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.”