Pay even a little bit of attention to the news these days and you’ll likely come to a depressing conclusion: America is the most divided place on earth.
With every new firestorm — football players kneeling during the national anthem, students protesting conservative speakers on college campuses, neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville — our society seems to take one more step toward a breakdown. We in the media certainly deserve some of the blame. In a democracy where free expression is the rule — and where the Internet, talk radio and cable news provide enormous megaphones — news outlets’ focus on the most extreme voices clearly add fuel to already fiery situations.
Yet Americans don’t like the low blows and cynical meanness that result. In a recent poll, 75% of respondents called incivility a “national crisis,” and 59% said they have quit paying attention to national politics because of that. They see no middle ground left, no safe place for what was once informed, friendly conversation. Our distrust of each other seems beyond repair.
But there is a firm middle ground, and tens of millions of Americans are standing on it. They choose civility. They trust each other. And they work proudly together across supposed dividing lines. Most people never hear about these places. But they need to, now more than ever.
Unless you live around Nashville, for example, you’ve likely never heard of Gallatin, Tenn. On paper, Gallatin seems like an unlikely beacon of unity. It was one of the last communities in the state to integrate its schools. Almost 70% of voters in Sumner County, which contains Gallatin, went for Donald Trump. And last year, Gallatin became home to an all-too-familiar flashpoint when a white police officer shot and killed an African-American resident.
It was that shooting which showed how hungry many Americans are to connect, to speak kindly, listen closely and respond to each other’s needs. In the wake of the shooting, Gallatin residents worked hard to understand what happened: police, government officials, the clergy and community leaders spent many hours discussing the circumstances around the shooting and what it said about their home.
Their dialogues — the kinds of tough conversations people have begun to dread having — worked wonders. While cities and towns in similar situations erupted in protests and even riots, Gallatin residents responded with a healing prayer vigil, held in the City Hall parking lot. The historic “us against them” anger and suspicion between police and African Americans had become irrelevant in an openhearted place re-dedicated to civility and respect for all.
Reader’s Digest learned about Gallatin when we launched our first “Nicest Place in America” contest last spring. Gallatin, our winner, was one of hundreds of communities eager to share their stories of places and people who instinctively put their communities ahead of themselves. They welcome strangers rather than slam their doors. They commit to charity work. They create a culture in which kindness is freely given and often repaid. And they wordlessly cross the aisle.
Among our finalists were places like Hayesville, N.C., which turned gratitude into a mission after federal Hotshots helped save their town from a withering wildfire. Pflugerville High School, in Texas, fought back against one of the nation’s worst bugaboos, teen cyber-bullying. In Wisconsin, an online bulletin board created for buying and selling gently used goods has evolved into a no-judgment zone offering emotional and financial support to its virtual community of young mothers. In Providence, R.I., residents gather every week to shine their flashlights up to the windows of a local hospital, their way of signaling support for children undergoing cancer treatment.
None of the “Nicest Place” entries mentioned political parties. Their local ideology — respect over anger, unity over division — brought George W. Bush’s eloquent words at his first inaugural to mind. “Civility is not a tactic or sentiment,” he said. “It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.”
Our goal with launching this contest was to help change the national dialogue to inspire trust over cynicism. We know that the media must do a better job representing all America, including Middle America — not the geographic middle, but the ideological one, where the values and voices rarely veer toward the margins.
“Nobody talks to the people in the middle,” says T.J. Rooney, former state Democratic Party chairman in Pennsylvania. “But there are more people in the middle than there are in the extremes. Somebody’s going to figure out this mousetrap and that’s going to change politics in America.”
Our more than 25 million readers have trained Reader’s Digest to reflect these voices in a neutral environment, and our readership is thriving as a result. Will more outlets follow suit? In September, the Huffington Post in partnership with the National Institute for Civil Discourse embarked on a “Listen to America” tour with a similar mission of “seeking out people who feel like they’re not being heard and giving them a voice.” It’s a start.
Think about your own community. Doesn’t trust and a shared sense of belonging get it pretty far? And if thousands of places around the nation can say yes to that question, why would we let the nation’s spirit be dragged down by division?
A simple development in Gallatin symbolizes what communities can teach the nation: Police Chief David Bandy, who is white, was recently asked to preach an hour at one of the African American churches.
How does that happen? Because Bandy, a Gallatin native, has made it his job — his mission — not just to connect with his neighbors but to become one with them. “When you make yourself friendly, you have a better chance of making a friend,” Bandy says. “You have to go across the aisle and say, ‘I want you to be part of us, and I want to be a part of what you’re doing.’”