Who's dumber: Congress or Martin Luther King Jr.? The dumb report on Congressional dumbness

VIDEO: ABCs Sunlen Miller on whether the low grade level discourse is intentional.
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Are conservatives stupider than liberals?

That's one way to read the lively parlor-game data released this week by the Sunlight Foundation, a 6-year-old educational concern that attempts to make government more transparent. Sunlight's report—which assigned grade levels to how members of Congress talk—revealed that the most right-wing of our representatives express themselves, on average, at the lowest grade level in Congress.

“No abortion,” you can imagine these simple-minded conservatives saying. “It is bad.”

According to the report, Democrats have a more sophisticated way of expressing themselves. Democrats evidently use multi-syllabic words—like “moreover”—and more complex sentence structure than their colleagues on the right. Replete with internal clauses—the ones that can throw off listeners and muddy a point—the rococo stylings of Democrats evidently go hand-in-hand with the promotion of their pet causes, like universal health care and of course their longstanding war on antidisestablishmentarianism.

Republicans dominate the extremes of the list—both the speaker at the highest level and the one at the lowest are members of the GOP. Their average grade level is 10.4; that of Democrats is 10.8. Sunlight has also made a point to say that eloquence, or verbal complexity, anyway, is on the wane among lawmakers. Congress as a whole now apparently speaks like high school sophomores, one grade level lower than it did in 2005.

[Related: Is Congress getting dumber?]

I like the foundation's freestyle, groundless and yet stirring account of why this might be so: “Perhaps it reflects lawmakers speaking more in talking points, and increasingly packaging their floor speeches for YouTube. Gone, perhaps, are the golden days when legislators spoke to persuade each other, thoughtfully wrestled with complex policy trade-offs, and regularly quoted Shakespeare.”

If you skim Sunlight's findings, and bring to them a sporting quotient of party prejudice, you might conclude that Republicans are, say, “idiots” and Democrats are, oh, “showoffs.” To use the pre-K-level idiom preferred by the biased twerp in each of us.

If, however, you listen to a sampler of speeches by various congresspeople at a range of oration grade levels, you might find something completely different. I listened to Daniel Lungren, whose speech at grade 16.01 (first week of summer school after college graduation?) outranks every other congressperson, give a Memorial Day greeting in 2009. (The Sunlight report analyzes each figure's speeches since 1996.)

Lungren, a Republican from California, sounded low-key and didn't stutter, but he repeatedly used the euphemism “fallen” instead of “died.” Trying to get choked up and earnest about the Civil War dead—the Civil War “fallen”—he sounded fakey and insincere.

I also listened to John “Mick” Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, who is the low man on the grade-level totem pole. He is said to speak at a seventh-grade level.

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