We Are All Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner was an outstanding professional baseball player in the 1970s and 1980s, and many believe him to be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  However, all his accomplishments on the field and in his life were eclipsed by a single incredibly horrible moment in his career, the ground ball that trickled between his legs at the end of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series.  His error allowed the Mets to complete an amazing comeback victory when the Red Sox were right on the cusp of winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, and the Red Sox lost the deciding Game 7 to the New York Mets, crushing their fans.

Mr. Buckner just recently passed away, and he tried valiantly to live down what might be the most infamous gaffe in baseball history for the remaining 33 years of his life.  To his credit, he bore the constant reminders of the shocking mistake with as much stoicism and grace as any human being likely could ever muster.  Thanks to the advent of the Internet and services such as YouTube since 1986, later generations have been able at their leisure to relive the most painful and humiliating moment of his sporting lifeagain and again and again.  How wonderful that must have been for him, his family, and his friends.

Given that so much of all of our lives is now available online for the edification and entertainment of the nosey and the nasty, questions about our personal privacy, the security of our data, and our increasingly shaky right to live away from the unblinking eye of pervasive surveillance become more pressing with each passing year.  Privacy and discretion are rapidly becoming artifacts as quaint as 19th century high-button shoes, and we now often know far more about strangers and near strangers than is perhaps either reasonable or healthful.  

Moreover, our predatory attitude toward anyone foolish enough to be a “public figure” is astoundingly cruel at times. I cannot even imagine what President Franklin Roosevelt, forced to use a wheelchair and leg braces due to polio from the 1920’s until his death, might have had to endure at the hands of his enemies in today’s mean meme world.  The media once understood human decency and consideration and so avoided photographing him in his wheelchair; this type of kindness now seems beyond all imagining.

A society that has raised both voyeurism and public humiliation to a high art is likely neither the healthiest nor most functional.  Although it could be reasonably argued that some of the obsessive self-revelation of early 21st century life has exposed injustices and abuses long hidden from viewthe #MeToomovement and instances of police misconduct spring immediately to mindthe degradation of personal boundaries and our addiction to gawking at misery and mischief is much less laudable.  

Being able to Google a celebrity sex tape or view a cell phone video of someone passed out from a drug overdose is unlikely to promote either individual dignity or social justice.  Both the ready availability of this sort of this material and our evident interest in it and other scandalous and salacious fare speaks to our lack of respect and empathy for others.  

The fortunes made on trafficking in the unhappiness and mistakes of others is both sad and shameful.  In the old days, blackmailers used to extort money from their victims by threatening to reveal an indiscreet letter or photograph; today’s modern blackmailer simply starts a website and sells subscriptions to the scandal-hungry masses.  Although making a quick buck by hawking stolen selfies and videos of some embarrassing moment might be good old-fashioned capitalist initiative at its best, the wonder is that we both allow and actively support this ugliness.

Our deeply embedded schadenfreudeour dark desire to savor the unhappiness of othersis likely to blame for much of our willingness to click on a hateful comment or watch a pratfall from respectability, but we also must recognize that the modern monetization of misery has served to extinguish boundaries of propriety and restraint that we are worse off for having lost.  A society that ruthlessly extinguishes its heroes for profit also discards any possibility for higher purpose or self-sacrifice because every human thought and action is reduced to sad farce or laughable self-delusion.  Even worse, a single misjudgment or misstep now has to power, thanks to the endlessly amplified echo chamber of infotainment and social media, to erase all memory of an otherwise respectable life and transform one into either a devil or a buffoon.

It is terrible that Bill Buckners life and professional career will be remembered for a twisting little grounder that danced past his ankles, but this is the reality that we all now face every day.  Any person, anywhere, and at any time canin but a single unguarded or unthoughtful momenthave ones life become an object of derision or delight for the multitudes who are anxious to revel in the misfortunes of others.  Is it somehow hilarious to post videos of the overstressed, overexcited, or overwhelmed?  Are accidents humorous?  Should we be shocked that humans sometimes make thoroughly human mistakes that seem oddly sinister when removed from their proper context?

To ask these questions is, of course, to question the business model of much of our modern media environment.  To answer these questions we need to, of necessity, look within ourselves, study our own hearts, and examine our consumption of our often coarse and cruel culture today.  To presume that our current reality is either permanent or desirable is wrongheaded.  We have the power to choose the type of world we want to inhabit, and we can certainly find the will to wean ourselves off the drugs of choice today: scandal, sleaze, and stupidity.

