By Thom Little, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, I attended the 10th annual SLLF Conference of State Majority Leaders hosted in New York City by the Honorable Andrea Stewart-Cousins, President and Majority Leader of the New York Senate. In addition to time for the Majority Leaders and their Chiefs of Staff to share ideas and thoughts with each other, the program included presentations by journalist Chuck Todd, consultant and pollster Frank Luntz and crisis communications guru Steven Rubenstein. While all the presentations were interesting and informative, I was particularly struck by the words of Mr. Luntz’s presentation “Words to Use and Words to Lose.”

As most of you probably know, Frank Luntz has been polling American citizens and advising politicos for more than four decades– going all the way back to his work on the 1994 “Contract with America.” Of late, Mr. Luntz has become increasingly concerned about the state of our nation amidst the growing division and polarization that has come to define modern American politics. To combat this pervasive malaise, in his remarks, Frank encouraged elected officials to focus on using words that tend to bring us together, words like, “imagine, freedom, unity, working together, side-by-side, transparency, and accountability” rather than those that tend to divide us. 

One participant noted that in today’s political climate, where candidates may be more worried about their primary than their general election, efforts to work across party lines to unite people might be viewed as a negative by primary voters and perhaps cost an election. In response, Luntz proffered a simple, yet profound, rhetorical question, “Aren’t there some things more important than winning an election?” Sort of a “drop the mic” moment that was met with a rather awkward silence, especially for people whose ability to shape policy and help their constituents is contingent on winning elections.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was a question that begged for an answer, so I am going to give it my best shot. Yes, even though losing an election is a high price to pay, there are some things that are FAR more important than winning an election and here are some that I thought of:

  1. Protecting a 250-Year-Old Legacy of Self-Government. In 1776, a group of men representing thirteen British colonies risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor by signing the Declaration of Independence. In so doing, they were not only declaring the colonies’ independence from Britain but declaring their faith in government of the people by the people and for the people. Through the long span of human history, all previous efforts at self-government had failed but they believed it could work and it has worked for almost 250 years! Today’s leaders are part of the great experiment in self-government and preserving it is more important than winning an election—by a country mile!
  2. Honoring the Institutions of our Democracy. The wisdom of the founders, James Madison in particular, is that they understood the only way to control power was to divide it so the power of the new government would be vested not in one, but in three, distinct branches: legislative, executive and judicial, each answering to a different master. In order for this government to work, each branch must be strong and independent to prevent any one branch from becoming too strong. Preserving that balance, and respecting our democratic institutions is far more important than winning an election.  Every time!
  3. Respecting the People’s Branch. The United States Constitution and the state constitutions that came after it established the legislative branch as the “people’s branch” of government. Nationally and in most early states, its members were the only ones elected by the people directly (governors were often appointed by the legislature and judges by the executive). Elected from small geographic districts, legislators were supposed to be the closest to the people, representing and protecting their interests. Maintaining that strong connection to the voters, representing and serving their interests, is far more important than winning an election.  It’s how you win elections!
  4. Maintaining Your Integrity. When it comes to making decisions, it is often said that at the end of the day, you must be able to look at yourself in the mirror. While that is true, it is true that we must look at you too! We all deserve leaders who we can be proud of and who are willing to put their constituents, their state, and their nation ahead of their own personal gain. Knowing that you can look your children or your spouse in the eyes and say, “I have done the best I can for the people I serve,” is more important than winning an election. It’s called leadership!

So, that is my list of things more important than winning an election. You may agree or disagree, and I suspect you have some items of your own to add. I understand the importance of elections and the reality that public servants need to be elected to serve and do good. However, when winning the election becomes a higher priority than doing what is best for the people, then, “Houston, we have a problem!”

As we gear up for the 2024 elections, we all need to remember that what has made us a great nation is our common allegiance to the towering institutions of our democracy. In the words of Frank Luntz, “Together, working side by side, imagine what we can accomplish!“