…And With The World to Win: DSA Convention 2019

by Michael Malloy
Cover image: Twitter @lodgepolepines

I live in one of the parts of the country where, to excuse exactly how awful it is to live here, we tell people that “at least it’s a dry heat”—like that means something when sweat is soaking your clothes. I dreaded Atlanta in August, where the 2019 DSA National Convention was to convene, out of a healthy respect for the perils of a “wet heat,” something I had only briefly experienced before. I dreaded the Convention as well. As a creature of the deepest online, I am reminded daily of the brittle tensions and factional enmity that brews in the lead-up to this momentous gathering of socialists every two years. On the DSA forums, on Twitter, through email lists and in other venues, these factions make themselves known, establish their goals and intentions, and then inevitably become embroiled in tense, wordy, and tiresome responses, counter-responses, and protracted debates over all of the issues that come with the management and governance of an organization of 60,000 people. I had thrown my hat into the ring and participated in these fights on occasion, signifying myself as one of those loathed “idea guys” who write great points they fail to deliver on, and tapped out after a few months—all this too rich for my blood.

However, when I touched down, I found the city pleasant and unseasonably cool, the humidity perfectly manageable. I arrived at the imposing postmodern Westin hotel and found throngs of DSAers from across the country and stopped to talk with many of them, some old friends, some new faces. I was wrong to dread any of this. I was wrong to be so suspicious, doubtful and conspiratorial. I expected the worst of my comrades, and in expecting this, in extrapolating from my own combativeness, I came to the Convention prepared to find victors and losers, to chronicle sweeps of power that would define the organization for the next two years.

Instead, I found something surprising, and, in its own way, vastly more exciting: comity and acumen from organizers directed not towards their own aggrandizement, but towards their own visions of DSA as a successful, thriving organization. In their struggle towards their goals, yes, they debated, swiping at political formations they opposed, but here on the floor in Atlanta, as they passed back and forth in the halls and sat outside for a smoke or some fresh air, there was an undeniable display of humanity and solidarity. There was a comfortable air among the delegates, one that clearly members had implicitly agreed upon. In 2017, there was dispute over the term ‘comrade.’ Some saw it as hokey play-acting at revolutionary language, cannibalizing the legacy of 20th century socialism. Here, the term was used professionally, with the chair calling on comrades from the floor to speak, with those speakers deferring to their comrades; it was natural. 

A lot of ink has been spilled over this surprising politeness and the dissolving of impersonal and hostile online interactions into genuine warmth and comradeliness. It’s difficult to be rude to someone’s face, especially when you are going to be in the same building for the next three days. I found people I knew and had spoken to about their particular affiliations before the convention hanging out around the convention floor and lobby, taking all comers, ecumenically inviting discussion. I came to the convention with a particular interest in how these factions, particularly those with strong online bases of support, would fare when tested by actual parliamentary proceedings. This convention, more so than in previous years, featured a variety of broad and ideologically distinct political formations. 

This was not my first rodeo. The 2017 DSA convention was defined primarily by the conflict between an old guard of committed organizers who had kept the organization alive during the lean times of the 1990s and 2000s and the rapidly growing new membership entering DSA. This power dynamic resolved itself in a sweep of the National Political Committee, the highest decision-making body of DSA, with new members aligned in two opposing camps. This may have been the root of the ensuing factionalism, as accusations of misconduct or undemocratic behavior came against these newly seated members. DSA quickly outgrew this particular iteration of factions, as conflict with the old guard quickly became obviated by the mass of new membership. Instead, a garden of camps flourished, and in the buildup to the 2019 Convention, tangled together, finding strange bedfellows as new members found ideological homes, former opponents allied on particular issues, and leadership turned over.

How should an organization of this size be governed? Where should this organization’s energy be directed? How do we encourage growth? How do we capitalize on our victories? Questions related to DSA’s development over the last two years divided membership. Some viewed DSA as an institution to believe in, a place to draw support and strength from in a variety of local and national struggles, while others were wary of an unwieldy structure the mass of which hampered dynamic organizing. Finding answers to these structural questions was the central issue as proceedings began.

