication complexity was off the charts, and all inidcations are that he’s  off his Ritalin too. Fortunately, before the explosion we were able to capture enough data to estimate a BS Score ® of Force 5 (Sustained winds of more than 156 mph, complete roof failure, drinking water poisoned, duck and cover.)

FEMA says we’ll be out of these tents in six months. But in the meantime, I’ll get one of the project managers to hand crank the generator so we can take a look at readability testing and translation in our next post.

Over and out,

Translation Guy.


  1. John says:

    I always felt ectremism to either end of the political spectrum reflected poorly on one’s intelligence, thank you for confirming my thoughts.

  2. I wouldn’t necessarily equate a low F-K score with clarity and succintness, but rather lack of complexity, people who are unelaborate aren’t necessarily clear on what their saying always.

  3. Terry says:

    Not shocked at all the the conservatives are the dumbest of all. There has been an anti “East Coast” intelligentsia mindset dating back to the Nixon years.

  4. Obviously the Tea Party is filled with morons, they got up in arms over their taxes being raised when they had actually been cut. Not exactly a ground breaking discovery but I do like the post, good laugh (maybe I should be crying though?).

    • Ken says:

      I’ll second that, since all political parties are filled with morons.

  5. Deborah says:

    I don’t think on camera oration should be the only determining factor as to how smart or dumb these guys are.

    • Ken says:

      I don’t think it is.

  6. Rj says:

    Anyone who says uh that much doesn’t speak at a grad school level. Also of course members of Congress are only interested in issues from time to time, they move with the polls and the news cycle.

  7. Cherie says:

    So Congress doesn’t even speak at a college level? Oh god, I’m moving to Canada.

    • Ken says:

      It’s all Canadian up there, eh.

  8. Low-grade oration is necessitated to communicate with the majority of the American public, have you seen the data on how well educated America is these days?

    • Ken says:

      I saw it, but found it hard to follow.

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