Dumb And Dumber

Democracy has obvious drawbacks, not least of which being that at its worst it is nothing more than mob rule. As William Alger said, “a crowd always thinks with its sympathy, never with its reason.” So the leader of a democracy, depending upon his aims and his talents, can seek to lead by addressing his people as individuals amenable to reasoned argument and capable of rational deliberation — or he can appeal to their sentiment, their prejudices, their greed, their pride, and their social allegiances in all their coarsest forms.

From our friend Jess Kaplan comes a link to an Op-Ed piece, by David S. Broder, about the decline in intellectual quality of presidential speeches over the course of the nation’s history, as discussed in a new book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, by Elvin T. Lim of Wesleyan University. Lim has applied standardized content-analysis tools to the text of speeches from George Washington to George W. Bush, and it appears that the trend is consistent: nowadays our leaders are using more words to say much less. The problem is a decline not just in pithiness, or rhetorical style, but in reasoning, sound argument, and intellectual depth as well.

We read:

In what must have been a heroic effort, [Lim] applied standard techniques of content analysis to state papers of every president from Washington to the second Bush. His tool is something called the Flesch readability score — a measure of the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. The higher the Flesch score, the simpler to get the meaning.

Applied to the annual State of the Union addresses, the average score has doubled from the first few presidents to the last few. Those “messages were pitched at a college level through most of the 18th and 19th centuries,” Lim says. “They have now come down to an eighth-grade reading level.” The same trend, but more pronounced, is found in inaugural addresses. Their average sentence length has dropped from 60 words to 20.

Simplification has its advantages, if it serves to increase public comprehension. But it comes with a huge risk: The complexity of real-world choices can be, and often is, lost.

Nobody who has heard our current president speak will be surprised by this; to describe his use of language as being at an eighth-grade level seems, if anything, generous — though if Lim is right, even articulate and intelligent presidents have made the conscious choice to “dumb down” their public persona.

We have ourselves to blame, of course. If our leaders can get what they want by, as Lim puts it, offering us “an easily digestible substantive menu devoid of argument and infused with inspirational platitudes, partisan punch lines and emotional and human-interest appeals”, then that is what they are going to do. H.L. Mencken reminds us: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Read Broder’s essay here.

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5 Comments

  1. JK says

    I reject the notion in its’ entirety Malcolm,

    Now I know the following is not from a State of the Union Address (however on this site many such examples that are eerily similar in formularie-which do in fact come from same). Wise words spoken by guess who? You can read Ivy League MBA all over this.

    “There is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal. Maybe it’s only Western people that can self-govern. Maybe it’s only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self-government. I reject that notion.”—London, June 16, 2008”

    http://www.slate.com/id/76886/

    Posted July 4, 2008 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, JK, I think…

    Posted July 4, 2008 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  3. JK says

    I do have a question for you Malcolm,

    Has to do with your first paragraph. Is the leader who uttered the above quote seeking to lead me by reasoned argument or is he appealing to my sentiment, prejudices, greed, pride, and my admittedly coarse social allegiance?

    Posted July 4, 2008 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Quite clearly the latter, I’d say, as there is nothing even remotely resembling a reasoned argument there.

    Posted July 4, 2008 at 10:18 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says

    I was afraid you might respond thusly, but on the bright side I understand now why my grandson has to repeat the eighth grade. He’s planning on an MBA himself.

    And, just so I don’t have to post twice, is that you wearing the blue suit walking in the middle of the street?

    Posted July 5, 2008 at 1:04 am | Permalink