You’re not being fair, Mr. Sullivan

I am no great fan of the contemporary Republican Party, certainly not as it is expressing itself in Congress these days.  But Andrew Sullivan, in his inimitable manner, does nothing to help with trenchant analyses such as this one (presented in toto):

When You Ask For Dumb

You might just get some. If you thought some of the GOP freshmen were from the Palin mold, you weren’t wrong.

If you click through that link, you get an article in Huffington Post that references a report in which the public speaking patterns of MOCs were analyzed and given a grade level.  It yields this:

The sophistication of federal lawmakers’ speech patterns is on the decline, with members of Congress now talking, on average, at the level of high school sophomores. According to a new report by the Sunlight Foundation, Congress has fallen by almost a full grade-level since 2005.


Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) clocks in at the lowest grade-level: 7.9 in this Congress.

“I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn’t use big words if small words would do,” Mulvaney, who graduated with honors from Georgetown and earned a law degree from the University of North Carolina, told NPR. “Certainly I’m not trying to dumb down the message by any stretch of the imagination.”

I am willing to bet you a steak dinner at the restaurant of your choice that I would find the overwhelming majority of Rep. Mulvaney’s politics objectionable.  He’s a freshman Republican MOC in a class famous for being rabidly conservative.  He may be a swell fellah, but chances are pretty good his political viewpoint would set my teeth on edge, and vice versa.

But unless he’s succeeded through a remarkable string of good luck, he’s almost certainly not dumb.  He graduated with honors from a fine institution, and got a law degree from another one.  The belies a lack of intelligence.  And what he says in that quote is a perfectly reasonable opinion about rhetoric.  My office has lots of material for patient education that we write ourselves, and we deliberately try to write in an accessible, comprehensible way, such that as wide an audience as possible can make use of what we’ve written.  Rep. Mulvaney’s ends are likely to be similar in that regard.  He’s not writing for Granta.

I realize it’s Mr. Sullivan’s style to be somewhat confrontational.  Lord knows, he pulled no punches with the aforementioned Sarah Palin, to the point that he started seeming a wee bit unhinged toward the end.  But sneering disdain for the opposition isn’t going to score many points, particularly when an even cursory glance at the article you’re linking contradicts the very point you’re trying to make.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I’d also like to know to what extent the methodology is able to control for the fact that these freshmen are just young. Speech patterns change over time, and younger MOCs would be on the leading edge of a general change in language.

  2. “We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective,” Daniel Webster (R-FL) continued, “especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”

    In fact, the randomness of the survey is precisely what makes the survey scientific, statistical experts say.

    Scientific literacy seems poor. Why does nobody ever measure that?

  3. A well-stated post. I am fond of five-dollar words and flowery and precise language, but it is not a marker of intelligence (nor is it a marker of intellectual insecurity, as some would argue). The fact that the lowest-graded congressman has a very solid educational pedigree is demonstrative of this.

    That Webster spoke of something about which he is ignorant makes him, well, like a lot of people. He just has a bigger microphone.

    I’ve always considered Palin to be interesting because I believe she has precisely unremarkable intelligence. I do not believe she is dumb, but I do not believe she is smart. I think that she is surrounded by people who are smart does make her appear to be dumb, though. The intellectual benchmark for being where she is (a national political figure) is higher than in most places. Which is how it should be! But it does make me cringe a little bit when people call her a moron. To me, when someone says that, they’re calling most people morons. (This is tangential, and is thought material for a post I partially wrote but eventually discarded).

    Hey Russell, do you have tomorrow’s question prepped yet? I have one for you. Well two, sort of, since the first doesn’t apply to everybody.

    • I actually think that Palin is very intelligent. Cynical, intellectually lazy, and more concerned with being famous than governing, but very intelligent.

      • I believe she has outstanding people skills, both in terms of charisma and just understanding how people think. Some would argue that this is a type of intelligence, but this is not the type of intelligence I am referring to.

        • SarahP has average IQ—think how stupid the average person is and realize half of people are stupider than they are.

          Lord knows, he pulled no punches with the aforementioned Sarah Palin, to the point that he started seeming a wee bit unhinged toward the end.

          This is overly generous to Andrew Sullivan. His Trig Palin jihad would have ruined any legitimate journalist. Fortunately for him, “legitimate,” “journalism,” and “Newsweek” do not all belong in the same sentence.

