As the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, liberals are left wondering what more could have been done to protect it, with some questioning whether it’s easier to get Democrats to fight for a particular constitutional right or policy change than to defend one.
Activists are experienced at advocating for policies they believe are crucial to improving Americans’ quality of life, from universal health care to student loan relief and affordable housing. Many have pushed to advance those items with support from a vocal bloc of liberal lawmakers.
But when it comes to defending a woman’s right to choose — a court assurance that has been on the books since the early 1970s — the party has struggled to make traction before the draft majority decision leaked last month exposed a major threat.
“In general, progressives embrace aspirational policy because they come from communities with long-running inequities and disparities,” said one Democratic aide who advises left-wing members of Congress.
“As a politician, if you defend the status quo, when the people you represent feel left behind by status quo policy, then you’re likely going to be outflanked.”
A closely watched congressional primary runoff in Texas this week was a good case study. The last standing House Democrat opposed to abortion, Rep. Henry Cuellar, declared victory by fewer than 200 votes against progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros, who hasn’t yet conceded due to outstanding ballots.
Cuellar’s anti-abortion rights stance was not enough for Democratic voters to resoundingly reject him. Moreover, he has the full support of House leadership, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) making calls on his behalf.
In the end, the issue doesn’t appear to have been a massive factor in the race.
Some behavioral scholars, however, say that the fear of having something taken away can be a driving force in people’s decision making.
“In general, psychological research suggests that human beings are prone to ‘negativity bias’ — that is, we react more strongly to negative developments than to positive developments of the same intensity,” said Christopher Federico, a psychology and political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “Even when a negative event and positive event are of the same magnitude, the negative event will affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors more strongly than the positive event.”
Federico said that phenomenon is evident regarding abortion.
“The threat of disliked policy changes is more politically motivating than the prospective of liked policy changes,” he said. “This would lead us to predict that the looming threat to abortion rights will eventually motivate more political involvement than the other issues where the focus is on obtaining a policy gain over and above the status quo.”
A similar scenario played out just a few years back. When Republicans were working to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA), activists led the fight on keeping it intact, including activating a new base of supporters.
“Defending the ACA from being gutted was a big part of our early history as a movement,” said Emily Phelps, national press secretary at Indivisible, a grassroots organization that came of age during that time.
Some priorities, however, are easier to champion than others.
After back-to-back mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y. and Uvalde, Texas, advocates and Democrats on Capitol Hill again called for measures to restrict the harm caused by firearms. But it’s unclear if anything can pass the 50-50 Senate. A pair of moderate senators remain opposed to ending the filibuster, leaving some to feel already defeated.
In the Cuellar race, leadership supported the candidate with an “A” rating from the NRA, further muddying the issue.
“There is a chasm between what Democrats say they will fight for and what they’ll do,” said Angelo Greco, a progressive communications operative. “Gun reform, abortion, minimum wage.”
“On the one hand you have leadership saying we must do everything possible to protect a woman’s right to choose, yet they were doing robocalls for an anti-choice, pro-NRA Democrat in Texas.”
Republicans, on the flip side, have long used their base’s enthusiasm for gun rights to notch electoral gains.
There’s arguably no perfect parallel to an issue that inspires Democrats as strongly. They have, however, seen signs of traction on desired policy changes.
The push to partially cancel student loan debt has been a focus for many on the left who believe it can be achieved before November. They say that Biden has the authority to forgive at least some federal loans for borrowers by using his executive action authority, rather than relying on Congress.
As recently as this week, White House officials said they are looking carefully into what can be done from the Oval Office. If some cancellation happens, progressives are expected to take a victory lap.
And other wishful fights also inspire the party’s base.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) first rose to national prominence by campaigning on a progressive platform that included Medicare for All and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. While neither has materialized, they remain critical to the discussion about Democrats’ direction and ideology, and progressives see them as helping move the party left. While Biden never pushed for universal health care, he ran as the Democratic presidential nominee on a $15 minimum wage, a policy that some believe helped him edge out Trump.
Democrats have also seen success on unions. Biden pledged to be staunchly “pro-union” in office, and under his administration a variety of aligned organizations such as the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have unionized. Pelosi says she supports congressional staffers’ long-stated desire to form a union.
The fight to protect abortion has been much murkier.
“Voters are just waking up to the fact that the Republican campaign to end legal abortion was not just campaign rhetoric,” Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood who co-chairs the Democratic firm American Bridge, told The Hill.
“Voters have their own personal feelings about abortion and don’t believe it is right for government and politicians to intervene in personal decisions about pregnancy,” she said. “That is true across geography, party and background.”
Polling suggests the leak has not dramatically changed public opinion. A majority of Americans are in favor of Democrats’ attitudes over abortion, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week.
But when considering how likely the issue is to move voters, especially ahead of the midterms, some Democrats are more skeptical.
“Is it easy? In rhetoric, yes,” said Greco. “But who’s actually putting it all on the line for the policy fights?”