Sunday, October 10, 2004

Presidential Debates, Then and Now

C-Span aired the first debate between Kennedy and Nixon this evening. I was struck by the difference between the quality of the discussion of the issues then and now (though I have only watched excerpts of last evening's debate). I was reminded of a short piece written by Diane Ravitch in January 2001 for the Hoover Institution, "Dumbing Down the Public: Why It Matters." She cites a study by the Princeton Review pertaining to the vocabulary used by candidates in debates:

The Princeton Review, best known for its test preparation services, analyzed the vocabulary used by the presidential candidates in the campaign debates of 2000 and compared it to the vocabulary levels used in earlier campaign debates.

The Princeton Review obtained transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debate of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858. It analyzed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational level needed for a reader to understand a document. This test is ordinarily used to evaluate textbooks and other educational materials.

The results? In the debates of 2000, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7); Al Gore spoke at a high seventh-grade level (7.9). In 1992, challenger Bill Clinton scored in the seventh grade (7.6), President George Bush in the sixth grade (6.8), and Ross Perot at a sixth-grade level (6.3).

Our contemporary politicians, who found it necessary to speak to us as sixth and seventh graders, compared unfavorably with Kennedy and Nixon, both of whom spoke in a vocabulary appropriate for tenth graders. And they, in turn, looked sophomoric when compared to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, whose scores, respectively, were 11.2 and 12.0.

(Kerry's reference to "Orwellian" language aside, I suspect that this year's debates will resemble other modern debates.) Ravitch then poses the question, "Is it the candidates who have dumbed down their appeals or are they simply acknowledging that the public has a limited vocabulary?" Ravitch argues for the latter, and her thesis is that this limited quality of Presidential debates (and, I would add, the campaigns more generally) is one of the prices our society pays for the poor job we do in educating our students.

She may be right, but I don't think it is an either-or proposition. There are other reasons why Presidential campaigns have increasingly resembled little more than photo-ops, soundbites, and negative attacks. Modern campaigns are reflections of modern political parties, and it is reasonable to hold the two major parties to account for how the campaigns are conducted. I'll post more about that soon.


Elliott said...

Although it certainly might be true that the debates and political discourse has been dumbed down, this study, I believe, suffers from a considerable systemic flaw. Common words used in the mid-1800's by everyone would become more obscure over time and thus become associated with a higher educational level. This could also be true, to a lesser extent, for the 1960s. Even if true that the debate is aimed at an audience with less educational attainment, why is this a bad thing unless we want to exclude voters? Why would it be a good thing to be incomprehensible to those without the benefit of a high school education. Many in this country, even if they graduated high school would be confused and angry by a debate filled with, what to them would be, gibberish.

Anonymous said...

I think this reflects a combination of three things. The first is simply that words which are archaic and obscure now were members of the vernacular in the past. I suspect if those reading tests were performed calibrated to the contemporary vocabulary, the differential would be less significant.
The second reason is that the debates are now aimed at a wider audience. In the past, they were mostly directed at the elite, for whom complex oratory is a plus. In this era of mass media, the candidates try to cast as wide a net as possible, meaning that dumbing down their language is advantageous. Think of it as the Walmart strategy of debate.
Lastly, in general, simpler language allows for less innuendo and tactical misconstruing. Look at how the campaigns are deliberately misinterpreting even the most unambiguous statements of their opponents. Imagine what they would do to finely crafted gems of speechcraft like Lincoln’s addresses.

Glenn Bridgman said...

(I'm the anon from above)

Sure, I would love to have the debates be full of knowledgeable discourse and clever rhetoric, but my broader point is that this reflects more the changing nature of the debates than some cataclysmic collapse of the public dialogue. The discussion has merely shifted to another arena and the standard talking points have moved in to fill the vacuum. Compare the Economist, TNR, NR, and some amazing blogs to the partisan rags that spurted vicious calumnies back during the time of the founders. The debates may have fallen from grace, but other things have risen in their stead.

Additionally, I find it odd that you mention the Kennedy-Nixon debates, considering that they are widely acknowledged to be the watershed which started the debates on their path toward being especially fancy photo-ops.

Elliott said...

A couple additional comments:

1. High school graduation is no guarantee of an ability to read at the 12th grade level. I don't know what the percentage is, but it's high.

2. I think the idea that a candidate should be likeable or folksy has gained a lot more currency since 1960. It might have been 1960 that initiated the idea. It's hard to avoid being perceived as elite when you're using all those fancy words.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to see the a study correlating what I'd bet ten bucks to be increasing visual sophistication of presidential campaigns to the decrease in verbal sophistication...