How political extremism influences our public decision-making

Editor’s note: Steve Frisch put some thought into this issue, and addressed it here. The issue of debate was our community being a place where “extremist” mindsets exist — not that it was extremist. I suspect we are about a generation away from some significant change on this front — but now, we’re right in the thick of it.

To me this is the heart of it: “What is different about western Nevada County is that certain people have adopted a philosophy of ‘divide and conquer’ and have used divisiveness to hold and maintain political power.” BTW, many people who work in our region — in government, business and the like — make similar observations. Though land use has been the historical battleground, it has now moved to other areas, including fire prevention and our public schools. Here’s Steve’s citations:

Hmmm…this issue of ‘how extreme’ western Nevada County? is an interesting one.

I travel the Sierra Nevada and at times the intermountain west and work in many communities. I would characterize western Nevada County as a place with ‘extremist’ mindsets, but not really extremist. I mean really, in the end we are all Americans, and to us ‘extreme’ is unpleasantness; compared to most of the world where extreme means death.

I actually think this mindset is more a refection of Nevada County’s unique history.

From gold rush to beat rush to white flight Nevada County has attracted a certain type of person. From rugged individualists who committed genocide against native populations, to the post-beat generation tired of summers of love looking for a place to settle and live the life they profess, to refugees from urban environments who saw a changing America and choose not to deal with it on their Orange County or Simi Valley turf, we attracted those who leave other places for perceived greener pastures. And in doing so Nevada County became a microcosm of a changing America that many people are simply very uncomfortable with.

I am not alone in this analysis; one has only to look to the great book by Nevada County native Tim Duane, Shaping the Sierra, or the work of Patrick Hurley and Peter Walker, Whose Vision? Conspiracy Theory and Land Use Planning in Nevada County California, to see that sociologists and social geographers would tend to agree.

Click to access Hurley%20Walker%202004%20Whose%20vision.pdf

What is different about western Nevada County is that certain people have adopted a philosophy of ‘divide and conquer’ and have used divisiveness to hold and maintain political power.

This strategy gained traction during the General Plan debate of the early 1990s and has turned western Nevada County politics into a bruising, winner take all, ideological battle, that retards community development and discourages cooperation.

Consider this quote from Tim Duane’s book re the 1995 General Plan:
“The Cold War may be over between the United States and the now defunct Soviet Union, but the battle for freedom and democracy continues for Juvinall in the Sierra Nevada foothills. “The eco-socialists are part of a larger movement,” he says, “which includes the environmental movement, that has attempted to destroy the principle of individual rights. The policies enacted by these earth worshipers are enmeshed in every aspect of our lives. Over time it becomes easier to control citizens through higher taxes, fees, assessments and other exactions.” He then quotes from an article in Ecosocialist Review that calls for people to “identify themselves as planetary citizens,” adding that when you identify yourself as a planetary citizen, you must give up your national identity along with the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.” Juvinall then puts a conspiratorial spin on the relationship between local land use planning, the planetary “socialist agenda” and the complete loss of individual rights. “These attempts at planetizing us are being accomplished through the land use process. They know that local government is the easiest place to accomplish their agenda. Using ‘greedy developer’ large landowners, and the desire for open space and wildlife as their springboard they hope to convince us to become planetary citizens. Local general plans, bio-regional plans, regional governance (with attendant regional planning) become justified mechanisms to them because they are not concerned about individuals. ”

Later in Tim Duane’s book he describes a repartee between Peter Van Zant, Dale Creighton and Todd Juvinall during the debate over approval of the General Plan:

“This is not an ideological battleground,” said Peter Van Zant. “What I urge you to do is turn out a good plan.”

Dale Creighton disagreed, “I have to disagree with Mr. Van Zant that this is not an ideological battle,” said Creighton, “It has always been an ideological battleground.”

To which Mr. Juvinall replied, “This is an ideological battleground, it has been since the beginning.”

Now how could one argue with that? You are either a patriotic American or you are a socialist pariah.

I can personally attest to the fact that as far as politics is concerned Nevada County is really not any more extreme in the modern political sense than most of our region is. The same political threads exist in counties like Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Inyo, Plumas, Sierra, and other Sierran counties, where the same conspiracy theory canards come out in debates about social issues, the role of government, and public lands management.

I think the same ideas proliferate in rural America in general, and it represents a divide in our country being stoked for political gain. Like ‘the southern strategy’ was intentionally adopted by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon to maintain political advantage, there is a ‘rural strategy’ (coupled with an urban dis-enfranchisement strategy) being advanced to maintain power in the face of America’s changing demographic. How conscious is questionable, since there is no smoking gun to point to, like the interview regarding the ‘southern strategy’ that Nixon aide Kevin Phillips provided to the New York Times in 1970:

“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”

This is how fear is harnessed to hold political power. In the supermarket, on the ball field, in crises, we are all friends. The difference about western Nevada County is that on public policy issues it becomes an intensely personal battle to the death, the debate gets framed by some people as a battle for the very soul of America, and people get characterized as either “good’ or “evil”, then are made to pay a price for their beliefs. We perpetuate a politics of fear. And when we play into it by fearing or hating our ‘opponents’ we empower them to wield fear as a weapon.

