By: Thomas H. Little, State Legislative Leaders Foundation

In the fall of 2019, I was privileged to hear Andrew Card, former Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, speaking at SLLF’s conference at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Mr. Card shared lessons from President Bush’s leadership on 9/11 and in the immediate days following. I still get chills when I think about his description of that moment where he whispered “Mr. President, America is under attack.”

I could not help but recall that meeting and those words as I watched the recent attack on the United States Capitol. On January 6, 2021, America was attacked again, but this time the attackers were not foreign invaders, but rather American citizens claiming with no evidence that the 2020 elections were “rigged.” At the same time, similar, but fortunately less fatal, angry protests were taking place in state capitols across the country. So, how did we get here? How can this happen in America, the greatest democracy on the face of the earth?

As I have considered these questions, I was reminded of something else Mr. Card said, “Taste your words before you spit them out!” Words matter and must not be spoken carelessly, especially by those in positions of power. Mr. Card explained that this was a lesson he learned from his grandmother and one that he tried to live by and to share with President Bush (and the rest of us). Those assaulting the nation’s capitol were encouraged and impassioned by the words they heard from politicians, commentators, instigators and social media expressing baseless claims of rigged elections and false promises that they could overturn the election. And the results were deadly.

We all know that words, both written and spoken, matter. Words influence what people think, say and do. That is why companies pay billions of dollars to advertise their products. That is why political parties, interest groups and candidates for office spend billions of dollars on television, radio and social media campaign ads. That is why politicians give speeches via the media, and at rallies and events across the nation. Words influence actions.

So, as America and those who lead it move forward from this tragic day, I would encourage everyone, especially those in positions of power, to “chew your words before you spit them out.” When you speak with or about those with whom you disagree, understand that just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they hate you or are your enemy. They just disagree with you. To those in positions of power, the person in the other party is not your enemy, but rather the opposition who also wants what is best for the state, the community and the nation. We can, and must, disagree without being disagreeable. Be careful because your words matter.

Second, before you speak (or type), it is imperative for our leaders to make sure that what they are sharing is accurate and truthful. In today’s world, we have lots of information literally at our fingertips. However, it is up to us to determine if that information is accurate. All too often, we turn to the Internet for confirmation instead of information, seeking to confirm what we already believe whether it is accurate or not. Such false information takes on an unearned air of credibility when promoted and posted by respected public officials and, as we saw with the attacks on the US Capitol can lead to deadly consequences. Do everything you can to make sure that the words you speak (and type) and the stories you post on social media are true because, like it or not, you will be held responsible for their impact. Be careful because your words matter.

Finally, a specific word of advice for those elected to lead our great states and nation. You are part of a more than two hundred- year-old experiment in governance known as representative democracy. Upon your election, you became part of institutions, which while not perfect, have served this nation and the world very well. When your words or your posts denigrate democracy and the electoral and governmental institutions that are its cornerstone, you are denigrating the very system that has made this country great for more than two centuries. Be careful because your words matter.

This has been a difficult time for our nation, but with leaders that honor and respect our democracy and institutions, we will get through it and, hopefully, have a much greater respect for that democracy on the other side. As part of that renewed respect, I urge all of us to heed the advice of Mr. Card and “chew your words before you spit them out.” Think about the impact those words might have on others who hear them because your words matter.