Saturday, April 9, 2011

27% of Congressional Communication is Taunting

"Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" ~ Taunting French Soldier played by John Cleese, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

How people address each other in a conversation or negotiation determines the success or failure of the end result. This isn't rocket science, as toddlers first learning language are capable of figuring it out. Yet as adults, we don't always take this into account - even the people who are running the country (maybe especially this group).

A Harvard University professor has analyzed Congress' behavior, using computers to look for trends in members’ language and writings. What he has learned may help explain why the legislative branch has such trouble closing on negotiations for, well, pretty much anything. Modern representatives spend about 27 percent of their communications simply taunting each other.
“It’s jarring and surprising,” said Prof. Gary King, an expert in using computers to find patterns in large amounts of data. And, King said, probably counterproductive if we want Congress’s members to trust one another enough to make deals. The entire government may go bankrupt…We probably want our representatives to be listening to each other rather than calling each other names.”
To determine his results, King and two graduate students analyzed 64,033 press releases sent out by all U.S. senators between the years of 2005 and 2007. They used a computer program to sort them into different categories, based on their content.
  1. Credit-claiming. That involves a legislator trumpeting his own role in securing a bridge or a dam or some other thing voters want. “The government did this thing because of me."
  2. Position-taking. This is the point of congressional expression. "I have this stance on this ideological issue."
  3. Advertising. This non-partisan method of getting a politician’s name out in the media could be as simple as recognizing a hometown team or local celebrity. “Look at me! I’m a member of Congress!
These three categories are well known to political scientists, whose Grand Unified Theory of Congressmen holds that these are the primary methods legislators will use to express their selves. But some news releases King and his team examined didn’t fit into them.

This category is where the taunting falls in. It's not a new idea that legislators love to insult and make jabs at each other. How much they do it just has not ever been quantified before.

According to his study, legislators spend more than a quarter of their time outwardly disrespecting each other. The members guiltiest of hurling abuse were those whose districts were considered “safe,” or strongly held by their party.

And the documents examined were from several years ago, before the financial downturn began and the current high-pitch rhetoric that seems to be escalating. Examining a sampling of 48 much more recent news releases from three top congressional Democrats and three top Republicans showed that 20 percent were mainly about taunting the other side. Some examples:
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) sent one out on proposed Social Security changes that said, “Republicans have shown they couldn’t care less about those who have the least.”
  • House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent out one on the anniversary of the federal health-care law saying, “Democrats have not displayed the same interest in listening to the American people.”
Some think the taunting serves a purpose in that it sparks the public's interest and makes their opinions on an issue clear. However, I concur with the conclusion of Prof. King, which is that the taunting distracts Congress from its most basic mission of finding common ground to solve national problems. A vast majority of the time they spend name-calling and ridiculing each other could be better spent working on legislation that's going to put people to work, stimulate the economy and moving towards solving the other problems facing this country today.

Source: 27% of communication by members of Congress is taunting, professor concludes

Sara Duane-Gladden is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities area of the great state of Minnesota.   

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