Talking Points

We're not quite an Idiocracy, but presidential speeches are getting dumber

The cult film Idiocracy (2006) imagines a future in which Americans' mental capacities have been degraded by generations of pop culture, junk food, and–how to put this delicately–unselective breeding. The result is that Joe Bauers, an ordinary 21st century man frozen in a cryogenic experiment, awakens to find himself the smartest person in the world. 

After discovery by the authorities, Bauers is introduced to the public by "President of Uhmerica" Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho at the 2505 State of the Union address. Camacho's speech isn't fit to quote in a family publication. But it's a very funny satire of political rhetoric in a dumbed-down society. 

Things aren't quite that bad yet. But a new study by researchers at the University of Montana suggests we're well on our way. Their analysis of presidential rhetoric over the last 50 years, shows that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump use less complex language than their predecessors. Although the Montana scholars used a different measure of complexity, their result is consistent with other findings that show the declining sophistication of presidential speeches. 

Part of the explanation may be specific to the most recent presidents. Trump and Biden are among the oldest presidents to take office and arguably both show signs of cognitive decline. In most respects, though, their use of language was consistent with a long-term trend that includes both Democrats and Republicans. Since the 1940s, presidential speeches have tended to hover around a middle-school level of comprehension

You can argue that's a good thing. The declining complexity of presidential rhetoric is correlated with an expanded electorate that can be addressed directly using broadcast media. The long, ornate speeches of the past weren't necessarily superior, either. We remember Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which contains fewer than 275 words (there are discrepancies between various manuscripts and contemporary newspaper accounts), better than the two-hour stemwinder by Massachusetts politician Edward Everett, that was the headline event of the day. 

Still, there's a significant, if not unqualified, relation between complexity of language and complexity of thought. The example of Lincoln's profound simplicity does not excuse the banality and vulgarity of more recent presidents.

In Idiocracy, Camacho punctuates his State of the Union with songs, dances, and blasts from an assault rifle. He may not be the smartest president, but at least he knows his audience.