Freshmen are more likely to speak at a lower grade level, and those at the extremes of their party also speak at a lower grade level than the more moderate members. Republicans see a drop of three grade levels from their most moderate to their most conservative, and while the study didn’t find a clear correlation between grade level and ideology, with all other factors held constant, scoring on the far left is associated with lower grade levels.
But don’t call it stupidity.
Both Fitch and Drutman were quick to point out that level of discourse doesn’t necessarily correlate with a level of intelligence.
“Speaking in plain language does not in any way connote intelligence or non-intelligence,” Fitch emphasized.
And Drutman offered an alternate explanation for why more-partisan lawmakers may speak at a lower grade level: “Perhaps people on both sides of the spectrum have a more crystallized view of how things are,” he said.
Ideology may have some influence, however. Eight members of the Tea Party Caucus make the bottom 20, including the lawmaker who speaks at the lowest grade level at 7.95, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. But the simplified speech of those members may indicate less a lack of nuance and more of an effort to bring government back to the people, fueled by the populist wave that has pushed grassroots groups like the tea party and the Occupy movement to the forefront of the national political debate.
“I don’t want to sound like a politician. I try hard not to sound like a politician,” Mulvaney says.
What does a politician sound like? According to Mulvaney, “Politicians are famous for using a lot of words and saying nothing.”
And when congressional discourse devolves to that level, even while it may seem smarter by the Flesch-Kincaid scale of measurement, which was used in the Sunlight study, meaning is lost for lawmakers and constituents alike.
However, Fitch says that there’s a time and a place for a high level of complexity.
“Sometimes that Washington language is valuable,” he says, referring to the wonky acronyms and legalese that often pepper the more in-depth policy discussions during committee meetings.
“I sleep better at night knowing there are policy wonks in the U.S. Congress,” Fitch adds.
Those policy wonks, though, may do well to learn to translate wonkspeak into something average Americans can understand. If it’s true that Americans are reading, on average, at an 8th- or 9th-grade level, there is, even now, a clear disconnect between what some lawmakers say and what their constituents can understand.