At the outset of the convention, there were several broadly defined caucuses and tendencies. As I spoke with observers and other press, I perceived a consensus that it was difficult, as an outsider, to determine which factions were represented by which speakers. Occasionally, an amendment or motion would be proposed, and one could sense a cui bono? flashing through the minds of the unaffiliated. Drawing connections between the proceedings of the day and preexisting factional differences was difficult for those not intimately familiar with the representatives of each tendency and the ways by which these factions interacted with each other, both directly through debate on the floor or allyship over points of unity, and indirectly through whipping and conversation outside. There are five major existing political factions in DSA, with several smaller, typically regional independent groups represented either as candidate slates or by their competing platforms: 

  • Build, a magazine-turned-political-formation, supports a decentralized vision of power in DSA and was built by centering work done at the local level. Build draws its support primarily from a broad coalition of smaller and medium-sized chapters from across the country. These chapters, like most smaller locals, typically had limited or negative interactions with DSA’s National structure, which helped popularize this broad, pluralistic focus in Build.
  • The Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC), a broad collection of anarchist and anarchist-aligned members, came to the convention with a focus on instantiating a strongly decentralized DSA structure. Primarily, this takes the form of a focus on the power of local chapters to control funding, restricting the ability of National to interfere with the activity of locals, and the dissolution of much of the existing structure of DSA’s highest bodies in an effort to establish a “horizontal” organization.
  • Socialist Majority (SM) defines itself as a practically-minded, structurally-focused caucus that seeks to reproduce past successes with large, targeted campaigns, build coalitions with existing leftist organizations, and maintain the internal functionality of the organization through democratic governance and comradely debate. Its support and official slate of candidates were drawn from local leaders who had extensive interaction with labor programs.
  • Bread & Roses (B&R), a self-styled Marxist caucus, focused primarily on support for large national campaigns, pushing for DSA to emerge as a powerful independent political entity. They take a strong stance against horizontal and decentralized models for organizing in DSA. This centralized vision of DSA, alongside the fact that Bread & Roses is perceived as a continuation of the outgoing NPC’s majority bloc (Momentum), was the primary target of factional tension in the buildup to the Convention.
  • The Collective Power Network (CPN), while not a caucus and lacking a slate of candidates, proposed a critique of DSA’s existing structure and focused on the establishment of a mass socialist organization that directs its energy towards continued expansion into working class communities, as represented in their flagship proposal at the convention, “Towards 100,000 members by 2021.” Their platform proposes a strong central organization to drive that membership growth using a mass party model and continued engagement from their network of chapters.

The NPC election, which was conducted via electronic voting on the second day of convention (with results released the following afternoon) was the most representative example of the tension between the caucuses. During the first day of parliamentary proceedings, the voting method was altered by a motion taken from the floor: from “Borda count” voting (preferring broadly-approved candidates) to Single Transferable Vote (which typically produces more proportional, majoritarian results). This had major implications for the NPC vote—received wisdom at the convention was that Borda would produce positive results for Bread & Roses and Socialist Majority, while STV would favor independent caucuses, Build, and LSC.

 

Source: Daniel A, Olympia, WA


The final results for the NPC included four Socialist Majority members, three Bread & Roses members, three Build members, three independents, two LSC members, and one CPN member. This result was to be expected, given the use of STV, but contained two very positive developments. 

First, three NPC candidates, two from Build and one from Socialist Majority, who faced allegations of complicity in or mishandling of sexual assault were not elected, thanks to an intense campaign against the candidates by members of opposing factions. Compared to the previous NPC election, where NPC candidate Danny Fetonte’s alleged misrepresentation of his work with a police union lead to a protracted and legally risky process of political isolation and removal from his seat, the campaign to counter these delegates was remarkably well-organized and effective, especially considering that they had enjoyed broad bases of support before the election. 

