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The summer of our political discontent?

From NBC's Mark Murray
American democracy? Or angry -- and orchestrated -- mobs?

That has become the political question as members of Congress have returned to their districts and states this August recess to discuss contentious issues like President Obama's plans for health care.

For liberals and Democrats, these are protests at town hall meetings coordinated by conservative groups -- the same people who organized those earlier Tea Party events.

Video: Rep. Brian Baird, D-Washington won't hold any health care town hall meetings this month because he says the crowds being dispatched to shut down these meetings have a "lynch mob mentality." Rachel Maddow is joined by Rep. Brian Baird.

For conservatives and Republicans, these are citizens expressing their 1st Amendment rights to criticize Obama's plans.

But some of these protests have now taken a troubling turn:
-- six people, including a St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter, were arrested at a town hall sponsored yesterday by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO)
-- at event yesterday sponsored by SEIU and a state senator, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) tried to speak for nearly 15 minutes but the crowd drowned her out, chanting, "You work for us,'' Also: "Tyranny, tyranny,'' and "Tell the truth! Tell the truth!" "Read the bill!" "Forty-million illegals! Forty million illegals!"
-- also, an effigy of a freshman Democratic congressman (Frank Kratovil, D-MD) was hung
-- and even one Democratic congressman (Brad Miller, D-NC) said he received a death threat

Video: Newsweek's Jonathan Alter joins Countdown's Keith Olbermann to discuss why the right-wing's health care reform sabotage campaign may not have anything to do with health care reform.

Democrats and liberals have now begun to mobilize in response to these protests. Here's an email Obama's Organizing for America released yesterday: "It's up to us to show Congress that those loudly opposing reform are a tiny minority being stirred up by special interests, and that a huge majority strongly supports enacting real health insurance reform in 2009. Your representative ... has been working to move us towards reform. Can you call the local office...? Let the person who answers know that you're a constituent. Then tell them: "Thank you for your work so far. I'm counting on you to keep working for real health insurance reform until it's passed in 2009. If you stand up for health insurance reform, voters like me will stand up for you."

One thing is clear: These meetings this August could play an important role influencing members of Congress on the direction of the health-care debate.