09/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Manatees and the Sharks

As I listened to Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett speak at the Kerr Community Center in the rural town of Bastrop, Texas last Saturday, I studied the aged, concerned faces of the congregation. They were old Democrats -- they cross their legs, and put an arm around their wives and dab at sweat from their foreheads. They wear hopeful t-shirts ("Together We Can," the battlecry of the Bastrop County Democratic Party) and drink iced tea. A woman pushed pens with fake flowers glued to the top, collecting names for her sign-in sheet. We are, I thought, like manatees.

Pushing at the front door were the sharks. Angry, vociferous and often literally snarling, they brought signs which the police quickly told them they couldn't bring in -- it was a private building and the owner's rules. Posterboard screaming "OBAMACARE: EUTHANIZE OLD PEOPLE" was shoved through the doorway before the cop quickly threw it out. If it was a message for our president or a judgment on his policy, I couldn't quite tell. The sharks were allowed in, as long as they didn't bring signs. The door slammed shut.

Doggett had already endured being run off from a South Austin community meeting earlier that day. He looked relieved that the crowd was now under control, with his fingers interlaced and hands crossed over the microphone at times, as if he was saying a prayer that the teabaggers would stay quiet.

None of them did. One laughed -- violently -- whenever Doggett attempted a joke. It was one that bordered on disturbed, forced to the point of painful, and meant only to disrupt. That same man interrupted Doggett so many times that the Congressman addressed him tersely: "If you want to be treated respectably, act respectably, sir!"

Another woman who had brought her family of four stood in front of me wearing a t-shirt that read this on the back:

"Gun Control: The theory that a woman found dead in an alley, raped and strangled with her own pantyhose, is somehow morally superior to a woman explaining to police how her attacker got that fatal bullet wound."

Doggett answered questions from the audience on a variety of topics, but most of the conversation was dominated by the health care debate. His talking points typically ended in a downturn, with Doggett conceding that the reform measures could have been better. Doggett seems to want to fight for progressive ideals but he appears too quick to compromise for the sake of bipartisanship. The Texas Congressman appeared much of the time as a caricature of his own sound byte --"progressives demand a third of a loaf and end up with a heel." He even distributed a photocopy of his recent commentary in the Austin American Statesman entitled "How an imperfect bill helps you," a bulleted attempt to rationalize for the bill being "no panacea."

Doggett ended his forum with a reminder of a local Bastrop man who, after Doggett last spoke in Bastrop, passed out fliers about "The Austin Strangler." He told the audience that despite the man's anger, "he's a hard worker," and that progressives should start mobilizing for their cause as well. When a Democrat shouted, "We're angry, too," everyone laughed.

Are we angry? We seem all too happy to gnaw on the heel of our bread and read fluffy editorials on how an "imperfect bill" is reform. We trade talk radio for Obama rhetoric, and forgive our anointed politicians for bending to industry giants. We gape at the opposition party's demands, rather than forming our own. We are often like manatees, unwilling or unable to defend ourselves. We stare at the sharks and think "That will never work," and only later wonder why we were wrong. Maybe progressives are in fact angry. What's unclear is when we'll start doing something about it.