The Middle Shelf: Part 1 – A CGC Guide to Finding Common Ground through Reading

Here on the East Coast the weather has FINALLY turned warm and thoughts are turning to summer and the proverbial book list everyone promises they will catch up on.  Here at CGC while we do not have any sizzling novels to suggest for your beach bag, we are kicking off our recommendations for books that focus on a variety of experiences and ideas on reaching common ground.  Beginning today and every Thursday during the 99 days of summer we will be sharing some ideas for books you might want to check out.  We encourage you to read as well as to send us your recommendations for our reading list. We are kicking this off with two books that approach the search for common ground from very different vantage points both geographically as well as politically.

The first book, Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country, is an inside the Beltway memoir written by Senator Tim Scott and Congressman Trey Gowdy, both from South Carolina.

They first became acquainted when Scott was a Congressman who served alongside Gowdy before becoming their state’s junior Senator.  While both are Republicans, Scott who is African American and Gowdy who is white, began forging their friendship following the tragic shootings in 2015 at the Mother Emanual Church in Charleston. While both are Republicans, they acknowledge that they have different perspectives which come not just from philosophical differences but from the very different backgrounds and upbringings.  Scott came from a poor, single-parent family while Gowdy was the son of a doctor.


Gowdy explained during a recent interview the pair had on CBS News, “I find it inspirational from the moment we became friends. I think his — the story of how he got where he is, is a story of hope that our whole country would benefit from. I think contrast is good. I think conflict is debilitating. We’re in a dangerous time in our in our history in terms of political discourse … I think there’s a hunger and a yearning for unity. And if you can find it with a handsome bald-headed guy from Charleston and a middle-aged son of a doctor from the upstate of South Carolina then I think everyone can benefit from unlikely friendships”.


Scott picked up the points by saying, “I think about the challenges of race in our state,” Scott continued. “We have a very provocative history on race in South Carolina. The truth is that after the 2015 Mother Emanuel Church shooting, I found myself turning to a white guy in the aftermath. It became clear to me that there is a chance to bridge real gaps in this country. And if that was an example of one real bridging of a gap — after a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, led me to turn to a white guy that I did not know before I came to Congress. Are there lessons within this friendship that can help our nation that seems to be so polarized, in such conflict, mired in challenges, and sometimes heading towards tribalism? If there’s a way to bridge that gap, can we and should we tell that story? I think we can, and I think we should, and we did.”

Link to CBS News article about the book 

While Unified is clearly about how two politicians have been able to find common ground in a divided Washington D.C., the book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America by the husband and wife team of James and Deborah Fallows doesn’t venture into Washington D.C but instead went searching for the answer of how Americans were actually living their lives and working together to solve community problems.

The Fallows are long-time members of the Democrat establishment and accomplished authors and journalists. After years covering overseas politics, they decided to turn their lives into a journey to find out what their own country really was about. They set off on a 5-year journey, in a single engine prop plane to visit and interview Americans from coast to coast but focusing primarily on smaller communities in the Heartland that were trying to revitalize. They made two-week stops in 24 places and 25 shorter stops in others.

The book is a fascinating view of what it is like to go beyond the echo chamber to see how people are really living not just how or why they voted a certain way.  As pointed out by journalist Lincoln Caplan in his review of the book and interview with the authors:

“OUR TOWNS is not naïve. In the May 2018 issue of The Atlantic, Jim writes about the book: “Everyone knows how genuinely troubled the United States is at the level of national politics and governance. It is natural to assume that these disorders must reflect a deeper rot across the country. And indeed, you can’t travel extensively through today’s America…without being exposed to signs of rot, from opioid addiction to calcifying class barriers.”

However, as the interview also points out, despite the numerous issues that are polarizing us, solutions are being found and communities that were once written off are rising again through local moxie.

“Suppose that you are skeptical of this fundamental claim, about the ongoing health of local American society,” Jim writes in The Atlantic. “I suggest the following test…: Through the next year, go to half a dozen places that are new to you, and that are not usually covered by the press. When you get there, don’t ask people about national politics…if it’s on cable news, don’t ask about it. Instead, ask about what is happening right now in these places. The schools, the businesses, the downtowns, the kind of people moving out and the kind moving in, and how all of this compares with the situation 10 years ago. See where that leads you. This process, repeated again and again,” led the Fallowses to the optimistic conclusion they reach in their book.

Link to the Harvard article for the book.