This article was originally published at Jacobin.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held its National Convention in Atlanta last weekend, August 2 to August 4. This was the second convention of the newly reborn, post-Trump DSA, drawing nearly 1,100 delegates from throughout the country.
The 2017 convention celebrated DSA as the home of the budding socialist movement in the United States and signaled the organization’s desire to turn left, leaving behind much of its past conservative positions on issues like foreign policy. As a new organization, DSA’s enthusiasm was clear, but the group did not have enough shared history among new members to share a common language about the state of the organization, the work DSA should do, or how it should navigate the contemporary political waters.
Now in 2019, DSA has grown from a reported 25,000 members to 60,000, with approximately 175 chapters across the United States. I attended as a delegate from the Madison, Wisconsin chapter, independent of any of the several caucuses or formations in DSA.
In the two years since the 2017 Convention, DSA members have experimented with a national Medicare for All campaign; worked on election campaigns for left and socialist candidates at the local, state, and national levels; organized as union members and played key roles in the teacher strikes; developed mutual aid/service projects like free brake light clinics, fixing broken tail lights to try to eliminate a common pretext for police stops; organized tenants; and fought the carceral state. This already existing activity naturally informed what political questions the convention wanted to debate.
Going into this convention, there were some political questions to sort out, but as I wrote before the Atlanta gathering, I believe that there was political agreement on most policy positions. The principal issues animating the convention were the problems DSA has encountered in trying to build its organization. With the unevenness that exists between chapters, geographies, and big-tent political positions, conflicting perspectives about the nature of those organizational problems (real or perceived) has led to opposing solutions on how DSA should be structured.
The low barrier to entry for DSA members has allowed it to sop up the new activists interested in socialism, but the expectations of new activist members have been greater than the resources DSA has to support so many new socialists. In the space between the national organization’s capacity and local chapters’ needs, member initiative and creativity has tried to fill this gap. Many delegations arrived with an array of t-shirts, buttons, and materials their chapters created to support their work and identify themselves with DSA. Local activists have taken ownership over DSA, but how much of this is a virtue, and how much is necessity? Figuring out how to balance this question was a central tension.
To my mind, the major issues that needed to be resolved in this convention were:
1) Figuring out whether DSA would further decentralize its organization or give greater commitment to national coordination
2) Restoring legitimacy to the National Political Committee (NPC), DSA’s national leadership structure. The 2017 NPC was immediately thrust into crisis within days of being elected with a scandal over one new member’s past experience organizing law enforcement officials, as well as the later removal of another member following allegations of sexual assault and abusive behavior. Both members were eventually removed, but much energy and acrimony was spent litigating these issues; meanwhile, the NPC was largely absent from the political life of most DSAers.
3) Finding a working balance between a class politics that unites while also making space for experiences and politics rooted in different identities. Would DSA attempt to resolve the tension between universal and particular in either direction? DSA needed to find a way to address this question in a both/and way.
These were the questions being asked going into convention. With these disagreements in the background at the start of the convention, many DSA members felt anxious about whether the organization would still exist once the weekend was over.
The convention started off rocky, bogged down in procedural issues on the first day. A delegation challenge was the first order of the day, followed by a substitute method for voting for the NPC, some negotiations over convention rules, then maneuvers to change the proposed agenda. Overuse of “interrupting” actions in Robert’s Rules, which the gathered body was governed by, delayed the convention throughout the weekend.
Still, despite these frustrations, the body accomplished a great deal, making a number of important political decisions.
Three significant decisions were made in favor of political independence from the Democratic Party. First, the Convention affirmed that if Bernie Sanders is not awarded the Democratic nomination for President, DSA will not endorse another Democrat for president. (This was a resolution I put forward.)