 

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The Great Schism

As far back as Sodom and Gomorrah in The Holy Bible, cities have been seen as centers of sin and degradation and were often presented in stark contrast to rural towns and areas, which were considered the wellspring of sobriety and piety. This duality has run through the history of civilization, and it has influenced every facet of the arts, politics, and social mores for every society.  Country life was pure and wholesome, the city was rife with immorality and greed, and each viewed the other with distrust and condescension. 

As with any stereotype, there is perhaps some truth buried there.  Cities are often a place where people flee to escape the shackles of traditional beliefs and morality in order to reinvent themselves free of constraint; rural areas are generally populated by those who are comfortable with the values bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents and so are more suspicious of change for change’s sake.  However, this does not necessarily translate into the more insulting stereotypes of ignorant and bigoted rustics pitted against conniving and degenerate urbanites.  The truth is, of course, far more complex, and both good and bad individuals can be found both in the country and the city—neither has a monopoly on either decency or vice.

We are, however, today experiencing an unusually high degree of disconnect between our major cities, which are invariably controlled by Democrats, and rural areas, which are almost exclusively controlled by Republicans.  The great electoral prize for both sides are obviously suburban voters, who do not generally align as rigidly with either of our two major political parties.  The geographic entrenchment of both parties—Democrats in big cities and college towns with Republicans controlling virtually everywhere else—was a vivid and telling aspect of the electoral map in 2016, and these differences have seemed to only further hardened in the years since.  The mutual cultural and social disdain that urban and rural residents have historically directed at one another has now taken on an acutely political dimension that is further dividing our nation.

There are obvious economic reasons why this divide has worsened in recent decades.  As cities have become ever more reliant on technology and finance jobs—manufacturing having been mostly driven out decades before—escalating real estate prices and their ripple effects on retail and services have created urban economic conditions that are extraordinarily (perhaps even dangerously) bifurcated.  At the top of the pyramid, we see wealthy and cosmopolitan urbanites who see themselves as citizens of a new internationalized economic order that allows them to generate enormous personal wealth.  Everyone else is left to scramble to scratch out a daily existence made enormously challenging by a cost structure that makes even paying for basic daily needs such as groceries a significant problem.  

Because of the extraordinary disconnect between the very rich and very poor that is now characteristic of city living, America’s urban areas are filling up with the homeless and the hopeless, and city streets are increasing being overrun with street encampments, rats, feces, and discarded needles, which unsurprisingly leads to louder and louder calls for government action to “solve” a problem that is largely attributable to highly restrictive zoning laws and wild real estate speculation, both tacitly if not openly encouraged by city leaders, that serve the needs of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Those who live in rural areas of the nation look at the obvious dysfunction of many of our nation’s big cities and the desire of big city politicians to keep raising taxes to pay for more services to deal with those dysfunctions—and are repelled.  The idea that some Republican politicians in Illinois are now floating to cast Democratic Chicago adrift like a plague victim in a lonely lifeboat is related to proposals in California to separate the major cities on the coast from the inland areas and the eternal dislike of so many New Yorkers for New York City and it’s seemingly parasitic ways.  Rural residents look at the crime, filth, and insane costs of city living (“$25 for a PB & J?  Seriously?”), want to stay as far away as possible—and believe government is too often held hostage to the greed, immorality, and corruption of big city politicians whosneer at their simpler and perhaps more sensible lives.

Given the choice between free spending urban Democrats who apparently have never met a tax or fee they didn’t like and rural Republican politicians who often view government as a necessary evil, it is hardly a surprise that so few of the “Deplorables” voted for Hillary Clinton, whom they saw as just another big government swamp creature, in the 2016 election.  However, looking at it from the perspective of urban voters who felt that Hillary Clinton’s loss was an outcome of the racism, sexism, and xenophobia indicative of “white frailty”, the election results only confirmed their worst stereotypes of the ignorant and bigoted country rubes parading around with their assault rifles, abusing their simpleton wives, denigrating their repressed daughters, and mocking those who are not white and Christian.

This mutual incomprehension is more comprehensible when you look at the manner in which politicians often actively work to divide us in order to solidify their own block of voters.  Only today I read of one Democrat in Congress calling Republican voters ignorant and a Republican in the Senate calling Democrats extremists.  Add to this the incessant cable news gabfests that seem to exist only to create a ready demand for Prozac and the unending bile of so many on social media and what remains of the legacy mainstream media, and we can more easily recognize why efforts to understand have been replaced with a desire to destroy.  

