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The Left Turns Against Itself

Disputes between centrists and the left are frequently used to describe the Democratic Party’s internal conflicts. A developing and potentially more important disagreement within the progressive ranks, however, is sometimes obscured by the heavy focus on this dynamic.

The conflict is intensifying. People who adhere to a unified field theory of political and social development are on one side of the debate. There is a perception that several concerns, such as racial fairness, abortion rights, and climate change are inextricably intertwined, and that advancement on one front can only be made in tandem with advancement on other fronts.

On the other side are those who are sceptical of this theory and who impatiently roll their eyes at theoretical arguments of any kind if they get in the way of actual solutions to the particular problems they are most concerned with right now.

Between “lumpers” and “splitters” is one way to conceptualise the conflict shaking the progressive movement. The lumpers consider American society as needing an extensive and ongoing reform and are cautious of anyone who doesn’t share their vision, including prospective allies.

A fundamental tenet is a belief in “intersectionality,” which is the idea that modern power structures reflect overlapping historical patterns of discrimination based on factors such as race, class, and gender and that changing the underlying power structure is necessary for progress on particular issues.

The splitters prefer to focus on a single issue at a time and are willing to accept an ally on, for example, climate change or gun control, even if that person does not share their opinions on abortion rights or how to address systemic police violence against Black people.

Their choice isn’t between major advancements and small gains. A small amount of progress is preferable to none at all.

Does this all seem a little too academic and abstract? Two significant events in recent days highlight how immediate and real the argument is, as well as how visceral the emotions that underlie it.

A detailed analysis of how many prominent progressive advocacy groups are experiencing “meltdowns” due to internal disagreements was published by Ryan Grim in The Intercept. These include “knock-down, drag-out battles between rival organisational factions, most frequently devolving along staff-versus-management lines.”

These conflicts frequently centre on issues of racial or gender equity within their own organisations or whether they should form alliances with other groups whose agendas they do not fully support.


Grim doesn’t hide his own viewpoint: These organisations are becoming dangerously preoccupied with internal dramas at precisely the same time that their agenda is in danger from outside events, such as the potential for conservative Republicans to retake Congress later this year or for Donald Trump to win the presidency again in 2024.

He claims (a little overly, in my opinion) that “the progressive advocacy space across the board” has “effectively ceased to function” because management and staff have been “spending their time locked in virtual retreats, Slack wars, and healing sessions, grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender, and power.”

Zack Colman, a colleague of mine at POLITICO, wrote extensively about the Sierra Club, which has recently dramatically broadened its traditional emphasis on conservation, and covered some of the same ground.

Its definition of environmentalism has been updated into a lumpers manifesto, which promotes “the environmental health of all communities, especially those communities that continue to endure deep trauma resulting from a legacy of colonialism, genocide, land theft, enslavement, racial terror, racial capitalism, structural discrimination, and exclusion.”

Colman does not dispute this, in contrast to Grim. According to some activists quoted by the author, the emphasis on a racial equity agenda reflects both successful coalition building and a more sophisticated understanding of how the destruction of natural resources has often occurred in close coordination with prejudice against historically marginalised groups.

He also cites some who express concern that “overreaching” on too many fronts runs the risk of undermining the primary goal.

The Sunrise Project’s Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy, told Colman that “if you’re optimistic, it’s creative destruction.” It will simply be disorganised for some time. The challenge we face from a climate perspective, he continued, is that we are running out of time.

Notably, neither of the two tales fundamentally portrays a struggle between moderates and those on the left. Most activists on both sides, including the lumpers who support an intersectional strategy and the splitters who worry about distraction and dilution, are unabashedly progressives and are upset with Joe Manchin for impeding President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

John Lewis Gaddis, a historian, who first used the term in a different context, is where I got the idea for lumpers and splitters (to describe historians who liked to write sweeping expositions, trying to explain broad trends across generations, versus those who think history is better understood by illuminating specific episodes in granular detail.)

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However, there are numerous contexts in which the construct is effective. Biden is a clear splitter by nature. He made waves during the 2020 primary campaign when he boasted about how, in the 1970s, segregationists he despised could be constructive allies if they agreed on other issues.

He only tried to be a lumper while in office, but to no avail. His Build Back Better legislation, which incorporated a long list of social and environmental objectives, was defeated by all Republicans and a few moderate Democrats, leading some to speculate that it might have been more effective to divide the legislation’s varied objectives into separate components.

More recently, the passage of a gun control agreement that appears to be imminent looks like a victory for the splitter mentality. It falls far short of what the majority of Democrats wanted and concentrated on a few key points to win over some Republicans, like tougher background checks for people looking to buy guns under the age of 21.

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