The dumbing down of our politicians’ language

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In recent years, Americans have been repeatedly reminded that the level of “political discourse” in Washington is at an all-time low. This may, of course, be true. But what is equally true — and perhaps more important — is that the level of oratorical eloquence in Washington has declined significantly in the past few years, as a recent study from the Sunlight Foundation confirms.

Brilliant speeches like those delivered by Daniel Webster, who vigorously and skillfully defended our economic system during a speech in the Senate in ways that some of today’s politicians would never dare to, are no longer heard in Washington. Gone is the soaring oratory of Abraham Lincoln and John C. Calhoun.

The words of our last “great communicator,” Ronald Reagan, who lifted the spirits of the country when he defined “the American Sound” in his second inaugural address, harken back so faintly now to a day when the citizenry would listen keenly and purposefully to the words of our leaders.

Unfortunately, this level of eloquence no longer exists in Washington. Even the teleprompter-induced, sound-bite smoothness of the current president rings hollow in comparison to the words of Obama’s long-deceased predecessors.

The Sunlight Foundation used the Flesch-Kincaid test, which measures readability, to determine the extent of the decline. The results suggest that congressional lawmakers — largely reflecting the communication skills of their countrymen — have taken the dumbing down of political speech to a new level.

According to the study, the average American reads at between an 8th- and 9th-grade level. Members of Congress, who are on paper well-educated, speak just below an 11th-grade level; but even that measure continues to drop. The Sunlight Foundation notes that lawmakers’ speeches have declined by almost a grade level in just the past seven years.

Many of the memorable documents and speeches from American history rise head and shoulders above what is spoken in Washington today. For example, the Constitution comes in at a 17.8 grade level. The Federalist Papers — penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay to convince New York and the other states to ratify the Constitution — are written at a 17.1 grade level.

Perhaps this helps explain why Congress seems to routinely avoid the limitations placed on our government and ignore the individual liberties protected by the Constitution. Its members simply can’t understand such principles, because the concepts were composed at a level commensurate with the importance of their consequences.

Some of the most important moments in our nation’s history have been defined by great oratory. Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking to a shocked nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor, said that December 7, 1941 would be “a date which will live in infamy.” Would a majority of today’s Congress even know what such a phrase meant?

Today’s lawmakers are more interested in throwing red meat to their bases than in trying to convince their colleagues and their constituents of the historical and constitutional soundness of the issues before them. This situation is made worse by the 24-hour news cycle, in which elementary and superficial sound bites are repeated endlessly, or “discussed” in shouting matches between “talking heads.”

Bloviating, not eloquence, has become the “new normal” in Washington. A nation founded on a firm understanding of history and the value of communicating real ideas to an educated audience is now mired in the superficial comfort of the lowest common denominator.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.