The urban/rural divide is also driving an electoral dynamic that is creating a great deal of ill will at the moment.  Given the enormous pluralities for Democrats in coastal big cities, we could continue to see Presidential elections where the popular and electoral college votes continue to diverge as they did in 2016.  Even if a Democrat can win 100% of the vote in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere and so win the popular vote, it may not result in national victory if the rest of the nation is turning into an inland ocean of Republican red. 

This may not be a concern in terms of purely local matters, but given the ferment concerning the larger national issues that continue to divide us—particularly immigration and abortion—it is leading to efforts in many state legislators to circumvent the electoral college by pledging those states’ electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote, which will have the net effect of disenfranchising the voters in those states if their statewide totals are at odds with the national ones.  Whether these bills will be able to survive the inevitable appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court is almost beside the point.  These efforts are indicative of a complete lack of faith in our traditional democratic processes and a frightening disregard for the collective wisdom of our nation’s voters.  Of course, why would anyone have faith in the judgments of either “Deplorables” or “extremists” when it comes to choosing a President?  It seems many now feel the American election system must be rigged in order to generate the desired outcome, and this is further corroding an already strained relationship between elected officials and voters.

Watching reporters after the shock of the 2016 election fan out into the middle of the nation like 19th century explorers off to investigate some exotic foreign land, it was hard not to wince at their incredulity when they came face to face with perfectly decent people who own a gun but have no plans to shoot up a school, believe homosexuality to be a sin but would still love their son or daughter regardless, praise their neighbors but insist they reside here legally, and would rather raise a child with Down Syndrome than “murder” a baby with an abortion.  By the same token, it hurt to listen to harrumphing pundits explain the problems caused of “low information” (read: stupid) Americans who voted for fear and hatred by pulling the lever for Donald Trump and other Republicans rather than encouraging their viewers to respect the election outcome, analyze the pros and cons of differing viewpoints, and thereafter work to find common ground in order to solve our nation’s problems.

City and country may never see eye to eye, and we have seen other great historical movements—the crusade to pass Prohibition a century ago springs immediately to mind—that have pitted our rural and urban areas against one another in a battle for the soul of our nation.  However, this disconnect, this great schism between the two, is at least one of the factors driving our terrible political polarization today, and the continuing geographic self-selection by urban Democrats and rural Republicans is a significant factor in making it even worse.  

Perhaps like a terrible fever this battle between brothers and sisters will break and subside into a more generalized moderation of thought and action, but I am not counting on this any time soon unless we consciously work to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising attitudes in all regions of our nation.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

To give the 1960’s countercultural guru and drug enthusiast Dr. Timothy Leary his due, he claimed his most famous saying—from which this commentary takes its title—was not meant to advocate a life of addled indolence. There is, however, little doubt that some variation of his advice has taken hold in a great many corners of American society, and even Cheech and Chong would be shocked at where we are today.

A recent article in the Washington Post contained these terrifying statistics about America’s current disastrous epidemic of drug abuse:

“In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.”

The article goes on to note that prescription overdose deaths have been rising since 2000 despite state and federal efforts to crack down on the abuse of these drugs.

It would, of course, be impossible to not point a finger at the pharmaceutical industry. Their aggressive marketing of all manner of drugs to cure every side effect of living our normal daily lives has been disingenuous at best—and outright quackery at worst. Although improvements in medications have made many diseases and maladies more bearable and even provided cures for some which were previously a death sentence, we have also been sold the notion that annoying or inconvenient variations in human behavior or function are now problems worthy of a visit to the doctor—and more and more of our lives are now wrapped up in gulping pills to cure more and more newly discovered “illnesses”.

Is your child is too rambunctious? We’ve got a pill for that! Are you shy around strangers? We’ve got a medication to cure you! Need to pep up? We’ve got you covered! Need to wind down? We’ve got something for that too! Sweaty? Yep! Not sweaty enough? Sure thing! Too hairy? You betcha! Not hairy enough? Step right up!

The predations of the pharmaceutical industry—now free to advertise their wares to a credulous and yearning public—are successful because they take advantage of two signal human weaknesses: our attraction to easy solutions and our desire—born of our insecurities—to “perfect” ourselves and our lives.