Secondly, members of every major caucus and three independent candidates were able to gain seats on the NPC, with only a single incumbent retaining their seat.* This result was extremely well-received by the now-exhausted delegates. Though the intense debates surrounding resolutions had resulted in victories and losses, there was a sense that all parties were more or less satiated by the result of the NPC election. Had there been a strong sweep by a single slate or caucus, my sense is that this faction would have faced immediate distrust and ire. The previous NPC, which contained a slate of delegates elected as a majority, spent a great deal of their two year term navigating a tense relationship between National and the diversifying ideological field within DSA.

The early Borda/STV vote and subsequent factional division among delegates resulted in a tense atmosphere on the first day of the convention. The situation was not at all helped by the following three hours of plodding parliamentary proceedings, building up to passing convention rules, reviewing the agenda, and hearing motions and proposals from the floor. This delay was characterized by some delegates as factionally driven, but deliberate obstruction was difficult to distinguish from the difficulty the delegates had navigating Robert’s Rules at this level. There were rumblings before the convention even began of the difficulties of managing a convention of this scale. Over 1,000 delegates from across the country, plus staff and press, were crammed into an auditorium. Yet each day moved slightly faster than the day before, with interruptions and delays becoming increasingly scarce as delegates were better able to read the room and could rein in points of inquiry and personal privilege that had earlier eaten up precious time. After groans from the audience chastised speakers who resurrected contentious and decidedly concluded debate from the day before, things moved at a reasonable clip, with one resolution passing in five minutes—one speaker for, one against, followed by a straight up-down vote—to the general relief of the room. 

Meanwhile, in the parallel hell dimension of Twitter, there was ridicule brewing. Some of the reflexively combative factions of Fox News guests and goons with cell service found video footage of the convention, where the chair and other speakers exhorted the large crowd to behave, to stop shouting and speaking out of turn, and to abide by convention rules and refrain from clapping during the proceedings. In fairness, this may strike some people as needlessly strict and overly sensitive. Those people have never organized a large meeting or convention, and I find myself with very little interest in their uninformed opinions about those who have.

In spite of disruptions and slowdowns, most voting went on without much to-do. When a controversial vote was decided, there could typically be seen a trickle of members heading for the door to the front of the hotel to smoke a cigarette, complain and commiserate, then return to the hall to continue voting. I did not witness any indicators of a split or serious structural threat to DSA; in fact, in spite of the intense debate on most topics, when members of opposing factions found each other outside, what typically followed was a nitty-gritty analysis of their positions, their reasoning for their votes. 

There were an enormous number of resolutions and amendments, but a summary of the results shows the majority of proposed resolutions passed. The most contentious debates were focused on resolutions and amendments that either lacked broad, cross-factional consensus, or resolutions that implemented specific changes to DSA’s political direction, budget, or internal structure.

 

Source: DSA Forums

I personally witnessed a discussion between representatives on either side of the debate on Resolution #9, which passed, establishing a National Antifascist Working Group. Tensions were largely driven by the complaints of some delegates, themselves involved in antifascist activity, who were deeply hesitant about doing that work under the auspices of the DSA and not as an unaffiliated group for security purposes. These two opposing sides formed a semicircle on the sidewalk by the door and discussed amongst themselves for a quarter of an hour. Things were tense in the beginning, with one delegate opening the conversation shocked anyone could think to oppose what he saw to be a commonsense statement of solidarity. After hearing a response, he grew a little less strident. Following the discussion, both parties, though they did not resolve their differences, at least seemed to feel that they had been heard and that their concerns meant something to their fellow members. They returned to the debate floor afterward, I’m sure to dispute dozens more points with other delegates.

