Two-hundred and eleven years ago, the party in the White House grew frustrated with public opposition to its policies and passed a law designed to stifle dissent.
The Alien and Sedition Acts made it a crime to "print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the federal government, including the President.
The law was the reigning Federalist Party's attempt to beat back an ascendant Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson in 1798. It backfired. An outraged American public elected Jefferson president in 1800.
No record survives as to whether the Jeffersonian protestors were well-dressed or not, but something frighteningly similar is happening today.
For the first time in a long time, the President of the United States is actively trying to suppress public involvement in civic life.
Americans have an absolute right to petition our government and express dissent. It's right there in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
President Obama knows this. After all, his background is in "community organizing," which at least sounds like it is about encouraging people to become more involved in self-government. In the campaign, candidate Obama promised the most open and transparent government in history.
The problem is that President Obama now has a product--so-called health care reform--that is so unpopular he and his allies are being forced to quash dissent, demonize political opponents and even compile "enemies lists" just to get it passed.
White House and Democratic Party functionaries have called the concerned citizens turning up at town hall meetings to question the wisdom of President Obama's health care plans "the mob," "extremists" and the hapless pawns of insurance companies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) accused dissenters of coming to town halls "carrying swastikas."
And in a move clearly aimed to stifle the dissent of opponents of its health care plan, the White House issued a call this week for Americans to turn-in critics of the plan. Any "disinformation" being spread around on the internet "that seems fishy", the White House advised, should be sent immediately to a special White House email account.
The Examiner's Byron York reported that the end result of this call for Americans to inform on their fellow citizens could be "a White House database of political opponents that will be both secret and permanent."
The politics of hope and change have been replaced by the politics of fear and intimidation.
The problem for the White House is, it won't work.
No amount of partisan name-calling is going to make the President's health care plan any more popular. And no matter how many times the White House calls it "astro-turfing," the contentious town halls members of Congress are having back in their districts are authentic expressions of grassroots frustration and concern.
So if your member of Congress is conscientious enough--or brave enough--to schedule a town hall meeting this August break, make sure you attend it.
Be pleasant. Be positive. Stick to the facts. But be firm and un-intimidated.
And if your member of Congress is too frightened to face the public back home, make sure you call and let him or her know you expect more.
Remember: Stifling dissent and likening those who disagree with you to Nazis are not the hallmarks of a confident agenda for change; they are the tactics of desperate and losing campaign. Just ask the Federalists.
And remember this as well:
You have an absolute right to petition your government. Exercise it.
Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI.