Too Good Not to Blog About

Filed under: what do we do with this data?

Wonkbook has a hilarious post about the grade-level of Congressional rhetoric. News flash: it’s gone down.

Specifically, it’s gone down since 2005. Look at that dizzying drop!

The Sunlight Foundation got this data by calculating numbers of words per sentence and number of syllables per word.

You know, it’s possible for some people to discuss complex ideas intelligently using short sentences made of short words. I can’t do it, but I can’t do lots of things. Like, I can’t run for national office. Probably because I take too damn long to say what I want to say. And what I want to say isn’t popular enough. Because it takes me too damn long.

What works in a humanities classroom doesn’t work on the campaign trail. Surprise surprise.

But wait! The data show high correlations between junior Republicans and lowered grade level:

We can immediately notice that grade level of Congressional Record speeches declines among Republicans as the voting record becomes more conservative. Among Republicans, the drop from the most moderate to most conservative is, on average, almost three whole grade levels, from 13th to 10thgrade.

Among Democrats, the scatterplot does not reveal any relationship between grade level and ideology. However, when we hold all other factors constant in the regression analysis (see further below), we find that the most being on the far left is associated with lower speech grade levels. There is also a clearer correlation between further left voting score and lower grade level among more junior members.

When liberals get stuffy, they like to say that liberal policies are more complex than Republican ones–therefore more based on the grey areas of real life. As such, they’d demand more complex language. But more complex language is less potent in a commercial or televised debate. Or tweet.

I’m not sure about that. There are plenty of egghead Republicans, and plenty of complexity in more Republican policies. (Hi Mom!)

But the Sunlight Foundation researchers had to do some work to make the case that it was extremity per se associated with more simplistic speech. I’m saying: the data just weren’t as clear on the left.

(Do you like how I used “data” as a plural?? I can haz grammar.)

So, you know, if you want to make a partisan case for relative simplicity, you can. With a graph like that, go ahead!

But I’d be more comfortable attributing the drop in rhetorical meat, as the researchers do, to things like the twitterverse, or youtube, or, in general, the lowered rhetorical standards of our entire media landscape. You know, correlation is not causation, that truism of smart analysis.

On the other hand, The Right Nation (which predicted W’s reelection and, despite Obama’s election, continues to be relevant) dramatizes the ways that highly organized communication strategies in the GOP—passing talking points to all spokespeople across the country, routine prayer breakfasts, and the like—contributed to the general rightward pitch of the nation since the 70s. Talking points! So the partisan case for relative complexity isn’t just based on prejudice and wishful thinking about the evils of the other party.

And of course, OF COURSE!, the simplest ideas, powerfully and cleanly conveyed, are the most compelling.

The lowered grade level of political rhetoric is more likely about galvanizing constituents. Rather than anything about extreme ideologies themselves. Or so I hope.

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