Other contentious votes largely centered around funding and budgetary issues. The unglamorous work of managing a bureaucracy remains as unpopular and necessary as ever. There were a half dozen big-ticket items that presented funding challenges for the organization, including hiring new staff members, the distribution of dues, and a proposal to remove dues as a requirement for membership. The official convention schedule included notes that referenced the absolute centrality of budgetary concerns, exhorting members to “evaluate [proposals] based on whether [they] would stay within our existing budget,” which, naturally, went largely unheeded in the course of impassioned debate. 

Proposals to significantly reform the dues structure of DSA largely failed. Constitutional/By-Laws Amendment #2, also known as Pass the Hat, which would have redistributed $100 of dues money a month to locals failed by a 103-vote margin after intense debate, which was focused on the pressure this would put on the DSA budget. Additionally, Amendment #23, “Nobody Is Too Poor for DSA,” which proposed redefining “member in good standing” to include members who do not pay dues, failed by a similar margin after a similar debate. This came as a significant defeat for caucuses interested in decentralizing structures, as direct funding of locals was one of their primary goals. For context, DSA currently operates a $4.3M budget and is projected to experience a net deficit of $347,000 due to existing operational costs.

While there may have been a public perception that the DSA Convention was a permissive or frivolous, there could not have been a more clear distinction between the polite, almost warm, resolution to these disagreements and the hard-nosed and effective work done by representatives of various groups as they whipped and vote-swapped with other factions. Negotiating to build coalitions of support for particular resolutions proved a vital strategy for caucus representatives, especially during the second day’s flurry of votes. This left me impressed, in part because hard work generally impresses layabout media types like me, but mostly because it was a rare and wonderful thing to see members of the largest domestic socialist organization in our lifetimes seriously engage with the hardball political work of mass organization. 

The struggle for socialism is, to borrow a phrase, world-historical. This convention laid bare the growing pains of an expanding movement, one learning to feel its own size, creating and maintaining a mass of internal political formations. All factions had their historical and theoretical inspirations, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone here talking about them. There was no time for navel gazing, for looking backward. There is a political moment here today. There is a political crisis already destroying much of this country. I heard the news of two mass shootings from the floor of the convention hall. These disasters demand diligence. They demand the kind of effort put in by thousands of leaders and tens of thousands of members who have dedicated innumerable collective hours in unpaid time over the last two years to deliver this convention.


♦ ♦ ♦

After the NPC election results were announced, I went downstairs to the lobby, drinking instant coffee and letting a general sense of relief flow through me. I relaxed with the Press Liaison, slumped into chairs amidst the gathering crowds of exhausted-but-talkative delegates. After becoming so accustomed to endless criticism from inside and outside the organization, it is sometimes hard to process good news from DSA. It wasn’t a perfect sweep for any faction, and no new line held clear supremacy among members, but there was no post-convention fracas. No horrifying reveals, no last-minute subterfuge or dramatic developments. For the first time, I felt like I had seen an organization that had grown into something mature, something capable of self-criticism, and of taking a deliberate and serious approach towards the vast body of its own work.

I went outside, past the crowd by the door, down the the valet pickup area at the corner of the hotel. I was sitting on top of a standpipe housing and collecting myself when a man in hotel staff uniform came from around the corner with a cigarette and told me I had taken his spot. I apologized and offered it back to him. He waved me away. It was fine, he said. He asked if I was with “the Democratics,” and I told him I was press. He worked in the kitchen, so I asked how the union treated him. We were just killing time.

After a while, we got to talking about the convention. I asked him what he thought about the delegates he’d encountered. He listed a few topics he’d overheard from them—health care, college payments, racism—before telling me that “the things that they’re talking about are the things that I think about.” I told him that was the best news I’d heard all weekend.

 


Michael Malloy is the Protean correspondent covering the 2019 DSA National Convention.

*Technically, two members of the prior NPC, Natalie Midiri and Marianela D’Aprile, both retained seats. (Marianela was a mid-term appointee of the prior NPC, but was not seated at the 2017 convention.)