Research Question: Is Political Talk Getting Smarter?
People have gotten more intelligent, but you wouldn’t know it by the way politicians speak.
In their academic study “Is Political Talk Getting Smarter?” Alma College researchers Janie Diels and Bill Gorton found that political discourse has become less scientific.
“IQs have gone up 30 points over the last century,” says Gorton, assistant professor of political science. “If people are becoming more intelligent, according to intelligence researcher James Flynn, it’s because they’re able to understand scientific abstractions better than they used to.”
There’s evidence of this in popular culture and other areas, including congressional debates. TV shows, for example, have become more complex.
“We wondered if we would see the same thing in presidential debates and, more broadly, political discourse,” says Gorton. “What we found is the opposite.”
Diels, assistant professor of communication, applied her skills as a content analyst to Flynn’s questions as she and Gorton analyzed presidential debates over the last 60 years.
“Since the debates invited discussion on a wide range of topics, we thought that would be a good test to see how discussion of these topics has changed over this period of time,” says Gorton.
Since 1992, Diels says there has been a significant decline in the abstract language used in debates. She is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean politicians are less intelligent than they used to be. If Flynn is right, she says the opposite is true because they’re becoming more intelligent like all people.
Diels and Gorton suggest that this “dumbing down” of political discourse might be the result of social scientists helping politicians craft messages to appeal to particular demographic groups such as the undecided voter.
“The irony in finding that pollsters and consultants are using social science to figure out the best way to appeal to an audience, is that it turns out the best way to do that is to make your appeals less scientific,” says Gorton.
Diels and Gorton coined this the “Luntz effect,” named after Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who advised his candidates to always use simple words and direct their political positions toward particular individuals.
“Instead of talking in abstract terms about social patterns, politicians tell stories about Joe the Plumber or talk about your taxes as an individual,” says Diels.
After beginning their work on the study in early 2009, their findings were presented at the Midwest Political Science Association annual conference in April 2009.
The study was reviewed by Flynn for the journal Public Understanding of Science and was accepted for publication. In addition to giving the study a glowing review, Flynn also invited Diels and Gorton to correspond with him.
They hope to expand the study by focusing on economic issues. Diels says she and Gorton also plan to use memos Luntz has written to take a closer look at his tactics and techniques.
Posted: Tue, June 1st, 2010 at 1:58PM