We have gotten so polarized as a nation over politics that not even the Tokyo Olympics could unify Americans. After years of ratcheting up our defenses, the games themselves were often politicized. With a global, once-in-a-century pandemic, we can’t stay entrenched in our fighting corners, though. There is too much work to be done.
How can we make strides? There are grumblings that we need someone non-political, someone who Americans largely trust, to help us navigate the latest national split concerning COVID-19 vaccines. Specifically, how we can get more people vaccinated?
We need someone with the trust-factor Oprah had during her 25-year syndicated show run. Americans from all ages and backgrounds flocked to get Oprah’s Book Club picks and “favorite things,” but we trusted her with more serious matters too. There was no arm-twisting when she offered advice; there was no forcing of anything because people trusted her.
It’s too bad, but not surprising, then that the pandemic has become political. The closest we have is that most leaders agree that the COVID-19 vaccine is curbing deaths and serious illness, but that is where the consensus ends. What’s at stake is whether there should be vaccine mandates or leave it up to people to decide for themselves whether or not to get the vaccine.
If we could find a unifying messenger, more people would get vaccinated. The person we need for the job is Dolly Parton.
I traveled with my family to the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee (where Parton is from) last month for a family reunion and if eastern Tennessee were its own country, Parton would be the president. I’ve always liked Parton since I was a little girl and saw the classic movie “9 to 5” no less than 20 times. Later I was amazed when I learned Parton wrote the most famous love song of all time (“I Will Always Love You”) because she humbly stood back as Whitney Houston basked in the limelight of the song’s fame. I had heard of Dollywood and wanted to see it when we got to Pigeon Forge, but I had no idea the reach of influence Parton has in her hometown until I saw for myself. She’s everywhere. She is deeply invested in the Pigeon Forge area, which has some of the highest child poverty rates in the nation. Parton is also a champion of childhood literacy. She gives $50 to every child who writes to her when they graduate high school and she sends a children’s book every year on children’s birthdays until they turn 5 years old.
When we came home I still kept thinking about Dolly being the person we all need right now and that intuition was confirmed. I listened to the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America,” a nine-episode, non-fiction series based on Parton’s career and legacy hosted by Jad Abumrad. It begins with how Abumrad, a Tennessee native, learned that his father, a doctor, had befriended Parton when she was his patient. Abumrad describes how Parton has arguably the most diverse audience of any musician in America (all ages, races and backgrounds are in her audiences). The podcast was made in 2019, before we knew the word “COVID” and Abumrad shares his epiphany that Parton is indeed “the great unifier.” He also shared that Parton recently ranked No. 1 as the celebrity with the least negative rating worldwide.
In one episode Parton describes that she chooses to break the polarization of politics by not sharing her opinions publicly, choosing to treat all people with dignity instead. Even though she has her opinions, Parton purposely steers from politics so as not to alienate anyone — and that is a lesson we could all take to heart.