Last fall, Hannah Dasgupta spent her days focusing on politics, channeling her fear and anger at President Donald J. Trump into activism. Concerned about the future of abortion rights, among other things, during the Trump administration, she joined a group of women in suburban Ohio who were working to elect Democrats.
A year later, 37-year-old Ms. Dasgupta is still as concerned about these issues. But she has no plans to attend a national women’s march for abortion rights on Saturday. In fact, she hadn’t even heard of it.
“I don’t watch the news every night anymore. I’m just not that worried, ”said Ms. Dasgupta, personal trainer and school aide, who devoted her attention to local issues like her school board. “When Biden finally took the oath, I thought, ‘I’m out for a little while. “”
Ms Dasgupta’s inattention highlights one of the biggest challenges facing the Democratic Party as the midterm elections approach. At a time when abortion rights face their biggest challenge in nearly half a century, part of the Democratic base wants to take, in Ms. Dasgupta’s words, “a long breath”.
Saturday’s march, sponsored by a coalition of nearly 200 civil rights, abortion rights, and liberal organizations, offers a first test of Democratic enthusiasm in the post-Trump era, in particular for the legions of newly politically engaged women who have helped the party take control. of Congress and the White House.
In 2017, the first Women’s March drew around four million protesters to the streets of the country to express their outrage at Mr. Trump’s inauguration. Many people cited the right to abortion as a motivating issue, according to participant surveys. Since then, the annual events have drawn smaller crowds and organizers have found themselves embroiled in controversy and internal strife.
Organizers of the abortion rights march on Saturday are trying to lower expectations, describing the event as the start of their efforts to fight restrictions and citing public health concerns as the reason for expected low turnout. They expect around 40,000 attendees at hundreds of events in cities across the country – a mere fraction of the millions who protested under the Trump administration.
Those who are not present say the reasons are varied: The coronavirus pandemic; a feeling of political fatigue after a conflicted election; other issues that seem more urgent than abortion, such as racial justice or transgender rights.
“There would have been a time when a march like this would have been a three-generation event,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advises the White House and the Democratic Party. “Now the 8-year-old is not vaccinated and you are afraid mom will get sick. People are just exhausted and they are deliberately checking.
Even though Democrats see the fight for abortion rights as a winning political fight, party strategists fear that a decline in enthusiasm could be another harbinger of what should be a mid-year election. – tough tenure next year for their party.
Already, Democrats are struggling to respond to a series of public health, economic and foreign policy crises. As party factions bicker and Mr. Biden’s approval ratings drop, his national platform remains mired in a legislative deadlock in Congress. Other issues that would motivate the Democratic base, including legislation that could enact abortion rights into federal law, face a difficult climb towards the pass given the party’s very slim congressional margins.
In interviews and polls, voters who think abortion should stay legal say they worry about the future of abortion rights and say restrictions, such as a new law in Texas banning abortions after about six weeks make them more likely to vote in midterm elections.
But they are also skeptical that the constitutional right to abortion will be completely overthrown and see the management of the pandemic as much more urgent. And some of those who have become activists under the Trump administration now prefer to focus on national and local politics, where they see more opportunities to enact change. Other solutions to protect abortion rights proposed by liberal groups – including the expansion of the Supreme Court – continue to divide independent voters.
Abortion rights advocates warn that now is not the time for complacency. The Supreme Court prepares to take up an abortion case – the first to be argued in court with the three Tories appointed by Mr. Trump – which has the potential to remove federal abortion protection altogether .
“We have almost 50 years of legal abortion,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates four clinics in Texas. “People don’t believe it could turn back the clock.”
Some advocates believe voters will become more engaged as bills similar to the Texas law are passed by other Republican-controlled state legislatures. Aimee Arrambide, executive director of Avow Texas, an abortion rights organization in Austin, struggled to gain attention when the Texas law was first introduced. Since the bill became law last month, his organization has raised $ 120,000 in donations, an amount that would normally take six months to collect.
“It’s a little frustrating because we’ve been sounding the alarm bells for years, and nobody was really paying attention,” she said. “People are realizing that the threat is real. “
For decades, abortion rights opponents have drawn large crowds to the National Mall in Washington for the March for Life, an event that often draws thousands of activists and features conservative politicians and religious leaders from across the country. foreground. On Monday, thousands of people gathered outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg to demand the passage of anti-abortion legislation.
The liberal movement that exploded into the streets in 2017 was led and fueled by women, many of whom were college educated and often middle-aged. They gathered for huge marches and almost weekly protests, gathered to discuss door-to-door strategies in exurban Paneras and founding new Democratic groups in tiny historically conservative towns. Many protesters have come to these events with their own set of pressing concerns, but surveys have shown that the problem the persistent protesters have most in common is the right to abortion, said Dana R. Fisher, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland which has conducted surveys among activist groups and during large marches.
These motivations have started to change over the past two years. As the Covid-19 threat kept many older activists at home, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in May 2020 sparked an even larger wave of nationwide protests, fueled by crowds younger motivated by a different set of issues.
In investigations carried out during the marches after Mr. Floyd’s murder, as well as among the organizers of last year’s Earth Day protest, the percentages of people citing the right to abortion as a motivator key to activism were much lower, Ms. Fisher said.
And while Mr. Trump may have been defeated, the problems his presidential tenure highlighted for many activists have not gone away.
“You get the feeling that people are desperate,” said Judy Hines, a retired gym teacher in a conservative rural county in western Pennsylvania and active in Democratic politics.
Ms Hines praised the surge of energy that followed the 2016 election: local meetings were packed, political recruits ran for office, and hundreds marched in the county seat. Later, as the energy began to slowly dissipate, the coronavirus turned it off “like a switch,” she said. Ms Hines has not been on a walk for over a year and a half, and because a family member has health issues, she also doesn’t plan to attend on Saturday.
“I hope the fight is still in the people, but it’s not,” she said. “We see our Supreme Court. We know how they are going to vote.
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin.