An ugly tone came into reports this week of Republican mass heckling at "town hall" meetings held by Democratic congressmen to pitch their healthcare-reform plans, a phenomenon described more objectively here. There was a note of conspiracy-theory in the charge that the hecklers did not act spontaneously, but were operating according to a Republican script of talking points. Beyond that, there was an unseemly air of outrage over the fact that anyone dared question the administration's proposals. Don't get me wrong; I'm for big-time reform and I disagree with GOP obstructionism. But when you watch MSNBC especially you get the impression that the hosts think that no one has a right to heckle or "shout down" Democrats. This is hypocrisy coming from people who mocked George W. Bush whenever he chickened out of addressing foreign legislatures where heckling was likely. It's hypocrisy from the left in general, the people who invented the tactic of shouting people down with heckling slogans.
But I sense more then hypocrisy at work here. I sense an angry liberal backlash building against conservative anger. I get a vibe from ostensibly liberal commentators and from people around me that their patience with conservatives is at or near an end. I don't want to overstate the implications of this feeling. Most liberals remain liberals at heart, but I wonder whether anger at conservatives, whether over the healthcare heckling or the admittedly despicable birther movement, might make some liberals less so when it comes to expressing their anger. There'd be nothing wrong with more heated rhetoric; I'd rather have more people say what they really mean, since that might have unexpectedly constructive results. But if it gets to a point where people start thinking that the opposition has no right to oppose, then we'll become no better than the countries we like to chide for how they treat dissenters. There can never be a government policy so perfect that no one could have reason to say it was wrong, in practice or on principle.
The responsibility of democracy is to make sure that a loud minority doesn't get mistaken for a majority opinion. The only way to prove that one side is the majority is through numbers. Are there Republicans heckling Democrats? Then lets see how many Democrats or others can heckle Republicans. How hard is it to find a GOP congressman and ask why he or she supports a system of privileged health care access, or why they believe the rich have more right to life than the rest of us? Instead of wishing that Republicans would shut up, their opponents should try to drown them out. The whining of some commentators betrays a fear that their side can't match the fervor of the opposition. Instead of questioning the legitimacy of dissenters, they should be stirring up an army of assenters. If they can't do that, then their side deserves to lose -- and if you don't like that, then your problem is with the American people as well as the Republican party.