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'Tea party' vs. opponents: 'Low-grade civil war' on tax day?

Tensions are rising between tea party supporters and liberal activists as tax-day protests get under way. More likely than violence, though, is debate about what the phrase ‘real American’ means.

An Obama supporter at the edge of the crowd gets into an argument with 'tea party' supporters at a rally in Boston Wednesday. The Tea Party Express ended its cross-country tour in Boston, where Sarah Palin was a guest speaker.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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The only real incident of note at last year's 'tea party' rallies on tax day, April 15, came when a passionate protester tossed a box of tea bags over the White House fence.

This year, things are looking a little dicier.

In towns large and small on Thursday, which is tax day, tea partyers are planning to march against big government – and the rhetoric is getting heated as counterdemonstrators mobilize. Some agents provocateurs say they’ll crash the tea parties, and the threat of fisticuffs and worse is hanging in the air.

IN PICTURES: Tea Parties

Both sides have been fueled by the Internet's churning of partisan, even extreme, politics. One commenter, a tea-party supporter, recently warned of a looming "low-grade civil war.”

But evidence, political scientists say, shows that political conflict rarely erupts in the United States once protesters and counterprotesters are actually toe-to-toe. In fact, partisans meeting on the street – away from their keyboards, TVs, and radios – may have a moderating effect.

"Mainstream politics is sort of like listening to two lawyers arguing, while [political outsiders] sound more like two guys getting ready for a bar fight," says political scientist Charles Franklin at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "If opposition rallies start showing up or infiltrating the tea party, you do run the risk of fisticuffs. But you might have the opposite effect: If we're face to face, I might not actually punch you in the nose."

Yet the tension is palpable.

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