Make no mistake about it, that attitude is a choice.

The politics of fear is a tricky thing. It works for a while but it is, as Dennis pointed out, a poison, and like poison it either kills you or you reject it. It seems to me that satisfaction comes from rejecting the poison and doing ones best to do good for the short time you are here. For the handlers of poison eventually it builds up in the system and clouds your vision of the world, blocking out all of the beauty we are blessed with.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

11 thoughts on “How political extremism influences our public decision-making”

  1. Now RL Crabb is once again dredging up the 2000 Seghezzi-Van Zant race as being “worst case scenario” of our politics. No way. A pest inspection report at the Alta Sierra Market is a factual document. Now we’ve moved on to lies, ridiculing people’s personal appearances, racially insensitive remarks, bullying and intimidation. Those were the “mild” days, complete with the cute cartoons. I wonder if folks really know anymore when they have crossed a line — or not. Anything goes.

    1. Oh come on Jeff, I remember it, that was a pretty nasty race. I was running Barbara Green’s campaign that year and we were astounded. (That was before I started at SBC for all the vampires out there 😉 )

  2. Yes, it was a nasty race but not the nastiest. We’ve crossed many “new” lines since then in our race to the bottom. Besides the Pruett-Diaz “nonpartisan” clerk-recorder race — truly astounding — there’s Sue Horne’s hiring of the out-of-town political consultant Chris Jones in her “nonpartisan” assessor’s race. His low-ball mailers have been notorious over the years.

  3. And this exchange on Todd’s blog sums up the self-reflection of the hard-right:
    Barry Pruett February 14, 2014 at 4:08 PM
    If extremism means asking government to balance a checkbook like every family in America, then I am an extremist.
    Todd Juvinall February 14, 2014 at 4:17 PM
    Yes, you radical! LOL!

  4. Steve Frisch is one of the most articulate and sensible spokespersons in the Sierra Foothills. I’m fairly new here, and am quickly learning the how and why Nevada County appears to be divided. What I keep coming back to, however, is that we are all Americans. We might disagree on social, economic, religious and local/regional political issues, but I believe we all want our country to succeed in this changing world. There’s the rub – the world is changing. It’s extremely difficult, although not impossible, to accept that the world-wide web has changed the social, political and economic landscape forever. We no longer live in an isolationist world, country, state, county or town. Communication is instant. We can access information we want to see and information we would rather not see. We have that choice, and too often ignore information we choose not to see (read/hear). The challenge, in my opinion, is to find common ground. Here are a couple of suggestions: advocate for clean air and water, promote exceptional public education, support the expansion of broadband computer infrastructure (or a more advanced version of connectivity), and provide for the expansion of local organic farming.

  5. Catching up to Rebane’s Rants from this afternoon. It’s the same small circle engaging in personal attacks but not addressing the issues. Hard to imagine that a PhD runs that blog. His students would run for the exits!

  6. Some commenters on the Crabb blog still can’t see the extremist behavior right in front of them. For them it gets watered down to “current office holders,” I guess as justification. Most long timers don’t see it; a lot of newcomers do. It’s all about perspective and experience.

  7. I love this comment on Mr. Juvinall’s site”

    “Now this Duane character came to town during the General Plan fiasco during the 90’s. He was invited by our local liberal politicians but Duane always denied that. ”

    Mr. Duane is a Nevada County native, was born and raised in Nevada County, grew up on Banner Mountain, attended school and little league here, and as he revealed in his book, once dated Mr. Juvinall’s sister.

    I think Todd’s statement is illustrative of how people paint critics as ‘outsiders’ in order to discount their conclusions. Mr. Juvinall has done the same with anyone who disagrees with him. He paints me as an outsider even though I have reside in Nevada County for more than 25 years. He paints Mr. Pelline as an outsider even though he lives in and is invested in our community.

    Even more illustrative is how some people equate time in place with knowledge about place or commitment to place. In a democratic society each of us enjoys the same rights and responsibilities, the newest person in our community is just as valuable as the oldest family. That’s what being a ‘real’ American means.

  8. Worse is how Todd’s circle of like-minded friends — who want to hang onto political “power” in our western county — have no qualms about how he runs off at the mouth, running photos without permission with captions such as “Who is this obese fellow?” on his website (along with Rebane), lying about a person’s achievements and so on, instead of just debating the issue. And Todd is not alone. This behavior is condoned by the hard-right politicos — no question about it. It is their MO — to “smear.” And has been for years. It is extremist, to say the least. And part of our toxic political culture. In fact, Steve and I are doing well in the county, with lots of friends and business contacts and successful ventures, so there must be some kind of “credibility gap.” I also find it ironic, because these folks purport to be “Jesus loving.” Twisted. And I absolutely believe it tarnishes our County’s image. Todd is a former county supervisor.

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