Just as we have a fantasy belief that eating fat-free foods will make us thin without the bother of exercise or that purchasing an expensive new laptop computer for our academically struggling child will guarantee future admission to an Ivy League college, so do we easily delude ourselves into believing that health, happiness, and success is available if we can find the right pill to swallow. The shamans of the tribal past would find the pill-sized hopes hidden inside our medicine cabinets, gym bags, bedside tables, and purses to be entirely unsurprising.

Of course, our routine use—and shocking abuse—of powerful and highly addictive opioid painkillers is another step beyond. If we knew how many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are gulping Norco, Percocet, and OxyContin—or perhaps even shooting heroin or snorting cocaine—in daily dosages sufficient to stun a cow, we would likely be shaken to the core. This is obviously an issue that puts all manner of medical practitioners on the front lines of any solution, but it also speaks to something deeper, darker, and more disturbing happening in towns and cities across America where the desire for the numbing escape these drugs provide for many has nothing to do with a physical pain.

It would be foolish to deny that many people like to get high, but most somehow manage to get through their freshman year of college only slightly worse for the wear, a few brain cells short yet ready for the productive lives lying ahead. There have, of course, always been a few who never really grow beyond their partying phase of life, and these men and women have always spent their lives dealing with the chaos and health problems that have resulted.

However, we need to ask what has so changed within ourselves that we are now landing in emergency rooms, rehab centers, or the morgue in such astonishing numbers—lives ruined, families destroyed, and communities devastated.

Many are wondering why Americans are now so often using these potent painkillers, but I ask a different question: Given the grim and aimless lives so many are now forced to live, why would you not turn to narcotics for relief from the emotional and spiritual hurts that somehow must be endured—day after day after day. If you look back over the span of human existence during the past several thousand years, we have counted on three facets of our lives for the purpose and pleasure that helps us deal with the daily rigors and challenges we all must face: our families, our faiths, and our work. Unfortunately, all three are under siege by societal, economic, and political forces that are eroding the foundations of much of American life.

Soaring divorce rates, single parent households, out-of-wedlock births, and lonely latchkey kids: All of this and more is grinding down families across our nation. Organized religion—now often derided as the last refuge of the ignorant and bigoted by the intelligentsia—is in full retreat from the onslaught of our ever more permissive society. Work that offers dignity and pride of craft has been often replaced by “McJobs” that offer little beyond a meager paycheck, and more workers are daily told that their livelihoods are being shipped abroad—or being replaced by a robot or piece of computer software. Taken individually, these trends are profoundly disturbing; all three together are an assault upon everything that many of us hold dear.

Those who wonder why so many voters are revolting against the status quo fail to understand that many Americans blame our national leaders for their blithe lack of concern with the agony that so many feel today. We don’t want another pointless regulatory commission, another ossified agency, or another clock-watching bureaucrat explaining just how wonderful the latest round of new and improved government policies will make our lives—long after our bones have already been picked clean. Until our elected and appointed officials get it through their thick skulls that our country and its people expect leadership that supports families, respects faith, and empowers American workers, they can expect little beyond our cold contempt and volcanic rage.

Until this happens, don’t be surprised if many Americans turn to a narcotic haze to provide some respite from the empty charade that so many of our lives have become. This might not be a great long term plan, and it certainly carries along its own measure of misery. However, for many who are desperately lonely, spiritually bereft, and physically exhausted, a little drug-induced escape makes more sense than not.

America’s “Affordability” Problem

If one were to make a list of the three spending categories that bedevil the average person’s budget, the list would read as follows: healthcare, housing, and education.

Now make a list of the spending categories where federal and state policies have most actively attempted to improve affordability, and three race right to the top: healthcare, housing, and education.

Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?

When I entered college in 1976, the following were true:

• Annual cost of healthcare per person: approximately $690
• Median home value: approximately $44,000
• Average annual cost of a four-year private college:          approximately $10,700
• Average annual cost of a four-year public college: approximately $1,200
• Average annual salary: approximately $9225

It was, therefore, quite possible—if one was careful with money—for the average person to obtain healthcare, find somewhere to live, and obtain an education at a public college or university. Purchasing housing and funding an education did, of course, require some borrowing and some hard choices about where and how to spend, but a comfortable life with reasonable aspirations was available for individuals who were willing to work hard and make sacrifices in pursuit of their goals.

