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A more perfect union

FIA President and CEO Walt Lukken shares a personal perspective on Washington riots

13 January 2021

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Normally, this column offers opinions on the global policies and trends of our industry, but last week’s insurrection at the US Capitol compels me to reflect in a more personal way about what I and many others are feeling in the wake of these events. While my viewpoint is American, I believe the lessons we learn are universal to the human condition. 

The January after a US Presidential election is normally a time of celebration in our nation’s Capital. Every four years, Americans gather in Washington with pride to recognize and honor the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. This is a time when citizens from all fifty states of various beliefs and backgrounds come to celebrate the idea of America.  

In my twenty-five years in Washington, I have participated in six inaugurations and the festivities that accompany them. This is always a bipartisan affair with Democrats and Republicans celebrating—not only the new administration—but more importantly, our Constitution and the noble institutions that embody this profound document.  We honor our belief in the rule of law that has enabled such a peaceful transition to occur for the last 250 years.   

As next week’s inauguration approaches, I am not feeling pride. I am not feeling hopeful. I am feeling ashamed and saddened. The tragic events of last week at the US Capitol and the ensuing loss of life have laid bare the deep divide in our country and the fragility of our democracy.   

Capitol Hill is not just the seat of our government, but it is my home—where my kids go to school, where we go to church and where we socialize with our neighbors. I can see the Capitol rotunda from my home, and I have many friends that work there—from Hill staffers to Capitol Police to Members of Congress.   

Seeing an angry mob push its way into the Capitol building was one of the most disgusting and vile events I have ever witnessed. It felt so personal. I recalled my days working in the Senate and the reverence I felt for the Capitol building every time I roamed its halls. Some of my fondest memories were walking alone through the Capitol on my way to the Senate floor, admiring with awe the historical photos, paintings, and statues. As my fellow Senate and CFTC Commission alum, Mark Wetjen, shared with me, the ransacking of the Capitol felt like the desecration of a sacred house of worship.  I could not agree more. 

I was struck by how many colleagues and friends of both parties reached out to express that they felt the same violation as I did. For many of us who came to Washington to make a difference, this was a frontal assault on our core belief system. I have dedicated my life to the development of smart public policy—first as a Senate staff member, then as a CFTC commissioner, and now as the head of a trade association. I was sworn into public office three times to uphold and defend the Constitution so help me God. My belief in our democratic republic is unequivocal and Washington is filled with people of both parties just like me.   

But with this devotion to our system of government comes the inevitability of being on the losing side of issues and elections. I have felt the painful sting of both, but I was taught that a healthy democracy requires you to lick your wounds, learn from your mistakes, sharpen your game, and get back in the arena. That is a lesson of resilience in politics and life.    

The events of last week have shaken my faith in this process, but they have not broken it. I will not allow it. There have been times in the past when this country was just as divided if not more, and yet we managed to overcome those divisions and move forward as one nation. The key back then, as it is now, is to find the common ground, to find what unites us, rather than what pulls us apart, and then use this trust to build lasting solutions. That approach is precisely what we need now.  

US Capitol during Lincoln's first inauguration in 1861
First Inauguration of President Lincoln at the US Capitol, March 4, 1861 (Source: US Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address appealed to a deeply divided America, asking its skeptical citizens to seek out the “better angels of our nature” and recognize our common democratic values that drive us towards a more perfect union.  It is painful for many Americans that this vision has fallen short but we should never give up on this ideal.  That is the idea of America and our healing starts with listening, self-reflection, and a commitment to working with people who think differently than us.  

I am not naïve to the difficulty of this task. But let us begin by committing to resolve our disagreements through decency, civility, dialogue, even some humor, and a vigorous debate in all parts of our national life, including our relations with our neighbors and allies around the world. That should be the painful but obvious lesson learned from the historic week we just experienced, and our best path forward to healing this divide in the years to come.  

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