Two years ago Ann Coulter sent right-wing shock waves out to the left coast by labeling our senior U.S. senator, Patty Murray, “the stupidest person in America.”
“This remarkably unimpressive woman has tried to turn being a flat-footed dork into an advantage by selling herself as a tribune of regular folks,” Coulter’s column said. That was right before Murray whomped Dino Rossi in the election. So the whole episode was very embarrassing. For him.
But a new analysis of the linguistic complexity of the speeches of Congress members has found that Murray isn’t such regular folk after all. The Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, entered every congressional speech since 1996 into reading-comprehension software to judge changing sophistication level. It’s plummeting, you won’t be surprised to hear. Congress now speaks at the level of a high-school sophomore — a full grade level lower than it did seven years ago.
In the current session, the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate spoke to the public from a low of a sixth-grade level to about 16th (a college senior). By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level.
The nation is said to speak, read and write at an eighth to ninth-grade average. The test, called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, uses sentence length and the number of syllables in words to judge language complexity. It isn’t assessing the quality of the ideas. The group also analyzed politicians’ uses of “SAT words,” multisyllabic words that bedevil high-school test takers. Murray’s speeches are classed up with SAT words at nearly twice the rate of any other member of the Washington congressional delegation. Her speeches this session were delivered at a 12th-grade linguistic level — two grades higher than the congressional average, and four grades above the complexity of Ann Coulter’s column that called Murray the stupidest person in America.
Dunce cap vs. mortar board
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, has been speechifying at only a ninth-grade level this session, the lowest of the local delegation. But dating to 1996 he’s averaged an 11th-grade level and he’s retiring, so give him a break. (U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, was scored at a 9.4 grade level.) The highest in the delegation? Former Rep. Jay Inslee, who spoke at a 12.5 grade level before stepping down to run for governor. And Sen. Maria Cantwell this session has spoken at the level of a high-school senior, the same as Murray.
So is Murray an intellect to whom Coulter owes an apology? Don’t ask me. This column doesn’t even read at an eighth-grade level and I had to strain to pump it up that high. (You can score your own writings, and those of your enemies, at readabilityformulas.com.) But when the University of Minnesota analyzed one of President Obama’s State of the Union speeches and found it was written at an eighth-grade level (six grades below JFK’s State of the Union in 1961), Fox News ran the story alongside a photo of a kid in a dunce cap. Think they’ll now pose Murray in a mortarboard? Nobody’s dumb enough to wait around for that.