Nothing was easy, nothing was guaranteed, and nothing was free; however, everything was possible for those with initiative and perseverance. Obviously, this is no longer the case. Although local conditions and circumstances vary somewhat, the aspirations of average American are being crushed by the onerous costs of healthcare, housing, and higher education—the expenses associated with these essentials having far surpassed both the CPI and personal incomes. What happened between 1976 and today, and what role did government play in advancing—or impeding—our dreams?

The short answer is that government “helped” you—but not in the manner you expected. Instead of improving affordability by allowing transparency and market-based efficiencies in these three critical areas of the economy, heavy-handed and clumsy government interventions have completely obliterated honest and open markets driven by basic value and sensible pricing. Healthcare, housing, and education are now almost wholly controlled by rules and regulations that are written and interpreted by unelected bureaucrats at the behest of elected officials who are beholden to their campaign contributors. Given how disconnected from economic reality our healthcare, housing, and education markets have become over the past few decades of government interference, any attempt to allow them to operate independent of supervision and—more importantly—the overt and hidden price supports now baked into the system will surely lead to startling price deflation across these three sectors that will rattle the very foundations of our economy, financial systems, and society.

*   *   *

The explosive growth of the cost of healthcare is obviously affected by the simple fact that the average American is older than 40 years ago—therefore, requiring more healthcare. However, it is also a fact that Americans pay far more for exactly the same procedures, medications, and services than any other developed nation in the world; an aging population does not, therefore, tell the whole story. We should instead look at the manner in which governmental policies have disastrously skewed the health insurance market by promoting fee-for-service reimbursement (which perpetuates endless medical “churn” to drive up provider incomes), poor internal controls to identify fraud, and virtually non-existent efforts to control costs—producing an almost perfect mechanism for driving up healthcare costs for everyone.

Moreover, the politicization of healthcare through government interventions—Obamacare being the most recent and visible example—causes what should be a free market to be captured by special interests and lobbyists whose sole concern is making certain that the gravy train keeps rolling so that profits can endlessly rise. This fatally flawed public marketplace, of course, affects the private healthcare sector in turn because all the rules and regulations written by state and federal legislators affect both—and focus almost exclusively on expanding access with almost no concern for costs.

As a result, whether it comes out of our own pockets or is “free” healthcare paid through taxes and government borrowing, every aspect of American healthcare costs more and more—yet our health outcomes compared to the rest of the world lag further and further behind because the system is driven by a quest for profits rather than outcomes. A system that benefits itself by paying for a heart transplant instead of a health club membership is not serving the public’s interest, and the glacial movement towards reimbursement models that incentivize patient outcomes and pay a flat annual amount per patient rather than allowing every separate service to be endlessly billed through a fee-for-service model are wonderful, but their growth is held in check by the political capture of the healthcare market by powerful corporations and interest groups that buy the legislative process with their campaign contributions.

Not surprisingly, decades of “reforms” have seemed to do little to help the actual patient—but they always line the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry, big hospital conglomerates, specialty care providers, and durable medical equipment manufacturers. Today healthcare costs absorb 18% of our nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product and cost over $10,000 per person, which is twice the average for other developed countries.

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The catastrophe of government efforts to improve housing “affordability” would require an entire bookshelf to detail, but we can easily see the broad outlines of the problems that have been created in three areas.

Public housing—the signature effort of government to help provide homes for the poor—has obviously contributed to urban blight, crime, and a host of social pathologies while trapping generations of Americans in conditions that are little better than prisons. This all has, of course, been facilitated by a political process that rewards insiders and campaign contributors with lucrative contracts, politicians who are happy to cut ribbons yet are be nowhere to found when roofs leak and furnaces malfunction due to shoddy construction and maintenance, and the sheer magnitude of government incompetence—quite a toxic brew.

In addition, government lending programs have for decades encouraged the more affluent to flee their poor neighbors by creating swathes of new housing stock that lock out the unfortunate and actively discourage any attempt to create mixed-income neighborhoods. The result of decades of these programs and incentives has been the creation of suburban and urban mono-cultural monstrosities that allow developers to turn a nice profit yet contribute to cruel segregation driven by income levels that serve to only more thoroughly isolate the most vulnerable families based on their credit scores. The endless sprawl that results also drives the building of expensive and expansive infrastructure to support this insanity—legacy costs we pay for through escalating property and state taxes that many can ill afford on top of their mortgages.

