The Quality Of Speeches And Education Has Diminished. Egalitarianism Demands It

Everybody counts.

Our friend John Cook points us to an analysis, of sorts, of the so-called reading-level of States of Union addresses, and its decline through the years, from the site Priceonomics.

Here is their picture of the various ways of quantifying reading “complexity” (ignore that site’s first picture which superimposes a red line, which is not data, over the real data, a bad but widespread habit):

Go to their site for the original.
Go to their site for the original, full-sized picture.

The reading-difficulty methods take things like number of words, lengths of sentences, and even the number of syllables of words into account. Of course, none of these methods capture fully, or even well, the nature of literature. They are at best a crude indication of the complexity of writing; and where, of course, we must acknowledge that complexity alone is a far from sufficient indicator of literary worth.

And they’re not necessary. Here is a quote from John Adams’s 1797 address:

Indeed, whatever may be the issue of the negotiation with France, and whether the war in Europe is or is not to continue, I hold it most certain that permanent tranquillity and order will not soon be obtained. The state of society has so long been disturbed, the sense of moral and religious obligations so much weakened, public faith and national honor have been so impaired, respect to treaties has been so diminished, and the law of nations has lost so much of its force, while pride, ambition, avarice and violence have been so long unrestrained, there remains no reasonable ground on which to raise an expectation that a commerce without protection or defense will not be plundered.

And here, for contrast, is a modern man many say is a great orator:

As President, I’m committed to making Washington work better, and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here. I believe most of you are, too. Last month, thanks to the work of Democrats and Republicans, this Congress finally produced a budget that undoes some of last year’s severe cuts to priorities like education. Nobody got everything they wanted, and we can still do more to invest in this country’s future while bringing down our deficit in a balanced way. But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises.

Formulas aren’t needed; the comparison is stark. Explanation? Mr Adams had one great advantage over Mr Obama beyond the obvious: Mr Adams was addressing a concentrated group of men of far superior knowledge—I almost said “education”, a word that is nearly dead to us.

The picture at the head of today’s post tells the tale better. The percent of citizens eligible to vote in presidential elections has been steadily increasing since this nation’s founding (see this post for more details), from about 10% in Mr Washington’s day to around 70% in ours. Why this is so I discuss below. First, to quote myself:

It’s become a staple of talk radio to quiz dazed-looking folks as they exit polling stations in presidential elections. Oddly, few of these voters can name the Vice President, almost none know the Secretary of State. How many can define (say) the difference between the deficit and the debt? Or could name the ambassador to China? Ignorance abounds, but still people vote.

Intelligence is not uniform, and given the nature of the changes in eligibility—primarily lower ages—increasing the percentage of eligible voters must necessarily have driven down the average intelligence of the electorate. The change—the decrease—in intelligence since Mr Adams’s time has, not unexpectedly, been enormous.

A speech of the quality of Mr Adams’s today would perplex the majority of voters, and would probably incur the charge of elitism. TV pundits would make nothing of it, the second sentence far exceeding the limits of the soundbite and of mainstream reporters’ mental capacities. And Mr Obama, if he or his ghosters had the ability to write to the same level of Mr Adams, wouldn’t. It would be bad politics. Speech quality is following the expected path.

The unquestionable Theory of Egalitarianism which caused this corrosion is still playing out, guaranteeing a further diminution, not solely in presidential speeches, but everywhere. For instance, the average college degree now is as proportionately watered down as States of the Union addresses; and the same is true of high school diplomas. Degrees, diplomas, and speeches also share this in common: a burgeoning amount of time devoted to the Theory and a hostility to difficulty. It’s an exaggeration to say that in fifty years the Theory will be all that is left—but not much of one.


  1. Gary

    Let Barnard and others go even more squishy-soft. The job market is driving many colleges and universities toward more support of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines. So much so that the liberal arts departments are worrying about their diminished representation and claim on resources. Families want to know about job prospects after graduation and these fields, along with health-related ones, are where the growth is.

