Obama’s Rhetoric Continues to Lose Altitude

Doug Henwood summarizes an important decline in the reading level of State of the Union addresses,

“And what rhetoric. Obama is a highly literate and thoughtful guy, yet this speech adhered to the depressingly low standards of American public discourse.It was written at a 10th grade level, slightly below the 11th grade level of his 2009 speech, and even more below the 12th grade level of Clinton’s 1983 state of the union. At least it was above George W’s 9th grade level speech in 2001. (See here for the texts of all State of the Union addresses; see here for the grade level analyzer.) Remember, 87% of Americans over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or more, and over 30% have college degrees (Census source), so the president isn’t addressing a nation of dropouts.

How we’ve come down in our expectations. As recently as 1961, when only 41% of Americans had completed high school, John F. Kennedy’s 1961 address was at a reading level associated with a year of college. Back in 1934, a time when fewer than 20% had completed high school, FDR’s first state of the union was at a level associated with three years of college. In 1861, when 20% of the population was illiterate, Lincoln’s first State of the Union (which admittedly was written and not spoken) was composed at a level comparable to a college graduate’s.”

He goes on to note a similar decline in pro-labor rhetoric,

“As for content, a devolution there as well. Imagine a modern president saying this, as Lincoln did in his 1861 address: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Certainly our Kenyan socialist would never say such a thing.”

 

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66 thoughts on “Obama’s Rhetoric Continues to Lose Altitude

      • Measure readability. A low grade-level is a sign of a good writer: one who uses clear and understandable language. A higher grade level doesn’t indicate better writing, it indicates writing that is harder to understand. Ceteris paribus, worse writing.

        Now, it’s true that complex ideas can be difficult to convey in simple writing (at least arguably). But using the clearest writing possible to convey your ideas is no vice (and it’s certainly not true that it’s difficult to convey simple ideas in complex writing).

        If Mr. Henwood thinks that the ideas expressed in public discourse are increasingly simplistic, that’s a valid criticism. But then he should, you know, identify and criticize the ideas that he thinks are oversimplified. Rather than making an argument that amounts to “presidential speeches these days use clearer language.”

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    • Aye – that the speech is “down” to a 10th grade level of readability is actually good thing, at least if Obama’s goal was for people to understand what he was saying. Just because the average person can understand things written at a 12th grade level doesn’t mean they’re going to be willing to expend the kind of effort required to do so. I, personally, always did quite well on reading comprehension tests….but the easier ones were always way less dull.

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      • “Oh Lord, ooh you are so big! So absolutely huge! Gosh! We’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you! forgive us, oh Lord, for this our dreadful toadying!… and, endless flattering… But, you’re so strong, and, well, just so super!… fantastic… Amen!”

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  1. That an idea is expressed in simple, direct, readily-understandable terms is not the same thing as expressing a simple idea, or a dumb one.

    My own last post here on these very pages (expressing frustration at an inability to address North Korea) comes out with a Flesch-Kincaid of 9.47. I think that’s doing pretty well because a large number of people could readily understand it. Whether you agreed with me or not, whether you thought I had a good point or not, chances are good that you understood me.

    Chances are pretty good that you understood President Obama, too. That’s why the speech was written the way it is. He wasn’t addressing the Algonquin Round Table or the American Association of University Women. He was only ostensibly addressing Congress; in fact, he was addressing the citizenry as a whole. So if it sounded like a campaign speech, well, there’s a reason for that.

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  2. It’s hard to express complex ideas in simple language. Maybe this is why.

    From the academic writing put out by grad school students that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of it,) writing above a high-school level is not evidence of clear communication; and that’s a President’s job — communicate clearly to the people.

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  3. Remember, 87% of Americans over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or more, and over 30% have college degrees (Census source), so the president isn’t addressing a nation of dropouts.

    Lowest common denominator. If 87% have high school diplomas, 13% don’t. And having a high school diploma doesn’t necessarily mean that someone can read at a 12th-grade level. Furthermore, people who score low on the standardized tests that measure reading level are a big part of the Democratic constituency.

    As for content, a devolution there as well. Imagine a modern president saying this, as Lincoln did in his 1861 address: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

    While expressed in erudite language, the quality of the argument is every bit as deplorable as what we’ve come to expect from modern politicians.

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  4. Anyone else remember how a couple years ago the right wingers were ridiculing “professor Obama” and claiming he was an “ivory tower egghead” who “doesn’t know how to talk to Real Murkins”?

    So he brings it down a notch, to talk on a level the Real Murkins might understand without having to dust off their dictionary, and now the right wingers are after him for supposedly dumbing down the speeches.

    I don’t think this proves much beyond the fact that the right wingers are always looking for something to criticize and don’t really care much what it is.

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      • I am going to vote no.

