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Is Political Talk Getting Smarter?

An analysis of 27 presidential debates finds a decline in the amount of abstract thought present during discussions of economics.
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Remember: “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

These words adorn the website of Frank Luntz’s consulting firm, The Word Doctors. In the last decade, the renowned strategist has substantially influenced American political discourse; his brand of easily digestible “on message” talking points (he ushered in the use of “climate change” to supplant the term “global warming”) has been adopted by politicians everywhere.

This rhetoric — eschewing nuance in favor of affecting personal anecdotes or concise narratives — has become so prevalent that it’s assumed that politicians won’t utter anything substantial in political debates or speeches. Now, should candidates stray from their scripts, they’ll get scolded by cable news pundits who emphasize message discipline.

This “Luntz effect” — a term coined by two researchers at Alma College in Michigan — became the basis for a curious academic study, “Is Political Talk Getting Smarter?”, to be published in the academic journal Public Understanding of Science.

Assistant professors William Gorton and Janie Diels found reams of research insisting that Americans are savvier, more sophisticated and better able to understand abstract concepts than their forbearers of 100 or even 50 years ago. One of the more famous researchers quoted in their study, James R. Flynn, remarked that citizens have been “liberated from the concrete” and have embraced abstract scientific relationships that describe day-to-day life.

To illustrate this transition from the mostly concrete to the mostly abstract, the researchers use simple economics as an example. A hypothetical conversation about economics is likely to include terms like “inflation,” “recession,” “market” and “consumer demand.” The presence of these terms assumes an understanding that the economic world is an “abstraction” where individuals interact and produce “unintended … economic phenomena.” This is in contrast to more “concrete” understanding of the economy as something that can be altered simply by “government fiat … or the will of business owners.”

They note that while abstract, or scientific, thought “doesn’t necessarily guarantee good thinking,” it does provide a foundation for reasonable discussion.

Building on this abstract versus concrete premise, Gorton and Diels devised a system to measure the amount of abstract thought in the most prominent forum of American public discourse: presidential debates.

Using human coders and a content-analysis computer program, researchers examined 27 presidential debates between 1960 and 2008 to detect if candidates used the basic concepts of scientific thinking. Researchers were less concerned with the validity of the argument made (they cited Ronald Reagan’s mostly discredited supply-side economics argument as an example) and instead looked for instances were candidates made arguments grounded in the abstract.

The full text of the speeches were broken into 930 units of speech and divided into 10 categories, such as economics, foreign policy and the environment. The researchers then ranked these units on a three-point scale (0-2) from more concrete and personal to more abstract and scientific, and compared their human coding with that of the content-analysis program.

The researchers found that 74 percent of these speech units had been coded as a 0 — indicating no abstract scientific thought present. The most recent example of a debate trope coded as a 0 was Sen. John McCain’s use of the figure “Joe the Plumber” in the 2008 presidential debates. The researchers wrote that the candidate preferred to “explain how Obama’s policies would affect an individual, Joe Wurzelbacher, rather than emphasizing their potential effects on abstractions such as inflation [and] productivity.”

Nearly 20 percent of units that were coded in the study were ranked as a 1, meaning that politicians used scientific terms but failed to explain the “logical or casual relationships between them.” Only 6 percent were coded as a 2, for using abstract terms and properly explaining the relationships (an example: “citing a tight money supply to explain a hike in inflation” — the candidate uses both a term and an explanation).

Out of the 10 topics studied, economics generated the most “abstract discussion” by candidates during presidential debates. Researchers noted that the use of such language has been in a steady decline since the contest between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960.

Other findings in the study included scores of 0 for all candidates when they discussed global warming — including then-candidate Al Gore. There was also no significant difference between abstract thought exhibited by Republicans or Democrats during the debates. (Perhaps this will help dampen the never-ending discussion about which party is “smarter.”)

The candidate who displayed the most felicity with scientific thought during the presidential debates was John Anderson, an independent in 1980 who ran as a sort of liberal Republican. He “scored unusually high on scientific abstraction for both economic and foreign policy discussions.” The second highest scoring candidate was George H.W. Bush and, surprisingly, the lowest scoring candidate was “famed” orator (and like Bush, a Yalie) Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

What conclusions can be gleaned from such research?

“We're not saying that politicians have gotten less intelligent or less scientifically sophisticated. In fact, we suspect that they may be, on average, more scientifically adept than previous generations of politicians,” the researchers wrote to “Nonetheless we suspect there may be countervailing forces on politicians that lead them to tone down the scientific discourse in public.”

That is, pollsters and strategists like Luntz tailor talking points specifically to undecided voters. Presidential debates, in turn, have largely become endurance tests and showcases for these talking points as the candidate stands behind a podium and hones in on this critical audience.

“As such,” the researchers wrote, “politicians may conclude that to woo [undecided voters] the optimal rhetorical strategy entails personalizing issues by emphasizing how politics directly affects certain targeted voters.”

Hence, the discussion of “Joe the Plumber” rather than “collateralized debt obligations” during the 2008 debates.