  2. Mike Mellor

    As a quondam member of Mensa, I question the assumption that people of high intelligence are better electors. Intelligence is an accident of birth. There are lots of intelligent idiots. People of ordinary or even subnormal intelligence possess the same human rights as anyone else, including the right to vote. I’m totally cool with egalitarianism. I don’t believe that good looks make you a better person, and the same for IQ. I am an Eng. Lit. major and I vastly prefer the language of the Obama speech to that of Adams. I think Hemingway would have too.

  3. Mike Mellor

    And for the record, although I majored in a wussy arts subject, I work as an accountant and one of my hobbies is higher mathematics.

  4. David in Cal

    Request of David Appell — Briggs says a prediction, projection, scenario, forecast, or prognostication are all the same. They all say what will happen in the future if certain conditions obtain. David, you say they’re significantly different. Could you please provide definitions and examples showing just what they mean and how they differ? And, if possible, could you provide links showing that there’s broad agreement with your definitions? Thanks.

  5. Alan McIntire

    “..and given the nature of the changes in eligibility—primarily lower ages—increasing the percentage of eligible voters must necessarily have driven down the average intelligence of the electorate”

    Lower voting age may lower the knowledge and learning of the average voters, but it wouldn’t lower the average Intelligence- which is pretty much innate- and won’t be changing much after age 18.

  6. Mike Mellor: Why do you prefer people be less educated and speak like children? I don’t understand why making everyone less smart is a good choice. (Yes, intelligence is given at birth. Society is what used to encourage people to use what they were given to the fullest extent. Now, we just want people to be lazy, inarticulate and apathetic, using capital letters instead of words. How is lazy and apathetic better, except to a nanny government and the group of rulers who need compliant subjects?)

    All: I pity anyone born in the last 20 years. They will be going to doctors that passed on the criteria of good self-esteem or quotas filled. Since no one is held accountable anymore, medical errors will abound. Same for all other aspects life. Bad road construction, bad buildings, etc. No one ever held accountable because that would be saying someone was not smart enough or qualified for the job they hold. Businesses already factor in payouts on faulty jobs and will continue to do so. You can’t improve or fix a society were mediocrity is the norm and dependence is championed.

  7. Katie

    I’m waiting for pets to be granted voting privileges. I overheard some women telling each other that they would vote for a dog before they would vote for Bush (this was in a shop in a college town in the Northeast). If dogs can be viable candidates, then does it not follow that they should vote as well?

  8. Ray

    I saw a study in the 1980s that claimed a quarter of high school graduates were functionally illiterate, couldn’t read and write at 6 grade level . I didn’t believe it then because the study was produced by a group promoting phonics. I later decided the estimate was probably optimistic.

  9. MattS

    The graph on voting trends is a bit misleading in my opinion.

    The percent eligible and the percent who voted both appear to be percentages of the total population.

    However, if you want to look at a trend in voting, the percent who voted should really be a percentage of the eligible voting population, not a percentage of the total population.

    When you present both the eligible population and the number of actual voters as percentages of the total population, you should expect the visible gap between the two to widen as the eligible population increases even if the the ratio of eligible voters to actual voters doesn’t change.

  10. Jim Fedako


    Adams painted a pig. In the current venacular, he said, “Dudes, we need a standing and growing army so that we can continue feeding the state by fighting the perpetual war for perpetual peace.”

    And we are where we are.

  11. Jim F: Are you sure he wasn’t saying “Dudes, we fear the stupid and naive amoung us will believe that no one would want what we have and will in the end give our country away if we don’t have an army”? Perhaps he forsaw the woman who said terrorists just need job programs and they’ll play nice. No more beheadings and burnings if only they had jobs.

  12. John

    I agree wholeheartedly. I have been using my GI Bill to get a my bachelors. I swear the stuff I was taught in High School was more complex than this.

    The last 3 classes I’ve taken didn’t even require a single glance at any of the books or class material, and yet I still have my 4.0 GPA. Of course those same 3 classes were leftist indoctrination crammed in through the accreditation process, and their entire educative process is based solely upon opinion and a heavy dose of fallaciousness, but the fact still remains… I thought college was supposed to be difficult.