        The issue is more that there are several epistemic universes at play at least three or four, probably many more. The minimum version is: Far-right, center-right, center-left, far-left. You can also probably throw in libertarian. Center-left can be split between neo-liberals and old-school liberals (hence my name).

        We all have different universes. I understand the New Republic, the Nation, The American Prospect, Paul Waldman, Kevin Drum, N plus One. I don’t understand much of the language used by the far left and Occupy. Most of it seems like overly-indulgent bad grad school writing to me.

        To me radical writing against electoral politics and gradual reform can be just as reality free as anything that comes from the fever dreams of the Tea Party.

        I imagine that the radical left would just see me as a wet who does not want to give up my middle-class comforts and my refusal to do so is a poison to the left and ending poverty.

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      • I suppose the basic division is between wet and hard. Or it depends on how you see politics.

        The phrase that struck me the most from Shawn’s post above was his admission of “our aversion to electoral politics.”

        My only response to that is Good god, what do you want instead? Constant revolution? Rule through fiat? Electoral politics might not always be great but it sure as hell beats the Politburo.

        A belief in electoral politics requires admission that there is always going to be an opposing faction and that on many issues 50 percent of the world might think differently than me. Maybe on some issues, I am in a minority. Gradualism and social democracy are often a long game. And my belief in democracy means that sometimes or often I don’t get my way because majority rule has to mean something. It seems that there is a certain kind of person (on both the left and the right) who can’t abide by the concept of majority rule. They are so convinced of their morality that they can’t possibly be wrong about anything.

        Politics is still the art of the possible. We don’t need more hards on the left or the right. We need more doubters. People who are not always convinced that they are right and are willing to work towards a consensus solution. That is reality. Anything else are still people fighting for utopia. Utopia is a myth. Fight for a better world but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It is hubris to think you can create a world where your politics are the only beliefs.

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  5. Some push back against the “simpler is better” motto (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/02/don%E2%80%99t-be-beguiled-orwell-using-plain-and-clear-language-not-always-moral-virtue):

    “I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

    We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.”

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    • Talking point writing is a bit of an art. I think in trying to consider it an artifice, Smith does a disservice to the difficult reality that public policy ideas, whatever their complexity, need to eventually be distilled to one page summaries and bullet-point lists.

      Rather the elevation of tortured language into an equivalence of complexity allows for rhetorical sleight of hand that the likes of faux experts like Paul Ryan use. They cloak their gabble in meaningless numbers, as numerology replaces mathematics. Maybe the simplicity of talking points language is always going to allow these new astrologers a place at the table.

      That said, let’s also keep in mind that the “political class” is as much a victim in today’s policy debates as anyone else. Politicians are increasingly asked to keep tabs on a truly stupendous number of topics and developments, all the while retaining the trappings of office that were designed for a slower, less interconnected time. Political staffs are almost always undermanned and overworked, and the breadth of expertise that needs to be condensed into form that can be debated within a legislative session can be staggering. Under those circumstances, trying to simplify and make plain is as noted, an art.

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      • There’s the numerology obfuscation to be sure. I think both Ryan’s and Romney’s economic proposals were exposed as entirely inconsistent – Romney’s in particular. That didn’t prevent people from continually denying the basic fact that the math didn’t add up or that claims about the math were false. TVD’s heroic attempts are evidence of that.

        Also too: simply stuff. The GOP called the Medicare saving entailed by the PPACA a “cut” in the programs funding. That’s just an outright and intentional lie, I think, and only passes for truth in certain circles by a invoking a politically motivated meaning of the word “cut”, even tho the word “cut” isn’t consistent with paradigmatic Orwellian language.

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    • Hmmm. I’m not so sure. I think what the author of the linked post is calling “spin” I’d be inclined to call “lies” without any hesitation. At least, when those statements are uttered by politicians and pundits. In fact, I think it’s impossible to use simple language to mislead precisely because simple language doesn’t permit obfuscation. It can be used to present an incomplete picture of things, of course (and that is spin, of course). Personally, I’d account for the dynamic he’s perceiving as the result of two ideological camps with such radically different world views that even simple sentences are interpreted as expressing – either literally or by implication – completely different content. Politicians know this and construct their language with that fact in mind. Consider: liberals and conservatives disagree to a very great extent and at a fundamental level on basic – sometimes even trivial – descriptions of reality. There’s no agreement on the facts (Rove’s famous “You have your facts I have mine” comment comes to mind). So I don’t think the linked argument refudiates Orwell’s thesis straight up. But it does present another problem, a deeper one, in political discourse.

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      • But it does present another problem, a deeper one, in political discourse.

        And the problem might be this: ideologically motivated Orwellian language has so corrupted our political discourse that Orwellian language itself is no longer necessary to obfuscate. IT can now be accomplished in more or less normal language because even basic terms have taken on Orwellian meanings.

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