The people are getting dumber.
That was the message from retiring Representative Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) when asked about the difference in cooperation across the aisle in Congress and how it has changed during his 30 years as a lawmaker.
“Congressman Ackerman, you’ve been here 30 years. Can you define comity as it existed when you arrived versus how it exists now?” Bloomberg Businessweek asked him.
Ackerman’s response: “Your premise is that comity exists now. It may not be entirely accurate. It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s not like that anymore. Society has changed. The public is to blame as well. I think the people have gotten dumber. I don’t know that I would’ve said that out loud pre-my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that’s true. I mean everything has changed. The media has changed. We now give broadcast licenses to philosophies instead of people. People get confused and think there is no difference between news and entertainment. People who project themselves as journalists on television don’t know the first thing about journalism. They are just there stirring up a hockey game.”
While Ackerman’s statements may anger some, there is evidence to show that on a broad scale he is correct.
A few years ago, The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public high school students. They learned that 77 percent of the students didn’t know that George Washington was the first President, and 86 percent couldn’t name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence. If they were administered a U.S. Citizenship Test only about 3 percent of the high school students would have been able to pass.
Newsweek gave the U.S. Citizenship Test to 1,000 Americans last year—38 percent failed. Twenty-nine percent couldn’t name Joe Biden as the Vice President. Another 73 percent didn’t know what the Cold War was about.
Of course Ackerman and his colleagues in Congress are also getting dumber, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation. Using the Flesch-Kincaid test, which equates higher grade levels with longer words and longer sentences, to examine Congressional speeches the Institute found that Congress collectively speaks to the public at a 10.6 grade level. In 2005 they were at 11.5. Ackerman did, however, manage a personal grade level of 12.07.