  13. Jim Fedako


    Are resorting to the Selective Application of Founding Fathers Fallacy and sending the “no foreign entanglements” advice down the memory hole?

  14. Ray

    No foreign entanglements went down the memory hole in our war with the Barbary (Muslim) pirates starting in 1801. The US built a navy and proceeded to intervene in foreign countries. Sending the Marines to invade other countries has a long history.

  15. “No foreign entanglements” should also include no trade with other countries, lest we have “blood for oil” or Sam Walton getting rich, no immigration since that involves entanglements, etc. Maybe foreign embassies, but even then, that is an entanglement. Realistically, there is no way the Founding Fathers could have envisioned the growth of the population of the world and the interdependence. There is no possible way for the United States to be completely isolationist. I cannot see the Founding Fathers demanding we ignore all progress and the reality of how intwined the world has become to follow one idea that is no longer realistic.

    As the world population grew and technology allowed more and more interaction, things changed. As Ray noted, it happened relatively quickly.

  16. Briggs


    Nope. The point is that the percent of people of the total population has been increasing. For instance, and I’ll let you search for it, latterly there have requests for even children to vote (I have a post somewhere). Yes, really. The main curve of interest is the top one.

  17. Alan Watt

    Compare any recent statement by President Obama (or John Kerry) on what we are doing to fight Islamic violent extremism (is there such a thing as (pacifist extremism”), with this speech excerpt of a leader from long ago, in a country far, far away:

    We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?

    I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

    One can disagree with the policy or the aim (and indeed the prior governemnt did exactly that), but one cannot be in any doubt as to what one is in for.

  18. Jim Fedako


    Thanks for keeping the Selective Application of Founding Fathers Fallacy alive!


    Thanks for reminding me that foreign trade and association is a recent phenomena! I forgot the US was isolationist until Bush 2.

    BTW: Thanks for employing the Equivocation Fallacy on the term isolationism.

  19. JH


    The percent of citizens eligible to vote in presidential elections has been steadily increasing since this nation’s founding (see this post for more details), from about 10% in Mr Washington’s day to around 70% in ours.

    Considering how you tried to define “trend” here for whatever reason, I think it’s therefore necessary that you clarify what “steadily increasing” means exactly!

    Voting rights act of 1965 and women’s suffrage are important causes of inhomogeneities, so some kind of homogenization of the data is indispensable.
    Would a politician be better off making a speech with a high reading index value nowadays? I don’t have a definite answer; but it probably depends on the purpose and content of the speech. If Obama uses more words with many syllables, you probably would say that he is too stuffy and arrogant.

    Obama can do no right… and Soon can do no wrong.

    How do we measure quality? If the quality of education is measured by literacy rate, then it has not diminished since 1790, the starting point of the graph shown here. If it is measured by some sort of achievement of the top 10% students, based on my experience, the quality has not decreased, either.

    The unquestionable Theory of Egalitarianism which caused this corrosion is still playing out, guaranteeing a further diminution, not solely in presidential speeches, but everywhere…

    How did you establish the said cause-and-effect relationship?

    (This post reminds me of the Chinese New culture movement at the beginning of 20 the century that promoted written vernacular Chinese. It was an intellectual awakening in the ordinary young men and women, as the classical Chinese had always been and still is understood only by top students and elite scholars.)

  20. It has nothing whatsoever to do with egalitarianism, and everything to do with pandering.

    I know you right wing nuts see liberalism lurking behind the scenes of everything you believe to be bad, but in reality speech at and between every social stratum is a projection of the society around it, and Americans are not, and have never been, the most erudite people in the world.

    When I listen to conservative speeches, by the way, the lowest common denominator pandering seems particularly acute these days.


  21. k. kilty

    By coincidence I saw today a proposal to lower the voting age to 17, and the aim was to increase the participation rate. You know, I’ll bet it would!

  22. John Rickert

    I recently had my students read Washington’s “Farewell Address.” They found it difficult, and they were astonished when I told them that Washington was regarded in his own day as not being well educated. I greatly admire all of the Washington I have read, especially his Inaugural Addresses. I wish we lived in a society where it would be possible for statesmen to speak in this way, but as others have already mentioned, it is out of the question in practical terms.

