Note: I’ve updated this article (7/22/19) with new information as it became available; to me this stresses the need for disclosure in the process — something that I’ve addressed as an amendment to R20. An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Daniel M. and Jennifer B. as associated with Build; this has been corrected.
I wrote a piece recently that looked at the Resolutions that will be discussed at the 2019 Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) National Convention. I concluded that the convention will debate what kind of organization DSA will be, and the debate will take place in three arenas: resolutions, constitution/bylaw changes, and the election of the National Political Committee (NPC). Here I want to focus on the NPC as the highest decision-making body for the two years following the Convention.
Sixteen (16) members are elected to the NPC, with quotas (“no more than eight shall be men and at least five shall be racial or national minority members of DSA”) and one additional seat for DSA’s Youth Section (Young Democratic Socialists of America, YDSA). The NPC oversees staff; keeps the budget; manages DSA’s official publications (Democratic Left and Socialist Forum); charters National Commissions, National Working Groups and new local chapters; and directs the publishing of other literature such as pamphlets. As a voluntary organization the NPC can try to encourage members to take on certain activity, so they set a tone for the organization, but at the core they direct the resources DSA holds.
Candidates and Formations
Thirty-three (33) candidates have been nominated for the 2019 NPC. By comparison, the 2017 Convention had forty-one (41) candidates; five (5) of the sixteen (16) NPC members elected at the 2017 Convention have left and been replaced. Last convention, nearly half of the candidates were white men (21), while this convention there are only three (3) — there is no shortage of white men in DSA, but this is a significant change in who the organization has put up for leadership. My sense is that this has much to do with a strategic approach the quota system, where candidates are being picked carefully to avoid being knocked out of the winning on identity grounds.
The official list of 2019 candidates was released in early July, followed shortly after by a packet of candidate statements. Neither the list of candidates nor their statements identify NPC candidates as part of a caucus or slate, so candidates are presented as independent actors. Only Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC) and Bread and Roses (B&R) announced their caucus slates, while two smaller groupings presented themselves as the San Francisco Slate (SF) and Shine Under Pressure (SUP).
Build and Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC) have not put forward candidates as a slate publicly. However, in Zoom call candidate interviews and in written statements a number of candidates identified themselves as members of Build and/or LSC. Build submitted multiple convention proposals as a group and effectively acts as a caucus, so I have matched candidates with either Build, LSC or both. There is some difficulty in definitively saying that candidates represent those formations, so I’m listing them with the understanding that they have an association. This has value in identifying candidates’ tendencies, where identifying them as independent conceals association links.
We can see that the only three (3) of the thirty-three candidates are seemingly independent. Emily C was previously associated with Build, though she recently broke ties with the group in favor of LSC. Jose is a member of SMC, though was not endorsed by their caucus; I’ve chosen to associate him with North Star based on his having co-authored multiple North Star resolutions. Theresa previously ran on the “Unity” slate in 2017, a predecessor to North Star; I’ve listed her as North Star* to highlight a tendency. “Shine Under Pressure” is a small slate whose members are all affiliated with Build, so I listed them with Build primarily to highlight their relationship to the larger formation, which has greater consequence for DSA National. That leads to the following breakdown of slates:
Build fields most candidates (8 of 16) and has endorsed (among others) the entire San Francisco slate (3). Based off the numbers, some type of coalition or “bloc” will have to be formed to hold a majority on the NPC.
There are 138 pages of candidate statements and three hour-long sessions of Zoom calls with NPC candidates for them to be able to explain who they are and why they should be the next elected leaders of DSA. The statements and Zoom calls are in a lot of ways like a job interview: the point is to make sure that a candidate says something roughly on point and doesn’t throw up any metaphorical red flags. All the statements have routinely hit on the importance of the locals, the need to become a larger and more diverse organization, and the desire for DSA to act more as organizers (referencing recent DSA sponsored talks by Jane McAlevey), though they’re all being careful not to be too specific. No one wants to say something disagreeable and rule out potential votes. Personal narratives play heavily into candidate statements, though it can be difficult to tell where these are an expression of lived experience as politics (“the personal is political”) and where it is positioning.
Candidates were given a choice of two questions to answer the following list:
· At the last national convention, delegates voted on three national priorities — Medicare for All, Electoral organizing, and Labor — along with a number of other key resolutions. What’s your assessment of the organization’s work and progress in these areas?
· What policies and demands should DSA prioritize championing over the next two years? Why?
· What’s your assessment of DSA’s National Electoral Strategy and how do you think socialists should be engaging with elections in the short term?
