Sunday, January 30, 2011

U. of Minn.: Obama SOTU at Early Eighth Grade Level

Average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for Orally Delivered State of the Union Addresses by Presidents Since FDR

Rank
President
Words per sentence
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
1
Kennedy
23.8
12.0
2
Eisenhower
20.5
11.9
3
Nixon
23.5
11.5
4
Roosevelt
24.3
11.4
5
Ford
19.3
11.2
6
Carter
19.7
10.8
7
Truman
18.9
10.5
8
Johnson
20.3
10.4
8
Bush 43
19.0
10.4
10
Reagan
19.6
10.3
11
Clinton
19.0
9.5
12
Bush 41
17.4
8.6
13
Obama
16.7
8.5
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

This article, on the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics web site (it is aptly named, BTW), is very interesting. It rates all of the orally delivered State of the Union addresses, going back to the beginning of the New Deal, as if they were texts that school children read. The grade level of Obama's two SOTU speeches is grade 8.5. That of last Wednesday's speech is a stultifying 8.1, the lowest yet. That's right,when if comes to giving SOTU speeches that make few demands on your gray matter, he is probably the all-time champ.

I find this puzzling, for two reasons.

One has to do the fact that this is pretty much the way his speeches have always impressed me. (See this, and this.) Why, then, do people (eg., Sarah Palin) keep saying that Obama's speaking manner is "professorial"? I don't get it at all. I'm a prof myself and have known hundreds of them, and I have never known one who talks anything like him. We see here one very simple reason for that. There is no subject taught in any college I know of that can be taught with an eighth grade vocabulary.

The other thing is this. Look at the chart again. Notice there is a pattern: a certain rough tendency for the level to drop over time. The last 5 presidents are also the bottom five. Why?

A typical answer, given in the above article, is that people's "attention spans are getting shorter" -- a trend that for a long time was blamed on TV, later on the internet. This has always sounded like BS to me. What is an attention span, anyway? If it means anything, shouldn't it mean that people are less and less willing to sit through long speeches? And yet the SOTU speeches are not getting shorter. If anything, they are stretching out. According to this site, the two champions of long-windedness since the days of LBJ are Bill Clinton and -- guess who? -- Barack Obama.

Besides, this explanation blames the audience. Doesn't it make more sense to blame the politicians and their writers? After all, they are the ones producing these increasingly idiotic speeches.

Over the years, it seems to me, political speeches in general have been less and less aimed at contributing in some serious way to a discussion of important issues. Politicians seem to think, for whatever reason, that the way they talk represents their most effective way to compete for votes and for voter approval. But why? Why is competition driving them toward the bottom? I really don't know.

Three more random observations:

1. Though I speak of a rough historical trend here, I have to say it is far from uniform. Notice that the high point in this list is JFK -- who, historically, comes somewhere in the middle. I think this means that you can't explain this entirely on the basis of some kind of historical determinism. I think it also means that, though you can't blame Obama for the trend, you can blame him for carrying it to a new low.

2. Contrary to what many would predict, Republicans do not pitch their words to a more stupid audience than Democrats do. George W. Bush spoke at a tenth grade level. In other words, students who have just managed to understand Obama would have to study two more years to grasp the wisdom of Dubya.

3. Maybe "trend" is not the right word for the historical pattern at all. It's not clear there is any historical trend in the above chart before Reagan. Rather, Reagan seems to represent a break with the past and herald of stupidity yet to come. One reason this is interesting: this happens well after the advent of TV, but before the internet. Something else is going on here.

[A few comments on this post may be found here.]

(Hat tip for the link to Michael Richard Brown.)
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