Second, recognizing the value of a Sanders campaign and its limitations, the convention moved to petition Bernie Sanders for a People’s Foreign Policy Platform, trying to push Sanders on his international positions. These included pledges to cut off assistance to the Saudi military campaign in Yemen; honor the Iran nuclear deal; restore diplomatic relations with and end sanctions on Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela; honor the Paris climate accords; reverse recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; recognize boycott, divestment, and sanctions as a form of free speech guaranteed by the US constitution; and an immediate repeal of the “Muslim ban.”
Third, the body endorsed an approach to electoral work articulated as “class-struggle elections,” laying out a perspective for how socialists should engage in electoral work in order to raise working-class consciousness and combativity. The resolution also called for moving towards an independent party at some time in the future; in keeping with what has been a guiding philosophy (similar to the one laid out by Seth Ackerman in Jacobin) that while most of our electoral work should be within the Democratic Party because of the structural barriers to working independently of them, we will eventually need a party of our own.
An amendment to this resolution to strike the independent party language was defeated, and the larger resolution passed, essentially moving DSA to become an organization that will now aspire for a “dirty break” from the Democratic Party to build a new party. This is a significant shift from the lesser-evil politics of pre-2016 DSA; it also does not reject socialist engagement in elections.
There was an overwhelming consensus that DSA must be an eco-socialist organization, committed to building an anticapitalist Green New Deal to address the climate emergency. A resolution supporting a GND passed nearly unanimously.
Like DSA’s stance on Sanders, an amendment was adopted to this resolution that declared we must reject “green militarism” and should stand in solidarity with indigenous people. The amendment endorsed the Red Deal, an articulation of the climate fight towards indigenous liberation.
The convention voted to continue and extend DSA’s labor work through the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC). The resolutions that passed accepted a pluralistic approach to labor, recognizing the need to organize within unions and organize the unorganized. To this end, a dedicated staff person will be hired to coordinate DSA’s labor work.
A resolution to make the “Rank and File Strategy” the organization’s guiding labor perspective passed on a razor thin margin, 475–465. A mere ten votes carried the resolution. This was the tightest vote at the convention, suggesting that this debate is far from settled. While the resolution officially passed, it did so without a strong mandate. Advocates will need to continue to work to educate and persuade DSA members on the strategy if the rank-and-file strategy is to be implemented in a meaningful way.
The Consent Agenda
The convention approved a package of resolutions in a “consent agenda,” which were important but understated due to the fact that they did not get debated on the floor. The idea of a consent agenda is that, given that there were far more proposals than could have been debated over the weekend, a large portion of the proposals would be voted up or down as a package because they were relatively uncontroversial within the organization. Delegates voted on which resolutions would be on the consent agenda ahead of the convention and eventually approved it in Atlanta.
Most significant were resolutions moving DSA left on immigration (for open borders, for a campaign against the migrant concentration camps, for orienting towards Latino communities) and gender (support for decriminalization of sex work and to fight for abortion access). The consent agenda showed the broad support for these measures, but the unfortunate downside of bundling these resolutions was that they were removed from debate, which played an important role in cementing their political value in delegates’ minds.
The political positions adopted largely carried with wide margins of support. As the convention started to press upon time limits, some resolutions that were not on the consent agenda were also bundled together to pass quickly, as was the case with a package of resolutions on boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, Cuba Solidarity, and decolonization; on a campaign to ending cash bail, decarceration, and engaging with district attorney races; as well as on housing. Important corrections were made to DSA’s politics, most significantly in refusing to stay silent on international questions, which has historically been a weakness of social-democratic organizations.
Organizational Status Quo
Originally, more debate was to be reserved for the organizational resolutions and constitutional changes, but as the convention continued to lag behind schedule (thanks, in no small part, to being bogged down in proceduralism on the first day and throughout), the body had to make sacrifices to the debate schedule. The result: nothing really changed structurally in the organization.
The proposals for new regional bodies were either referred to the NPC (the Socialist Majority caucus’s National Organizing Committee and the Collective Power Network’s Regional Organizations) or voted down outright (the Libertarian Socialists caucus’s Assembly of Locals). The convention did not have time to call on the proposal for a binding national referendum, which would have created a system for directly democratic votes on questions submitted to the membership, nor did it address concerns over the functioning of the NPC.
