The Democratic Party’s internal divisions usually are cast as disputes between centrists and the left. The intense focus on this dynamic, however, tends to obscure a growing and possibly more consequential argument within progressive ranks.
The fight is becoming bitter. On one side are people who believe in what can be thought of as a unified field theory of political and social change. Diverse issues, from climate change to abortion rights to racial equity, are seen as intimately interwoven, and progress on one priority will only be achieved with simultaneous progress on other fronts. On the other side are people who don’t much buy this theory — and roll their eyes impatiently at theoretical arguments of any sort if they stand in the way of practical results on the specific issues they care most urgently about.
One way to think of the contest roiling the progressive movement is between “lumpers” and “splitters.” The lumpers see American society in need of a sustained and comprehensive overhaul, and are wary of people, even potential allies, who don’t share this synoptic worldview. A core assumption is a commitment to “intersectionality” — the concept that contemporary power arrangements reflect historic and overlapping patterns of discrimination on grounds of race, class and gender and that progress on specific issues must include challenging the underlying power structure.
The splitters prefer to take one issue at a time, and are happy to accept an ally on, say, climate change or gun control, even if that person doesn’t share their views on abortion rights or how to remedy systemic police violence against Black people. In their view the choice isn’t sweeping progress versus incremental gains. It is incremental gains versus no progress at all.
Does this sound all a bit academic and abstract? Two important stories in recent days illuminate how immediate and tangible the debate is — and how visceral the feelings are that fuel these arguments.
Ryan Grim, writing in The Intercept, published a long examination of how many prominent progressive advocacy groups are suffering “meltdowns” over internal debates. These include “knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines.” Often these conflicts revolve around how racial or gender equity is practiced at their own organizations, or whether they should be working in coalition with other groups whose agendas they do not support in full.
Grim doesn’t muffle his own perspective: These organizations are becoming dangerously distracted by internal dramas at precisely the moment their agenda is imperiled by external events, including the possibility that conservative Republicans re-take Congress later this year or that Donald Trump is returned to the presidency in 2024. “The progressive advocacy space across the board,” he argues (a bit hyperbolically, by my lights), has “effectively ceased to function,” while management and staff were “spending their time locked in virtual retreats, Slack wars, and healing sessions, grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender, and power.”
My POLITICO colleague Zack Colman covered some of the same terrain in an in-depth look inside the Sierra Club, which in recent years has broadened dramatically its traditional emphasis on conservation. It has updated its definition of environmentalism into a lumpers manifesto, advocating for 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.”
Unlike Grim, Colman doesn’t make an argument about this. He quotes some activists saying the emphasis on a racial equity agenda reflects both effective coalition-building and a more sophisticated understanding of the way despoiling natural resources has occurred in close concert with prejudice against historically marginalized groups. He also quotes some who worry that “overreach” on too many issues risks diluting the core mission.
“If you’re optimistic, it’s creative destruction,” Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy with environmental group the Sunrise Project, told Colman. “It’s just going to be messy for a while.” He added a warning: “I think the challenge we face from a climate perspective is we’re running out of time.”
What’s notable about both stories is that neither fundamentally depicts a contest between moderates and people further to the left. For the most part, one feels sure, the activists on both sides — the lumpers who advocate an intersectional strategy, and the splitters who fear distraction and dilution — are all emphatic progressives, all angry at Joe Manchin for frustrating President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
My notion of lumpers and splitters is borrowed from historian John Lewis Gaddis, who coined it in a different context (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.)
But the construct works in many contexts. Biden by temperament is plainly a splitter. During the 2020 primary campaign, he caused an uproar when he boasted about how in the 1970s, he would work constructively with segregationists he deplored when he found other issues that he agreed with them on. Only in office did he try, unsuccessfully to be a lumper. His Build Back Better legislation, which wove together a years-long roster of social and environmental goals, stalled after all Republicans and a couple moderate Democrats stood against it, prompting some to wonder whether splitting its diverse goals into discrete elements might have worked better. More recently, the seemingly imminent passage of a gun-control deal looks like a triumph of the splitter mindset. It stops far short of what most Democrats wanted and focused on a few specific pieces — such as strengthened background checks for prospective gun purchasers under age 21 — to get some Republicans to go along.
The argument over which approach is more likely to produce meaningful social change, however, is nowhere near settled. In the likely event that Roe v. Wade is repealed later this month, some abortion-rights advocates will welcome support from any quarter they can get it — including people who regard themselves as conservative on most issues but don’t think government should be involved in this sphere of private life. But others are committed to harnessing the abortion-rights issue to a more encompassing agenda of social change. NARAL, a leading abortion-rights group, tweeted from its official account Tuesday: “If your feminism doesn’t include trans women and girls, it’s not feminism. If your feminism doesn’t understand how anti-trans policies disproportionately impact BIPOC folks, particularly Black trans women and girls, it’s not feminism.”
Intellectually, I’m sympathetic to lumpers. Most big problems in society are indeed interwoven in complex ways. In practical terms, it is hard to think of many problems getting solved except through persistent, piecemeal efforts — the work of splitters — that make a difference over time.
But no one should be surprised to see the current tensions in the progressive movement. Stimulated by generational change and backlash to Trump, there is more energy on the left than there has been in decades, which means there is more fractiousness, too. The left of the 1930s argued over views toward the Soviet Union and how closely to ally with FDR. The activists of the 1960s had doctrinal debates about whether whites should be welcomed into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or whether Robert Kennedy should be embraced as a liberal apostle and leader of the anti-Vietnam War forces or was merely co-opting momentum from the radical left.
These historical echoes are a reminder about today’s progressives — even as the volume rises on their conflicts, the splitters and lumpers are fundamentally on the same side.