Last fall, Hannah Dasgupta spent her days in politics, channeling her fear and anger at President Donald J. Trump into activism. Concerned about the future of abortion rights, including during the Trump administration, she joined a group of women in suburban Ohio who worked to elect Democrats.
A year later, Ms. Dasgupta, 37, still cares about these issues just as much. But she doesn’t plan to attend a nationwide 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 nearly as concerned,” said Ms. Dasgupta, a personal trainer and school assistant, who devoted her attention to local issues such as her school board. “When Biden was finally sworn in, I thought, ‘I’ll be gone for a while.'”
Ms Dasgupta’s oversight underlines one of the biggest challenges facing the Democratic Party ahead of the midterm elections. At a time when abortion rights face their greatest challenge in nearly half a century, part of the democratic base, in Ms Dasgupta’s words, wants to “take a long breather”.
Saturday’s march, sponsored by a coalition of nearly 200 civil rights, abortion rights and liberal organizations, provides an early test of democratic enthusiasm in the post-Trump era, particularly for the legions of newly politically engaged women who helped the party prosper. gain control of Congress and the White House.
In 2017, the first Women’s March drew an estimated four million protesters across the country to express outrage at Mr Trump’s inauguration. Many cited abortion rights as a motivational issue, according to surveys of participants. Since then, the annual events have drawn smaller crowds and organizers have been dogged by controversy and internal strife.
The organizers of Saturday’s abortion rights march are trying to lower expectations. They describe the event as the start of their efforts to fight restrictions and cite public health concerns as the reason for an expected low turnout. They expect about 40,000 in attendance at hundreds of events in cities across the country — just a fraction of the millions who protested during the Trump administration.
Those not attending say the reasons are diverse: the coronavirus pandemic; a sense of political fatigue after a divisive election; other issues that seem more pressing 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 girl has not been vaccinated and you are afraid that mom can get sick. People are just exhausted and consciously checking out.”
While Democrats see the fight over abortion rights as a winning political battle, party strategists worry that waning enthusiasm could be another harbinger of what is expected to be a tough midterm election for their party next year.
Democrats are already struggling to respond to a series of public health, economic and foreign policy crises. As party factions bicker and Mr Biden’s ratings plummet, his domestic agenda remains mired in a legislative deadlock in Congress. Other issues that would motivate the Democratic base, including legislation that could convert abortion rights into federal law, face an uphill climb to passage given the party’s paper-thin congressional margins.
In interviews and polls, voters who believe abortion should remain legal, they are concerned about the future of abortion rights, and that restrictions, such as a new Texas law that bans abortions after about six weeks, make them more likely to to vote in the midterm elections.
But they are also skeptical that the constitutional right to abortion will be completely destroyed and see containing the pandemic as much more urgent. And some of those who became activists during the Trump administration now prefer to focus on state and local politics, where they see more opportunities for 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 this is no time for complacency. The Supreme Court is gearing up for an abortion case — the first to be argued in court with all three of Mr. Trump’s conservative appointees — that has the potential to remove federal protections for abortion altogether.
“We’ve had legal abortion for nearly 50 years,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the director of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates four clinics in Texas. “People don’t believe it can be reversed.”
Some proponents believe voters will become more involved if similar bills to Texas law pass other Republican-controlled state legislators. Aimee Arrambide, the executive director of Avow Texas, an Austin abortion rights organization, struggled to attract attention when the law was first enacted in Texas. Since the law went into effect last month, her organization has raised $120,000 in donations, an amount that would normally take six months.
“It’s a little frustrating because we’ve been sounding the alarm for years, and nobody really paid attention,” she said. “People are realizing that the threat is real.”
For decades, opponents of abortion rights have drawn large crowds to Washington’s National Mall for the March for Life, an event that often draws thousands of activists and features prominent conservative politicians and religious leaders. On Monday, thousands gathered outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg to push for the passage of anti-abortion laws.
The liberal movement that exploded onto the streets in 2017 was led and nurtured by women, many of them highly educated and often middle-aged. They gathered for huge marches and almost weekly protests, huddled together to discuss door-knocking strategies in the suburbs of Paneras, and founded new democratic groups in small, historically conservative towns. Many of the protesters came to these events with their own package of pressing issues, but surveys showed that the issue the persistent protesters had most in common was abortion rights, said Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. , which has led to surveys of activist groups and large marches.
Those motivations began to change over the past two years. As the threat of Covid-19 kept many of the older activists at home, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in May 2020 sparked an even bigger wave of demonstrations across the country, sparked by younger crowds motivated by another set of problems.
In surveys conducted at marches after Mr. Floyd’s murder, as well as among organizers of last year’s Earth Day demonstration, the percentages of people citing abortion rights as a major motivator for activism were much lower, Ms. Fisher said.
And while Mr. Trump may have been defeated, the problems his presidential tenure exposed for many activists have not gone away.
“There’s a sense that people are just hopeless,” said Judy Hines, a retired PE teacher in a conservative rural county in western Pennsylvania and active in Democratic politics.
Ms. Hines welcomed the shock of new energy that followed the 2016 election: local rallies were packed, political rookies ran for office, and hundreds attended marches in the provincial capital. Later, as the energy slowly began to dwindle, the coronavirus turned it off “like a switch,” she said. Ms. Hines hasn’t been to a march in over a year and a half, and since she has a relative with health problems, she doesn’t plan to be there on Saturday either.
“I hope the struggle is still in the people, but it isn’t,” she said. “We see our Supreme Court. We know how they are going to vote.”
David Montgomery contributed to reporting from Austin.