Divisiveness is a plague on 21st century America civic life. If someone disagrees with us, they are by definition not only wrong but morally suspect. Trying for middle ground is perceived as cowardly.
American public affairs are never elevated by demonization. Marin's nadir was excesses in the debate over high-density housing. Insults and hate-filled code words like "racist" and "NIMBY" or accusations that committed activists are on the payroll of developers and their allies are still bandied about.
While in a democracy citizens should take strong positions and often will disagree, discussions should be dominated by fact, not by emotionally charged pejoratives.
It's made worse when elected officials join the chorus of negativity. Novato-based Supervisor Judy Arnold stepped over the line when she charged that she was almost defeated in the June primary because her opponents were, in effect, Tea Party members.
Those are fighting words in Democratic Marin.
While speaking at the Marin Women's Political Action Committee, Arnold remarked in a widely-circulated YouTube video, "My campaign really didn't have just one opponent. It was about the Tea Party and property rights activists."
"My opponent was a Democrat and ... her verbiage was vintage Tea Party. She used phrases like 'no top-down policies.' She started a local organization called Citizen Marin, which by its very name means that any refugee from Latin America probably isn't welcome with that organization."
Citizen Marin isn't any more exclusionary than the Marin Conservation League or Sustainable Fairfax. Arnold petulantly used the term "property rights activists" as a synonym for homeowners.
The supervisor's evident bitterness is understandable. The hard-working and dedicated Arnold was humbled when re-elected by a scant 215 votes. Her opponent was unknown and underfunded. It's hardly gratifying when 49 percent of your longtime constituents vote for someone else.
It's preposterous to believe Novato is a hotbed of Tea Party activity. It's an insult to North Marin voters who cast ballots for another candidate to imply they were Tea Party sympathizers.
It's troubling that Arnold didn't comprehend what the election was really about.
June's county contests were a referendum on the current Board of Supervisors' overall performance. In addition to housing, the supervisors' so-called slush fund, the unsustainability of county employee pensions, over-reliance on expensive consultants, SMART, Marin Clean Energy, the Lucasfilm/Grady Ranch fiasco and, as always, traffic were among voters' concerns.
It's the same reason that equally hardworking and dedicated Supervisor Susan Adams lost in a landslide to San Rafael Councilmman Damon Connolly. No one claims the liberal Connolly is a Tea Party surrogate. The only way for voters to communicate unhappiness with the county board's policy direction is by voting against an incumbent and for a more-representative replacement.
Instead of demonizing opponents and voters, Arnold should emulate Supervisor Steve Kinsey.
After June's election, Kinsey, understanding that voters were demanding changes, reached out to two leaders in the housing debate who disagreed with the supervisors' approach. He quietly met with author Bob Silvestri and Susan Kirsch, one of the actual founders of Citizen Marin. Kinsey sought points of common ground. What a refreshing idea.
The question tabled was whether it's possible to build truly affable and diverse housing without destroying Marin's much-envied small-town character. That's a goal all the participants embraced.
While it's too early to see if these preliminary contacts pay off, Kinsey's approach demonstrates to his colleagues an old-fashioned route toward effective problem-solving.
Columnist Dick Spotswood of Mill Valley shares his views on local politics on Wednesdays and Sundays.