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Using SAT-words doesn’t make you an effective communicator, Beltway-edition

A new Sunlight Foundation tool, Capitol Words — which uses the Congressional Record to monitor the words and phrases with which Congress uses in its public business — is getting attention after Jimmy Fallon’s monologue last night and an article in The Daily purports to show that Republicans have less worldly vocabularies than Democrats.

One problem: the man at the bottom of the scale is a UNC-educated lawyer.

What only Sunlight Foundation author Lee Drutman noted in his analysis is that most Americans speak at an 8-9 grade reading level, which means that even if the average speaking level in Congress has gone from a mid-year high school junior to a mid-year high school sophomore in the last ten years, Congress members “still speak above the heads of the average American,” in Drutman’s words.

And while it’s easy to mock Congress members — and, by proxy, their constituents who don’t regularly pepper their interpersonal conversations with SAT-words — what Rep. John Mulvaney (R-SC), the lawyer-legislator bringing up the rear of the list said to The Daily was pretty pointed about why he speaks in the vernacular.

“We are there to articulate ideas,” Mulvaney said. “[List-leader Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-CA)] chooses to do so in a more flowery legal sense, and I try to do it more straightforward. At the end of the day, we are trying to accomplish the same thing.”

They’re not just there to articulate ideas, they’re there to communicate those ideas to their constituents. And if those constituents by and large speak at an eighth or ninth grade level, then speaking at them, or above their heads, isn’t effectively communicating.

It’s an easy punchline, especially for comedians and political writers whose coastal, urban constituencies like to view themselves as more erudite and sophisticated than the great unwashed masses in flyover country. But Congress members like Mulvaney are, as he points out, quite often doing it deliberately and in response to folks back home who feel talked down to and left out of jargon-filled Beltway speeches and reportage that often don’t give weight to the impacts of policy or politics on people’s individual lives.

The nation’s capitol is, for better and sometimes for worse, filled with people with fancy degrees, high SAT scores, a love of big words and immersed in a culture dominated by jargon and acronyms that often obscure the meaning of that which they are supposedly designed to communicate. Speaking at a graduate school level proves only that you can use big words in the correct fashion. Communicating complicated concepts in simple ways that people without your education can understand while not feeling stupid that you’re explaining it to them is actually a much tougher skill — and one they definitely don’t teach in college.

[Ed. note: Scoring this article on the Fleisch-Kincaid Grade Level scale (as available online), used to determine the grade levels of the Congressional statements, earned it a graduate-level grade. Physician, heal thyself.]

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Written by | Megan Carpentier

Megan Carpentier is the executive editor of Raw Story. She previously served as an associate editor at Talking Points Memo; the editor of news and politics at Air America; an editor at Jezebel.com; and an associate editor at Wonkette. Her published works include pieces for the Washington Post, the Washington Independent, Ms Magazine, RH Reality Check, the Women's Media Center, On the Issues, the New York Press, Bitch and Women's eNews.

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