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Frankly Speaking: The Simplifying Rhetoric of American Presidents

Apart from its romanticization in The West Wing, political speechwriting in the United States gets little public attention. The ghost writers responsible for some of the most widely quoted political speeches in history are, perhaps deliberately, overlooked in the political process. The lack of attention paid to speechwriters —while unsurprising — is significant, especially given the vital role their writing plays in shaping the way we interact with and understand the political process. These circumstances have changed dramatically throughout the country’s relatively short history. As our language and dialect have evolved, so too has our political parlance. The way politicians communicate with their audiences today is drastically different from the strategies of early presidents. The changes we’ve seen in American political speechwriting reflect changes in Americans’ relationship with politics and signal a shift towards more democratic political communication.

One of the most prominent trends in American political rhetoric is a decline in sophistication. The complexity of presidential speeches has decreased significantly since George Washington’s first inaugural address, as demonstrated in a study using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The Flesch formula, originally developed by the U.S. Navy to determine the clarity of military instruction manuals, measures two variables: words per sentence and syllables per word. The formula, however, does not account for vocabulary or grammatical complexity. The Flesch-Kincaid test, when applied to a large collection of presidential speeches, from Washington’s inaugural address to Obama’s most recent State of the Union, yielded clear results: Until the mid-nineteenth century, the rhetoric of presidential speeches was consistently of college-level complexity. Then began a century of slow oratorical decline, until rhetoric complexity plateaued in the 1940s at roughly a sixth-grade level.

It would be easy to paint this trend as a ‘dumbing down’ of the political process in the United States or as a degradation of presidential formality to pander to less educated voters. However, such claims brush over the historical nuances of the public’s changing relationship with politics. This narrative neglects to account for the expansion of the voting base and the evolving ways voters engage with politicians.

The stark and relatively sudden changes in political speechwriting were driven by increased democratization and enfranchisement in the early 20th century. The rhetorical shifts mirrored and amplified a country-wide movement toward a more democratic government and a more informed public. The decreased complexity of presidential speeches in the early 1900s coincided directly with three historic shifts toward a more inclusive and direct democracy. In 1913, the 17th Amendment was passed, allowing for the direct election of Senators. Seven years later, the passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. Lastly, throughout the 1920s the movement to mandate public education gained traction nationwide. While this movement didn’t immediately raise the reading levels of average Americans, it did allow for greater access to basic education — making it possible for children to gain basic skills who wouldn’t have otherwise had access to school. The changes in the American electorate forced politicians to alter the way they targeted their audiences. More voters with diverse backgrounds necessitated changes in the way politics was discussed.

Similarly, the introduction of new technologies, like radio and television, spurred important innovations in political speechwriting.  In the 1930s, the introduction of television and radio into average American households allowed increasing numbers of Americans to tune into political events and speeches. Presidents took advantage of this and changed the way they communicated with the public. Roosevelt’s fireside chats were one of the first and most significant instances in which a president made an effort to speak directly to everyday Americans in a more informal environment. More recently, the advent of personal computers and widespread internet access further fueled the public’s engagement with politics, increasing the accessibility of political news.

The audience for political speeches changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century. What was once a largely homogeneous group of highly educated policy wonks, mostly white and male, who came to hear the president speak in person transformed into a politically-involved public of all ages, races, genders, and education levels. The multi-syllabic magniloquence of the political elite was no longer suitable with such an audience, so speechwriters were forced to do what all politicians do when faced with a diverse, demanding public: find common ground.

Ultimately, the language used in speeches, press conferences, and interviews has become simpler, and the sentences shorter, in order to appeal to a wider audience. This process of simplification, however, is not without its drawbacks; demystifying the language of incredibly complex political issues runs the risk of leaving them devoid of any substance at all. It is, for example, much easier to speak to voters about conflicts in the Middle East in terms of “good guys” and “terrorists,” rather than complicating a speech with all the political nuances of international relations — even though such a drastic (and common) oversimplification makes such statements bereft of accurate content.

Americans’ relationship with politics has changed. They no longer crowd around radios to hear addresses and rarely even watch presidential speeches in their entirety. Yet, more Americans than ever can engage with politicians, whether through sharing a two-minute video excerpt of a particularly rousing stump speech or re-tweeting the 120-character statements crafted by speechwriters and social media experts alike. Listeners’ attention span for politics is getting shorter and shorter, and speechwriting must adapt both to keep our attention and to communicate in a language we can relate to. The evolving nature of the American political audience demands a simultaneous evolution in political communication. To stay relevant, politicians and their speechwriters must continue to adjust. Rather than dumbing down, speechwriters are smartening up and thus changing the nature of the average American’s relationship with politics and its process.

About the Author

Caroline Jones '19 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.