One of the fascinating aspects of a political culture in which governmental control has flipped in a relatively short time, from right to left, is that each side now finds itself making arguments the other side was making. The left (correctly) accused Bush of using fear-mongering to push the nation into pre-emptive war. During the stimulus debate, the right used the same talking points, accusing Obama of using fear-mongering to push through $770 billion in public spending. There’s been some interesting back and forth about the right-wing disruptions of health care town halls in the media, in conversations, the Twitterverse and the Blogosphere.

I don’t want to create a false equivalence here. There are very real differences in approach, but it’s certainly the case that we often use formal arguments (so and so is fear-mongering) as a way to widen the appeal for our ideological pre-commitments. In the case of the Iraq war, it was a terrible idea no matter how it was sold.

I admit I am on a team in American politics: I’m proudly, vigorously on the left. That said, I’ve been given pause by the remarks of some right-wing activists like Jon Henke. He and others have been saying: Wait a second, when the left shows up and makes noise somewhere it is called “activism,” but when the right does it, it’s “thuggery” and “mob rule”?


So after discussing the issue on Rachel Maddow’s show, I’ve asked myself: Aside from the deep substantive opposition I have to the tea-baggers’ ideological agenda (and the insane hypocrisy of people on Medicare screaming about the dangers of government-run health care), what, exactly, is my beef with their activism?

I don’t think there is anything “wrong” with the tactics of people who, even with the facilitation of large monied interests, are organizing and shouting down their opponents at town hall meetings. But one thing should be clear: These are the tactics of a small, motivated, enraged and engaged minority.

The footage of recent town hall scrums remind me, actually, of ACT-UP actions back in NYC when I was growing up. ACT-UP – the AIDS and gay rights group that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s – was impassioned, angry and used dramatic confrontational action to great public effect. They were a vanguard, a small, tightly coordinated impassioned minority fundamentally on the right side of history.

But no one in the press confused ACT-UP with broader public opinion. No pundits said “the public is clearly feeling rising unease about government inaction on AIDS, as evidenced by the latest ACT-UP protest.” Why? Because they were gay, and they had AIDS and they didn’t look like “average citizens” or “heartland” voters.

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At their root, the town hall protests are a very similar phenomenon. I think the Tea-Baggers, unlike ACT-UP, are deeply wrong. (They are also – unlike ACT-UP members – not literally fighting for their lives because of a homophobic and indifferent government.) The Tea-Baggers, like the ACT-UP activists, are a small, tightly coordinated, enraged minority. They want to scream and fuss – and, hey, it’s a free country.

The problem is with the perspectives and images portrayed by the media pundits and reporters – the way television, newspapers, radio, etc., comment and report on these small groups of old white men in overalls and Legionnaire hats.

They announce and opine that what they are observing are average American citizens giving voice to the sentiments of broad swaths of society and the electorate.

That’s just not true. What they’re seeing at these events are radicals, extremists and zealots.

CHRISTOPHER HAYES is Washington editor for The Nation.

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