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Monday, May 28, 2012

Deliberation and the Language of Congress

The Sunlight Foundation has published an analysis of congressional rhetoric.  Lisa Mascaro writes at The Los Angeles Times:
If it sounds like the debates in Congress have devolved into those of teenagers, it's because they have.
Discourse in the House and Senate has dropped a full grade level — to the equivalent of high school sophomore, according to a new study.
Call this the dumbing down of Congress in a partisan age. Or a shift to plain-spoken populism ignited by the new class of tea party Republicans.
But what has become clear in the new research is that the soaring oratory that once filled the floors of the House and Senate with million-dollar diction and sophisticated syntax is making way for a more modest approach.
"Congress is changing as an institution, and what you see is more and more members gearing their speeches as sound bites or YouTube clips," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which compiled the study released Monday.
"You can [hark] back to a golden age of Congress when members quoted Shakespeare on the floor and really engaged in debate and talked to each other and tried to reason back and forth," he said.
Or not.  More than a century and a half ago, Tocqueville wrote:
There is hardly a congressman prepared to go home until he has at least one speech printed an sent to his constituents, and he won't let anybody interrupt his harangue until he has made all his useful suggestions about the twenty-four states of the Union, and especially the district he represents. So his audience has to listen to great general truths which he often does not understand himself and makes a muddle of exposing, and very minute particulars which he has not much chance of verifying or explaining. Consequently, the debates of that great assembly are frequently vague and perplexed, seeming to be dragged, rather than to march, to the intended goal.
Indeed, as G.K. Chesterton explained, complex language may hide more than it reveals:
Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out," you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word "damn" than in the word "degeneration."