Overview:

Voting on the basis of which party sucks less is not inspiring. But often that’s what it comes down to in a political system driven by negative polarization and the extreme threat posed by one of the two major parties.

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The party leaders are ancient. They’ve been in charge of the White House and Congress for almost two years but haven’t delivered. They bring butter knives to political fights with a rival party that wields AR-15s.

So it seems from the vantage point of many young progressive citizens, and it’s more than understandable that they’re disillusioned with the Democratic party and finding it hard to imagine voting for them in November.

They should do it anyway.

I sympathize with Alexandra Chadwick, the lead figure in a recent New York Times article about young voters who are fed up with “their (much) older leaders,” as the Times headline put it. A 22-year-old first-time voter, Chadwick braved the polls in 2020 to oust Trump. Joe Biden, she thought, was an uninspiring but acceptable figure who could hold the line against assaults on abortion, climate, and other progressive priorities.

Now? The line has not been held. And Chadwick sees a gaping generation gap.

“How are you going to accurately lead your country if your mind is still stuck 50, 60, or 70 years ago?” she asks, referring not only to the 79-year-old president but also to octogenarian House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other aged Democrat leaders. “(Their) old ideas aren’t going to work as well anymore.”

They’ve been dealt a grossly unfair hand: crushing student debt, gargantuan housing costs, democracy in tatters, a climate crisis that the country’s older “leaders” are confronting with none of the required urgency.

I am not in Chadwick’s demographic group. But I would feel angry and aggrieved if I were a millennial or denizen of Generation Z. Hell, I’m angry and aggrieved even though I’m not in their demographic. They’ve been dealt a grossly unfair hand: crushing student debt, gargantuan housing costs, democracy in tatters, a climate crisis that the country’s older “leaders” are confronting with none of the required urgency.

Which is why it seems entirely logical at first glance for young activists to threaten to sit out the midterms, or maybe even permanently write off the Democrats if not electoral politics altogether.

“Young people handed Democrats everything they needed in 2020: a governing majority and a popular mandate. If they fail to deliver their agenda, then they will be the reason young people disengage from politics forever,” says Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement.

Adds Ellen Sciales, a Sunrise spokesperson: “Democrats should fear that young people won’t come out to vote in 2022 and Democrats will lose. “

Mere rhetoric aimed at lighting a fire under Dem leaders? I hope so. For young progressives to spite the Dem party by withholding their vote is to spite themselves. Democratic leadership might be old and lame, but the Republicans are equally old and actually dangerous.

Couldn’t the Dems be doing more with their Congressional majority, razor-thin though it is? I reject the premise of the (rhetorical) question. They don’t have a majority, not when you factor in the right-leaning Sen. Joe Manchin and his ability to thwart progressive legislation, which he has done time again. Not when you factor in Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who does much the same. (I suppose Manchin’s sudden turn on the energy/health care/tax increase bill counts for something, but it’s a ghostly pale version of the ambitious “Build Back Better” legislation that he doomed earlier this year.)

The solution to these problems is simple to say but labor-intensive to do. If progressives want better stuff out of Washington, they must put a few more Democrats in the Senate to widen the margin, weakening Machin’s (and Sinema’s) obstructionist capabilities.

That means setting aside qualms and frustrations and feelings of disaffection and getting out to vote—and dragging others along with us if dragging is required.

Progressive anger and frustration are most productively directed at the Republicans—the party whose only “strategy,” it seems, is to promote contempt for liberal people and ideas and re-install a 1950s version of America.

Which is worse? A Democratic party that has more or less the right ideas but doesn’t pursue them hard enough and smart enough? Or a Republican party that endangers women’s health, privileges right-wing religion, vies to arm everyone to the teeth, and refuses to accept the reality of climate change, much less do anything about it?

Voting on the basis of which party sucks less—not inspiring. But often that’s what it comes down to in the political system we have today, one that’s driven by negative polarization and the extreme threat posed by one of the two major parties. Even in more “normal” times, voting is as much about defense—stopping the opponent—as it is about offense.

Americans of all age categories have to be realistic about electoral, i.e., surface, politics. They’re not pretty. They bring out terrible behavior. They rarely if ever fulfill our dreams. Partial victories are usually the only victories, and even those can seem few and far between. But progressives can’t afford to disengage.

My suggestion for young, secular, progressive voters who are drifting toward becoming non-voters: Stay in the game. Until progressives have a viable third party, ranked voting, and other democratic reforms, get active in Democratic party politics. Help make the party younger and more reflective of your views and values. Back strong progressives in primaries.

Then, when it’s down to general elections, even if you’re uninspired by the nominee, even if you have to hold your nose and go for the “lesser of two evils,” even if it’s a pain in the ass to get to your polling place or send in your ballot, do what we do in a democratic society.

Vote.

And keeping fighting for better options next time around.

Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...