08/24/2010 02:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are We Seeing the Same America?

In this era of political hyperbole and base-riling, I often feel like Americans are simply not seeing the world through the same eyes -- especially in the news wasteland of August.

First, the facts: In the stifling Atlanta heat earlier this month, more than 30,000 people waited in line to apply for just 400 Section 8 housing vouchers. The crowd's desperation quickly turned to anxiety. More than five dozen people were injured as the thousands of people pressed to the housing office door for their last chance at housing help.

During this interminable economic crisis, we've sadly seen this before. Last October, more than 22,000 people filled a Detroit street to apply for assistance to keep them from going homeless. And in New Orleans earlier this year, more than 20,000 people applied for only 4,000 Section 8 housing vouchers.

To me, these are stories of heartache and turmoil -- a peek into the desperation roiling in America, and a plaintive cry to do something to deal with it.

For many of those invested in sowing divisions, though, these scenes were another opportunity to blast the poorest and most vulnerable victims of this economic downturn.

Popular conservative writer Michelle Malkin called the gathered Atlanta crowd "moochers" and called Section 8 a "welfare-state relic." An op-ed in the Philadelphia Examiner said the incident in Atlanta simply proves that poor people don't want to work and "just complain and cry racism when they want something."

This kind of overheated, compassionless rhetoric gets me angry -- but, more than that, it makes me sad. There is real suffering in America and yet the conservative media uses these stories as an opportunity to mock those in need.

It's a disturbing pattern we've seen on issue after issue in the past two years. For the loudest critics, despite all evidence to the contrary, our economic crisis can somehow be traced to undocumented families and "anchor babies" (might as well repeal the 14th Amendment!). For these same critics, a planned Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan is a nefarious plot by "radical Islamists" (let's just tweak the 1st Amendment's freedom of religion clause while we're at it).

We need a different conversation, one that encourages compassion and understanding, while searching for solutions. We need to talk to each other, to learn from each other, to focus on how we surmount the significant challenges we face as a nation.

The economy will not rebound on the back of inflamed deception. The foreclosure crisis will not be brought to an end by the person yelling the loudest.

Just like in the rowdy health-care town halls last summer, the lack of Washington political stories during the August congressional recess leaves a void that the media are eager to fill with the most outrageous and offensive rhetoric.

Yet, the economic anxiety we see playing out in places like the Atlanta housing line -- and, frankly, at Tea Party rallies -- is real. Let's stop having these superficially charged conversations and instead focus on the real lives of real people that are being left behind in this sluggish economy. Together, we can make sure rhetoric yields to reality.