· The Democratic presidential primary and the general election will be underway during your NPC term. How do you think DSA should approach the presidential election and its endorsement of Bernie Sanders?
· How do you think DSA should engage with the labor movement?
· How should DSA engage with other progressive and issue-based organizations?
· What should the relationship between the national organization and local chapters look like — how should they engage each other and what role should NPC members take in shaping that relationship?
Rather than focusing on individuals, I think it’s more interesting to look at which questions were chosen in general and by each formation.
All eight (8) responses to how DSA should approach the Sanders campaign, regardless of affiliation, stressed the importance of the Sanders campaign and agreed that chapters should ultimately decide on their involvement. Two-thirds (21) of candidates named climate change as one of the most important issues we face (though that doesn’t mean that the others disagree).
Of the fourteen (14) that responded to what DSA’s policy demands should be, nearly every candidate responded with the Green New Deal (11); six (6) named Medicare for All; two (2) called for action on closing the border concentration camps (Blanca, Tawny). Only Sauce stood out in her maximalism:
My personal preference — assuming the membership agrees — is that the DSA pushes for maximal and radical demands (e.g. full worker control of industry, complete decarceration/abolition of the prison-industrial complex, rapid and just degrowth, and decolonization and a return of stolen land) rather than incremental changes (e.g. Nordic-style social democracy or the mere “left wing of the possible”).
No surprise, most responses were about the relationship of the local and national. Every single Build and LSC-affiliated candidate (twelve people) chose “The relationship of the national to local” as one of their two questions; I don’t see how that could be a coincidence. San Francisco also all picked this question. Every other formation chose a mix of questions where no one question dominated. Build’s and LSC’s responses to this question stress that the locals are the most important and that the role of the national organization should be to “serve” the locals and not direct them, which is in keeping with their localist perspectives. “The NPC’s role should be administrative in nature — not defining politics or priorities for the organization” (Erika); “The role of the national organization is to facilitate our network of organizers across the country, rather than operate as a command and control center over them” (Zac E); “National campaigns…should be open to all members, not a foregone conclusion handed down from above” (Sauce).
The San Francisco slate echoes this, projecting their chapter as a model. Jen S writes, “We want to bring monetary resource allocation to new and smaller chapters so they can afford to print flyers and zines, buy a button maker or megaphone, and create banners (and show them how to do it!) And we want to do cost subsidies for meeting spaces so chapters can safely grow their numbers.” Jennifer B. is also a coauthor of the “Pass the Hat” amendment, “#2 Require that National Pays Stipends to Locals”. Originally I had associated SF with Build based on this overlap and their similar objectives, though I have separated them at the request of the SF slate.
Half of Socialist Majority’s candidates chose this question, advocating a capacity-boosting approach, “…we should be doing the work to make sure each chapter feels supported and has the resources needed to make this work happen in whatever strategic way they democratically decide to implement the campaign.” (Kristian H) One response to this question from B&R (Marianela’s) stands out as significantly different:
One of our most important tasks as socialists is to build a movement of our class, the working class, at the scale of itself. This makes the fact that we’re a national organization important — we can unite our specific, local struggles under a single banner, and we can have a shared analysis and name a common enemy. Even as it takes multiple forms, we know our struggle is one. That said, struggle against the capitalist class manifests itself differently in each context, and chapters have flexibility to pursue campaigns and projects that address their local conditions.
In what is increasingly clear to be the central issue facing this convention, we begin to see the formations aligned along two poles: shifting the resources towards the locals as more of a network (Build, LSC, potentially SF), or improving the national organization’s ability to coordinate (SMC, B&R, CPN). The independents (Sean, Dave P, Daniel M) appear to be apart from these patterns, coming from different work (ecosocialism, labor, anti-fascist) different parts of the country (Chicago, Austin, Kentucky), and with a different approach to questions. Additionally, while caucuses may be aligned on the question of organization, formations can have disagreements on policies and perspectives within a bloc.
My aim here has been to point out that when we make explicit the link between NPC candidates and their affiliated groups in DSA certain patterns become clear. I tried not to extrapolate meaning from anyone’s statements or make a judgment about personalities, but instead point out that candidates’ orientations follow the trajectory of the formations they are associated with — and that makes sense, that’s why they’re working with that group of people. My concern has been that there seems to be a narrative that the groups that have been open about their slates are bad because they are “have an agenda”, when in reality the vast majority of NPC candidates are affiliated to a group, but not all of those relationships have been made plain. It is critically important for DSA’s democracy that members, and now especially delegates, have all the information about the candidates we will be voting on for leadership of the organization so that we understand what they mean to accomplish.