Finally, the ruthless suppression of mortgage rates to improve “affordability” has encouraged ruinous speculation through “house flipping” that has enriched a few but further ratcheted up prices and inflated a series of housing bubbles that have resulted in real estate crashes that always seem to lead to taxpayer bailouts of lenders stuck with a fistful of non-performing mortgages. Government policies that turn basic shelter into a crazed casino of greed serve some well but cause widespread damage to the social fabric of our nation. Today the median price of a home in the United States has hit $345,000—which places an unconscionable strain on families struggling just to get by.

*   *   *

Education is, sadly, perhaps the most pungent example of the harm government efforts to “help” can cause. Briefly, the federal government decided decades ago that the best way to help students to afford education was to facilitate their transformation into debt slaves. Between the mid-1970’s and today, the aggregate subsidized loan limit for the Stafford Student Loan program jumped from $10,000 to $65,000, thus allowing colleges and universities to dramatically and unconcernedly raise tuition, room, and board prices because students could, after all, simply borrow more to cover the increased costs.

However, just in case students want to go all in on that Art History degree and graduate school, students can now blithely sign away their futures with additional unsubsidized loans up to a total of roughly $138,000 in borrowing. In addition, let’s not forget those lovely Parent PLUS loans that help college and universities to destroy the golden years of mom and dad by allowing them to accrue their own crippling debts to help pay for the salaries of an army of Assistant Deans and the whirlpool tubs in the new Student Center. It seems little wonder that college enrollments are dropping nationwide. All this “affordable” education is destroying the financial futures of generations of Americans by impoverishing both the young and the old—a disaster that has led to a terrifying total of over $1.4 trillion of student loan debt.

*  *  *

In short, decades of government efforts to make healthcare, housing, and education more affordable have been a costly and damaging constellation of failures that have enriched a few and emptied the pockets of everybody else. Given the inherent unsustainably of these markets absent increasingly intrusive and expensive government programs, one can easily foresee a point in the future when they can no longer be propped up.

There is an old saying: Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. As government debt and voter frustration grow, the chances that we will be forced to reckon with long-hidden price realities in healthcare, housing, and education looms ever larger. This will be an unpleasant and unwelcome wake up call for many who were led to believe in values that were artificially created and expensively maintained, but it is likely to soon become an unavoidable reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should You Hate Those Who Disagree With You?

I often feel that those who see racism and sexism (and other “-isms” too numerous to count) all around us share much in common with those who use the teleological argument to demonstrate that God exists. Just as some argue that the appearance of order and rationality in nature absolutely proves the existence of a purposeful creator, so do others contend that all forms of inequality are clearly the outcomes of embedded hatreds and deliberate discrimination. The use of such obviously circular—or at least specious—logic to prove that America is still an openly discriminatory nation chock full of bigots and haters should give one pause. Moreover, one has to also wonder whether such beliefs about America and Americans create their own issues—and explain a good deal of our troubled contemporary political culture.

Although there are certainly bigots to be found in our nation, one would be somewhat hard pressed to demonstrate that discrimination is still a driving cultural force in America. Indeed, when one looks at our prevalent commitment to multiculturalism throughout the public and private spheres of our society, the immense and broad-based popularity of diverse entertainers, sports stars, politicians, and public figures across our nation, and our increasingly multiracial and multicultural population, we see clear evidence of a country less and less concerned with anything other than our shared humanity.

Nonetheless, our nation’s liberals still routinely describe our country in terms that make it sound as if ignorant bigots still rule across the land. One CNN commentator memorably described the election of Donald Trump as a “white-lash” in response to the two Obama presidencies, and the progressive press is regularly filled with dire predictions about the future of the United States that suggest conspiracy and malign intent abounds around us.

To presume that all negative life outcomes and experiences are the results of discrimination is an incredibly reductive—and damaging—assumption that both provides a facile excuse for personal failures and insults the vast majority of Americans who treat their friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers with the utmost respect and consideration. I increasingly find myself wondering whether the liberal obsession with “micro-aggressions” has become so extreme because there truly is not much overt bigotry in American society today. A lack of cultural sensitivity and knowledge, which is certainly unacceptably neglectful today, is very different from hatreds based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender—and those relatively rare situations where such attitudes are now ever expressed are roundly condemned. A nation such as ours where currently 1 of every 6 marriages is racially mixed just doesn’t appear able to support the level of hatred that many insist still exists throughout our nation.

