I have learned, being thrice drafted into service as Uncle Ed, that children are not simply little adults. Children are children, and one cannot speak to a 3 year-old as though he or she is an adult. The best results come from communicating things simply and clearly while giving children ample opportunity to respond (without putting words in their mouth). With smaller vocabularies and little ability to detect sarcasm or process complex ideas, small children are inevitably spoken to differently than we would speak to one another as adults.
The fact that politicians have adopted this technique in communicating with voters presents an interesting chicken/egg question. Are Americans too stupid to understand someone speaking to them like a grown-up or is the dumbing-down of political rhetoric contributing to our plummeting national IQ?
Consider the stark contrast in these two clips: Eisenhower's farewell address (best remembered for his admonitions about a "military-industrial complex" which fortunately failed to materialize) and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's Democratic response to the 2006 State of the Union Address. Aside from providing ample evidence for why Kaine was a poor VP candidate, the latter clip is striking in its juvenile tone. I'm not picking on Kaine, for he is by no means exceptional. The President whose speech he followed in 2006 is well-known for his "regular guy" (read: stupid) speaking style and the large majority of contemporary national political figures devolve into this repetitive, focus-grouped, infantile patter.
Eisenhower, not well-remembered for his oratorical majesty or camera-friendly demeanor, manages to sound like Laurence Olivier doing Hamlet in comparison. He speaks like a normal human being to an audience that reads a book or newspaper every once in a while. He speaks as though he is not worried about repeating the same phrase 15 times in 5 minutes because he knows the entire speech will be boiled down to a sound bite. He's clearly not worried about whatever portion of the viewing public would be unable to follow a basic argument or multi-syllabic words. He says what he wants to say and leaves it up to the viewer to keep up, which most of the country did.
What changed? I'm sure there were a lot of dumb people in 1960 as well, but in the intervening years politicians have gone out of their way to appeal to that demographic. At some point "working class" and "blue collar" became synonyms for "developmentally disabled." Is the new political rhetoric a strategic response to or a contributing factor in this change?
I recall many recent candidates – Gore, Obama, Dole, Cheney, Kemp – who tried speaking like big boys and, to different degrees, got smacked down. "Eggheads" or "boring brainiacs" or whatever no-fancy-book-learnin' labels would stick were readily overheard. Fifty years ago, Adlai Stevenson had to weather the Egghead label in two races agains Plain Speakin' Ike. But Eisenhower himself would wear the label in today's environment, in which speaking in sentences that do not follow basic subject-verb-object format is de facto evidence of treason, unelectability, or closet Frenchness.
I've already consumed my fill of fee-simple Obama speeches with one-word themes like "hope" and "change" and "bunny" just as I'm sick of McCain's over-coached, content-free rambles. I don't idealize the past, believing that in the 1950s truck drivers spent their off-hours reading Proust. Today's politicians, though, seem unwilling to challenge voters or try to raise the level of our discourse. Like a frustrated parent who gives up and says "Fine, eat candy for dinner if you want," our leaders have stopped trying, realizing that pandering to the low-brow mentality is easier than fixing it.