Democratization and Linguistic Complexity: The Effect of Franchise Extension on Parliamentary Discourse, 1832-1915

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Abstract

We consider the impact of the Second Reform Act, and the doubling of the electorate it delivered, on the linguistic complexity of speeches made by members of parliament in Britain. Noting that the new voters were generally poorer and less educated than those who already enjoyed the suffrage, we hypothesize that cabinet ministers had strong incentives-relative to other members-to appeal to these new electors with simpler statements during parliamentary debates. We assess this claim with a data set of over half a million speeches for the period between the Great Reform Act and Great War, along with methods for measuring the comprehensibility of texts-which we validate in some detail. The theorized relationship holds: ministers become statistically significantly easier to understand (on average) relative to backbenchers, and this effect occurs almost immediately after the 1868 election. We show that this result is not an artifact of new personnel in the House of Commons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)120-136
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Politics
Volume78
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science

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