Unfortunately for progressives, acknowledging the many successes of our diverse nation disables the overarching political narrative of the Democratic Party—the need for Big Government to protect us from all those horrible bigots out there—which might explain some portion of their inability to move voters in the Presidential election last year. To continue to assert that discrimination explains everything means nothing to voters who might, for example, go to a female doctor, report to an African-American supervisor, have a lesbian sister, and attend a night class taught by a Chinese-American professor. There are, of course, many areas of the United States where the population is less heterogeneous and the understanding of our very diverse nation is perhaps less sophisticated, but these folks are still at least exposed to a much broader reality through their voracious consumption of mass culture. Even the kids in Topeka are grooving to Beyoncé these days, and the bad old days of regional insularity and parochialism are probably gone for good.

Many voters are increasingly annoyed by those who insist on blaming their own failures and problems on discrimination when it seems obvious that a more multifaceted understanding of persistent inequities might be more reasonable. For example, if your local community has a difficult time attracting small businesses because of crime, are those business owners who are keeping their distance bigoted—or smart? If your child is flunking in high school, are the teachers failing to provide a nurturing environment—or should you be taking away your kid’s cell phone and insisting on some study time? If you are not hired for a job because you cannot pass a police background check, whom do you blame for your misfortune—yourself or a “hate-filled” world that kept arresting you for breaking the law? Although it is now common to dismiss discussions about personal responsibility and real life consequences as “victim blaming” or something worse, perhaps these dialogues are necessary—and even helpful.

We have problems—all societies and nations do—but active discrimination might be slipping down the hierarchy of concerns faster than many realize. Healthcare, affordable housing, quality schools for our children, income inequality, reliable infrastructure, taxes, secure retirements, crime, and a host of other pressing issues likely preoccupy more Americans than the random cuckoos who justify their awful behavior and attitudes with cock-eyed theories about humanity. Given this, the liberal insistence on pushing identity politics to the forefront of every discussion eventually turns off voters who are looking for practical and affordable solutions for their concerns rather than virtue signaling and sanctimonious lectures.

The crux of the issue—and likely one that has motivated the increasing rejection of Democratic candidates on a national level over the past decade—is a frustration many voters feel about being labeled as bigots because they don’t support or believe the progressive political agenda, and this is a discussion that the Democratic Party needs to have if they hope to regain their electoral footing in the years ahead. To continue to argue that any judgments about behavior, values, or morality are hatred and bigotry in disguise will not be a winning strategy with voters who take pride in their accomplishments derived from self-sacrifice, hard work, and personal integrity. Although some Democrats disparage “values voters” for their supposed lack of intelligence and worldliness, it might be worth remembering those very same voters are often the bedrock members of communities across our nation—and to refuse to honor their lives or hear their concerns is both wrong and wrong-headed.

Moreover, to persist in branding all those who disagree with your values or assumptions as bigots likely causes its own set of difficulties by closing ears, heads, and hearts to any reasoned conversation while embittering rather than enlightening. An electoral strategy predicated on convincing your supporters that their fellow citizens are “deplorables” is a prescription for a nation that is fragmented, fearful, and frustrated—which seems to be right about where we find ourselves at the moment. Perhaps it is time to stop and consider the damage these defamatory characterizations inflict on both individuals and our country.

Further proof that we need to stop demonizing others is the shocking and cowardly shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise—by someone who obviously thought he was stopping a bigot or something worse because of what he read and heard. This tragedy is a harsh reminder of how encouraging the hatred of those with different views or values can have tragic consequences. It’s time to grow up and work together for the good of our nation. If we can start listening and stop attacking, there is much we can accomplish.

Some level of bigotry will always exist in any society because we cannot outlaw individual stupidity, but to presume that everyone is a bigot and hatreds run rampant causes its own—and, in some cases, worse—problems by putting everyone in the position of walking around with their fists up. No nation can survive living in a state of constant suspicion and anger, and we condemn ourselves to a prison built from our own fears if we live our lives always presuming the worst of one another.

As much as so many dislike politics and politicians, we must recognize that they will play a key role in whatever healing is possible. Just as the Democratic Party must rethink their approach by listening more, the Republican Party must contribute to the healing that is necessary by speaking more softly and carefully in order to avoid their own brand of inflammatory rhetoric. President Trump might have ideas worthy of consideration, but he harms our nation when he continually presents his thoughts in the most combative manner possible. Leadership requires toughness at times, but more often it requires a respectful tone that soothes rather than scars.