          • “Think how stupid the average person is”

            You are such an elitist — if I had a higher then average IQ I’d really tell you off.

          • Think how stupid the average person is and ask yourself why democracy is supposed to be a good idea.

      • Can I split the difference? She was the governor of a state, and was doing quite well when that got interrupted. That shows above-average intelligence, at least. But when she learned that she had a knack for speechifying directly to people’s emotions, bypassing their intellect entirely, which led to more fame and fortune than she’d thought possible, she jumped onto that with both feet. Palin wasn’t born stupid; she achieved stupidity.

        • I vote somewhat above average intelligence fatally mitigated by being insular, incurious, and emotionally immature. But I do adore the idea that she achieved stupidity.

    • I like your way of framing Palin’s intelligence, Will. I had never thought of it that way, and I think you’re onto something.

      And I already have tomorrow’s question set for publication, but I’m always happy for submissions! I believe you have many ways of getting the question to me, yes?

    • “But it does make me cringe a little bit when people call her a moron. To me, when someone says that, they’re calling most people morons. (This is tangential, and is thought material for a post I partially wrote but eventually discarded).”

      This is pretty much my feeling, too, although I might side with the other commenters here who suggest her intelligence is likely above average.

      I think a similar dynamic was at work with Bush Jr. He did so many bad things (in my view, at least), and yet so many people chose to criticize his accent and occasional malapropisms. My hypothesis is that such criticism did little more than rally people who already didn’t like him and probably turned off a lot of people who might otherwise have opposed at least some of what he did.

      • I remember watching an interview with Bush II and being amazed at what an adept politician he is.
        I’m not so sure that he is intelligent per se; perhaps “cunning” would be a more appropriate term.
        But he’s not dumb, by any means.

  4. I always tell my students to keep it simple. I am constantly marking on drafts to simplify the language. I tell them to imagine a reader who is lazy, mean, and stupid (which I borrowed from a prof).

    I love elegant simple writing.

    • Context has a lot to do with it as well.
      I remember running the grammar check on a document I had written not long ago, and I was surprised when it showed a “grade level” of 30. I didn’t even know that it went that high. But that is a very particular form of writing.
      Were I to run the same grammar check on an e-mail I had written, it would likely come in as less that 10.

      Oddly, when I read technical stuff, I like it to be in as concise a format as possible. In fact, in a perfect world, the information would be conveyed in graphs, and the text would be slightly above “See Spot run.”
      But when I read for pleasure (which isn’t often these days), I tend to appreciate the intricate sentence structure. ER Eddison is my favorite. I love his prose.

  5. The problem started with Strunk and White. It’s only gotten worse since. Sullivan’s right. English is sagging into baby talk. We won’t hear another Gettysburg Address from an American politician again, that’s for goddamn sure and it’s a pity.

    • As another Gettysburg Address might require another civil war we might be better off without one.

      Perhaps I can interest you in a pre-owned Cross of Gold?

      • The Cross of Gold speech was cheap demagoguery. As for your Klein Bottle of a post-hoc fallacy about civil wars and good speech writing, I hardly know what to say. America’s often been at war. Sometimes we get orators and writers, sometimes we get — well, dullards like Bush the Dumber. Read the Federalist Papers to get a taste of how men once spoke and wrote.

        No, Sullivan has a point here. America’s been dumbing down its prose for a while now. Fact is, this nation is functionally illiterate. It no longer shocks me to see the pallid prose emerging from the Congress. It’s mere Goebbels-esque repetition of talking points. Nobody has anything to say, in public anyway. A man who can’t write can’t think.

        • I keep forgetting that facetiousness doesn’t always come across in print (“pre-owned” was supposed to be the giveaway).

          As for real speeches, I don’t hear many these days but the last one I really enjoyed was Senator Moynihan’s anti-NAFTA jibe-fest (and I was neutral on the issue at the time).

        • When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.

          Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

          —Eugene V. Debs

          That was off the top of his head.
          He had just been convicted of something (I forget), and that was part of his address to the court before his sentencing.

          You’re right.
          Ordinary rhetoric has taken a turn for the worse.

          Makes me wonder where Ayn Rand would believe where she herself would fit in.

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