There’s been some very interesting back and forth about the right-wing disruptions of health care town halls in the Twitterverse and Blogosphere (oh God, did I just type those two words back-to-back?). One of the fascinating aspects of a political culture in which governmental control has flipped, in a relatively short period of time, from the right to the left, is that each side now finds itself making arguments the other side was making only a little while earlier. The Left accused (rightly!) Bush of using fear-mongering to push the nation into pre-emptive war. During the stimulus debate, the Right turned around and used the same talking points, accusing Obama of using fear-mongering to push through $770 bn in public spending.

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

I’m on a team in American politics: I’m proudly, vigorously on the left. So there’s no need to bend over backwards to be formally consistent. That said, intellectual honesty requires one to separate out one’s formal objections from substantive ones and I’ve been given pause by the remarks of some right-wing activists like Jon Henke. He and others have been saying: wait a sec, when the left shows up and makes noise somewhere it’s activism, but when the right does it it’s thuggery and mob rule?

So after discussing the issue on Maddow last night, I’ve been asking 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, my beef is?

I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with the tactics of those people who, 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 and angry and used dramatic confrontational action to great public effect. They were a vanguard. They were a small, tightly coordinated impassioned minority. And they were fundamentally on the right side of history.

What frustrates me, however, is that 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.

At their root, the town hall protests are a very similar phenomenon. I think these people, unlike ACT-UP, are wrong. Deeply wrong. (They’re also not literally fighting for their lives because of a homophobic and indifferent government, but that’s neither here nor there). But they’re a small, tightly coordinated, enraged minority. They want to scream and fuss, it’s a free country, as they say.

The problem is the overwhelming instinct on the part of pundits and the MSM to look, and see old white men in overalls and Legionnaire hats and think they are watching someone give voice to the sentiments of broad swaths of the electorate. And it’s just not true. What we’re seeing at these events are the voices of radicals, extremists and zealots.