Dumbing down? Trends in the complexity of political communication

Kenneth Benoit, Kevin Munger, Arthur Spirling

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

    Abstract

    Commentators and some political scholars claim to have observed a “dumbing down” in the level of sophistication of political language, leading to anxiety over the quality of democratic deliberation, knowledge, policy design, and implementation. This work typically focuses on the president’s State of the Union addresses. Using quantitative indicators of textual complexity, we measure trends since 1790 in that and other key political corpora, including rulings of the Supreme Court, the Congressional Record, and presidential executive orders. To draw comparative lessons, we also study political texts from the United Kingdom, in the form of party broadcasts and manifestos. Not only do we cast shade on the supposed relentless simplification of the State of the Union corpus, we show that this trend is not evident in other forms of elite political communication, including presidential ones. Finally, we argue that a stylistic-rather than an obviously substantive-shift toward shorter sentences is driving much of the variation over time we see in traditional measures of political sophistication.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationCan America Govern Itself?
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Pages220-236
    Number of pages17
    ISBN (Electronic)9781108667357
    DOIs
    StatePublished - May 25 2019

    Keywords

    • Dumbing down
    • Measurement
    • Political communication
    • Political methodology
    • State of the Union
    • Text as data

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Sciences(all)

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