October 23, 2015
(ANTIMEDIA) “How stupid are our leaders?” Donald Trump asked when he announced his campaign for the presidency. “How stupid are they?” His sentiment was received with raucous enthusiasm and he has since enjoyed fervent faith from supporters that he alone can save the country.
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A new analysis, however, found Trump may not be much brighter than the average politician — at least not in his speeches to the electorate. The Boston Globe recently used a common algorithm called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test to examine 19 speeches of presidential hopefuls announcing their campaigns. The test calculates a “grade-level” based on the complexity of sentence structure and word choice. The results? The Globe found Donald Trump spoke with one of the lowest grade levels of any candidate: fourth grade.
It is easy to excoriate the tycoon-turned-politician for addressing voters at a nine-year-old level, but his strategy has helped him earn overwhelming support among Republican voters. As the Globe reported:
“Mike Huckabee and Jim Gilmore, who are struggling in the polls, are both spinning sentences above a 10th-grade level, according to the algorithm. Ben Carson, who has surged and maintained a second-place standing in the polls, communicates with voters at a sixth-grade level — despite a medical degree and career as a brain surgeon.”
As Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson said, “Trump is talking about things that are emotional, simple, and angry… He’s not talking about the complexity of international affairs. It’s, ‘Let’s take their oil!’ It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out exegesis of American foreign policy. It’s Trump. It’s simple.”
The Globe explained further:
“[Trump’s] vocabulary is filled with words like ‘huge,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘beautiful.’ He speaks in punchy bursts that lack nuance. It’s all easily grasped, whether it’s his campaign theme (‘Make America Great Again’), words about his wealth (‘I’m really rich’), or his disparagement of the Washington culture (‘Politicians are all talk, no action’).”
By comparison, Hillary Clinton spoke at an eighth grade level in her campaign announcement while Bernie Sanders measured in at tenth grade. Further, a 2012 review by the Sunlight Foundation, which employed the same Flesch-Kincaid algorithm, found that speech from congressional politicians as a whole declined from grade level 11.3 in 1996 to 10.6 in 2012.
The Globe also analyzed presidential speeches from American history, and the results suggested a sharp decline in the complexity of American language over the centuries and decades.
According to the same Flesch-Kincaid scale, George Washington’s farewell speech in 1796 was designated graduate school level (grade 17.9). At an 11th grade level, Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address also topped all current candidates. Similarly, while John F. Kennedy’s State of the Union addresses averaged a 13.9-grade level (college level), Obama’s linger around eighth grade.
While it is easy to associate lower intelligence with lower grade level (especially considering the simplistic, xenophobic demagoguery Trump and others spew), there are additional elements to the dynamic. Specialists on political speech say the brevity of modern, digital communication, like Twitter, also makes less complicated language more appealing to voters.
“There’s no time to explain in modern politics,’’ said Elvin T. Lim, an associate professor in the Government department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
“If you think about the tweet, the tweet is short,” he explained. “The candidate who shows they can punch as much as they can in that short time form gets their message out.” His assessment is supported by a recent study that found the average human attention span is now eight seconds — one less than that of a goldfish. But it is not just a sense of urgency that drives the demand for more rudimentary speech.
Society’s comprehension of language outside the political realm has not fared much better. As Anti-Media reported earlier this year, lyrics to the average pop or rap music song hover between a second and third-grade reading level. Reality television shows — many of which the American military helps produce — are associated with lower intelligence (as well as increased aggressive tendencies).
America’s pervasive decline in literacy is unsurprising considering the failed state of public education. Half of U.S. schools fail to meet federal education guidelines. Globally, the United States continues to slip in rankings of student abilities in reading, math, and science.
In light of the apparent decline in American intelligence, it is unsurprising that politicians respond with more juvenile language. Perhaps most revealing (and concerning) is the explanation former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau offered:
“A leader’s job isn’t to educate the public — it’s to inspire and persuade them,’’ he said. “That requires meeting people where they are, and speaking in words that are easily accessible to the broadest possible audience. Perhaps the most powerful, inspirational political phrase of the last decade or so involved three of the simplest words in the English language: yes we can.’’
With the more ‘complicated’ speeches of George Washington and John F. Kennedy long gone — along with a population capable of appreciating them — Favreau may be right. But using simple language and slogans is also a mark of well-crafted propaganda.
As the American Historical Association explains:
“The skilled propagandist also knows the techniques of ‘making ideas stick.’ It is because of this knowledge that he resorts to key words and slogans, shibboleths, or other symbolic forms.”
As Lim said, “At some point enough is enough. If you continue drawing these lines, you’re going to hit comic strip levels. . . There are real costs to oversimplification.”
The current measurable cost? A peanut gallery of out of touch, dangerous politicians leading the pack of presidential frontrunners as a misguided population and complicit media cheers them on.
This article (If You Think Donald Trump Sounds Like a 4th Grader, It’s Because He Does) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Carey Wedler and theAntiMedia.org. Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific. If you spot a typo, email firstname.lastname@example.org.