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What computer scientists learned about 2020 politics from 138 years of Congressional speeches

Researchers from Kansas State University analyzed nearly two million Congressional speeches dating back to 1873.

What computer scientists learned about 2020 politics from 138 years of Congressional speeches
[Photo: Shealah Craighead/The White House/Flickr]

If you want to truly understand what’s happening in your country, plug its political speeches into text analysis algorithms. Researchers from Kansas State University did just that with nearly two million Congressional speeches dating back to 1873, and found that today’s speeches are really different than the speeches of yore.

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Modern speeches:

  • use smaller vocabulary and simpler language
  • express more positivity overall (because everything is great!)
  • are less neutral, expressing more negative and positive sentiments
  • include wider chasms between Democrats and Republicans
  • are shorter (the Democrats underwent an intensive verbosity peak in 1900-1909)

Women were not a priority of either party until the 1980s, as indicated by the low overall use of words like she/hers/woman from 1873 through 1980. Lady words have been on the rise ever since, timing that correlates with more women-related bills and more Congresswomen. Today, Congresspeople use words like she/hers/woman five times more than in the 1950s. They are much more often spoken by Democrats, but still far below usage of he/his/man.

Mean frequency of words that identify women (left) and words that identify men (right) in congressional speeches in different years. View image larger here. [Image: L. Shamir, E. Tucker, C. Capps]
Reading level was mostly on the upswing from 1870 until late 1976, peaking at nearly 10th grade reading level; it has since fallen to 8-9th, and is heading south. The 1970s downturn correlates with Congressional legislators beginning to address the public directly, via media, through their speeches.

Fun fact: Congresspeople’s speeches become more negative when the sitting president is not from their party. Because, you know, everything is awful.

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