    If we must be confined to simple language of necessity, then I side with George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”

  23. Jim Fedako


    Taking another look.

    It appears the inflection point, so to speak, began with Wilson, which is not surprising since he was the first president since Jefferson to give the State of the Union in person, as opposed to a written message.

  24. Jim Fedako


    I ask, “Why?”

    I’d rather statesmen speak honestly — I know, somewhere over the rainbow …

    I believe H.L. Mencken, with little effort, would have exposed the speech by Adams for what it was: political nonsense.

    Interestingly, no one raises any issue with Adams making the very same claims made today: We are in a crisis, facing the brink, and can only be saved by bigger government.

    While Briggs lampoons the political rhetoric of today, even he does not see that Adams was saying the very same things, though the Adams pig was painted, so to speak.

  25. Sylvain


    I find your comparison of Adam versus Obama biased toward the fact that you hate the latter to the point one would expect you confessed your hatred of the man to your priest at least a few time in the last few years.

    How many people on this site voted while claiming that there are death panel in the ACA. When in reality the clause mentioned by Palin and other pundit:

    Forbes is hardly a lefty publication.

    Language are always evolving and comparing text that were written 200 years apart is mainly an exercise in futility. Very few people in Adams time would have understood what he said, and what event he was referring to.

    While a lot more people would be able to understand what Obama was referring to.

    What is the best way to express oneself if not in being understood by the masses. It requires talent to be able to do so. Romeny learned it the hard way in 2012.

  26. JMJ: For a left-wing nut job, you have pretty awesome speaking language.

    k. kilt: Adding 17 year olds would increase the participation rate, but since children aren’t adults until 26 now, it seems improper to keep adding more and more children to the voting roles. Having children vote seems somehow immoral or cheating, maybe both.

    Jim: I would agree that what is going on today is very little different than the past. It may be somewhat more problematic since we are now part of a global society. While it’s not different, it doesn’t alter the reality that bad political behaviour, when it’s wide-spread, has very long-lasting effects. We can’t seem to prevent the lack of political honesty and will, so we can just prepare for the nasty after-effects. I truly wish people would act before the car goes off the cliff (so to speak), but it’s just not part of human nature, I guess.

  27. Alan McIntire

    In reply to Fedako and Ray. President Washington was speaking as a Federalsit about the “here and now”, not the abstract future.
    The Democrats- like Jefferson, urged supporting the French, since they helped us in the Revolution.
    Washington ponted out that interests change, we wer allies with the English and enemies of the French in the French and Indian wars, the French were our allies against the English during the Revolution. We needn’t support France in the current conflict. out of any stupid sense of loyalty

  28. Jim Fedako


    So what do you make of our NATO alliance with Turkey? And alliances with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc? I assume those are covered under Washington’s advice.

  29. Alan McIntire

    Washington didn’t pretend to be an omniscient oracle for the future. He was attacking the Jeffersonians for supporting the French Republic. As it turned out, the French Repbulic quickly degenerated into a reign of terror and a Napoleonic dictatorship. It turns out that Washington was right and Jefferson was wrong.

    As to later alliances, they have to be judged on their on merits, depending on current state interests.

  30. Mike Mellor

    k. kilty

    February 25, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    By coincidence I saw today a proposal to lower the voting age to 17, and the aim was to increase the participation rate. You know, I’ll bet it would!

    Ideally, the population would be assessed individually to determine their readiness to vote. A national voting age of, say, 18, posits that at age 18, the average person with an average IQ of 100 will have achieved sufficient maturity to understand what voting is about.

    I was allowed to vote at age 18. That was 46 years ago. Are youngsters today the same as the youngsters of my day?

    No. Youngsters today are growing up faster than my generation did. There’s also something that IQ testers call the secular effect. IQ scores keep on rising and the tests have to be re-normed so that the average still works out at 100.

    I don’t think that today’s 17 year old is greatly different from the 18 year old of my day.

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