Important resolutions were passed in favor of creating a political education program, creating a targeted growth and recruitment plan, and prioritizing childcare and working on a campaign for paid parental leave. Proposals to eliminate the requirement to pay dues (“No One is Too Poor for DSA”) and mandating chapters to meet certain accessibility standards were both voted down, though not as political rejections of the spirit of the proposals, but rather on the grounds of the language within the proposals themselves. (Many expressed concern about the accessibility proposal, for example, that passage would have given a large number of resources to a body that several delegates argued would not be democratically accountable to the membership.) By my observation, every person who spoke against the resolutions did so while validating that we need to address the concern raised, but not in the way proposed.
The convention also voted on a proposed constitutional amendment called “Pass the Hat,” which would pay every chapter a flat $100 per month, regardless of size. Tensions grew leading up to the debate due to a maneuver made by one of the proposal’s authors that would have allowed for a lower threshold of votes needed for the amendment to pass (a simple majority rather than two-thirds), and deepened when a proposal to close the loophole allowing this kind of maneuvering was countered with an amendment that would make “Pass the Hat” exempt.
In the best good-faith moment at the convention, “Pass the Hat” co-author Jennifer Bolen called for the exemption amendment to be rescinded in order to have the proposal use the standard two-thirds vote needed, to which the amender agreed. The ensuing vote on “Pass the Hat” failed — by my estimation, without even a simple majority. Still, it stood out as an important moment where factionalism was set aside for the good of DSA as a whole.
While “Pass the Hat” and the resolution on a fifty-fifty dues split between the national organization and local chapters both were voted down, an extended and modified version of DSA’s dues sharing program was adopted, aiming to address the problems smaller chapters had been voicing.
No major changes to DSA’s structure were enacted. Of the thirty-eight proposed constitutional amendments submitted, only one was adopted (“Equity for Amendments,” removing arcane language allowing the NPC to reduce the number of votes needed to pass constitutional amendments); one change was made from the floor eliminating gendered language from the constitution. The referral of the regional organization proposals was not a flat rejection, but instead a rare example of a good use of a process motion: members expressed that they did not have enough understanding of the effects at this time to want to make changes and referred the proposals to the NPC so that we can be better informed on them for the next convention in 2021.
The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating
Where does DSA stand at the end of this process? Political positions have been set, organizational questions largely still stand. But we’ve finished this chapter and are onto a new one.
For all the hemming and hawing about process, the convention passed a test that most left groups actually fail: at no point in the convention was the question of identity dismissed as unimportant. There were pushes back and forth about how we bring our identities into the debates, but this was more like a collective negotiation developed through trial and error. The goodwill exhibited by comrades in trying to figure this out was worth noting, even if it was hard to endure.
While I voted against the move to Single-Transferrable Vote, the voting method that was chosen over Borda for choosing the NPC on the first day, I’m glad it passed, as it helped lend legitimacy to the new NPC: it appeared to me that those who came to be the minority on the NPC (the Build grouping and Libertarian Socialist Caucus, both of whom advocated for more horizontalist proposals) will be less likely to view the election results as illegitimate, since they chose the voting method. Unlike 2017, the 2019 NPC has been elected with a better sense of the role and demands of the national leadership, and hopefully the baggage of the last NPC can be discarded. All the questions facing the body aren’t settled, but there is a new lease on life for the NPC. It will be up to these leaders to make good on the initiatives we voted on and demonstrate the value of DSA as a group that is larger than the sum of its parts.
DSA goes into the next two years well-prepared to build the American socialist movement. As socialism moves from the margins to the center, no longer thought of as a dead idea but as a living force in US politics, DSA is emerging from its 2019 convention better positioned than ever to lead the socialist charge in this country. We have a world to win — and DSA is ready to fight for it.
Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He has written for New Politics, Jacobin, International Viewpoint and contributed to the edited collection Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (2012).