This past August, Cleveland DSA sent our 7 delegates to the National Convention. Our Education Committee asked these delegates to write up reflections on their experience, which will appear here over the next month. What follows is the first of these, from our comrade Julie C:
I have been a member of my local mid-sized DSA chapter since early 2021. I was a fan of Bernie as he grew in popularity but still thought socialism was a dirty word until 2020. Like many during the Covid lockdowns, I started to see the world as it truly was and became more and more disgruntled with the status quo. After the murder of George Floyd I was shoved into action. Well, “action” being more than just angrily debating people on Facebook. I checked out quite a few local and national organizations and stuck with DSA. They were far and away the group that was doing the most good locally and was not just a political campaign or a Zoom webinar.
The other reason I stuck with DSA is that in a society where barely any aspect of one’s life reflects a true democracy, our chapter exemplifies it. There is no high level board of directors who “work for” DSA and make decisions in a small group while members are off at their day jobs. Members who have been around for years don’t get a bigger say in what we do than someone who just signed up yesterday. Individuals are empowered to bring their ideas to the general membership and get a majority vote in order to make it one of our priorities for at least a set amount of time. We have built something unlike any other organization I’ve been a part of and it proves that democracy can work, it can be done!
One aspect of DSA that I shied away from entirely was our national structure and bodies. I had dealt with big, “non-profit-like” structures in the past and I had no interest in getting roped in again. I wanted to keep doing good work in my chapter and continue to ignore National as just “those people who keep track of our members and money and send emails that I occasionally open.” So when talk of Convention 2023 came around, I really did not have an interest in running as a delegate. But then I found out a little more about our dues structure and how much went to National versus local chapters. To be blunt, I wanted to see where all my money was going and if I thought it was being put to good use! I could see our work locally and believed in it. But hardly ever was any aspect of National brought up among our membership and we have rarely felt their impact.
A principle of democratic organizing that I strongly believe in is to stay and try to help fix a problem rather than skirting around it. With that principle in mind, I took a new approach to the Convention. I wanted to better understand National, where our dues were going, and how everything functioned at a national level. I ran as a delegate because I knew it would force me to learn and to experience it. Once I was elected I spent a lot of time preparing: reading proposed resolutions, learning past DSA history, and watching NPC candidate interviews to get a better idea of what choices lay before us to guide the next two years. Although I knew very little about caucuses and the inner workings of politics within DSA, I felt fairly prepared traveling to Chicago in August 2023.
The Convention itself surpassed all of my expectations. It was very professional, had many engaging speakers, panels, and discussions and being in a room with close to 1,000 delegates representing the largest socialist organization in the US was an experience I will never forget. I happily embrace the cliché when I say that it felt like we were making history. That I could imagine a time in the future when this moment will be viewed as an important catalyst to what will come next. I imagine it is similar to what new Congresspeople feel when they walk into the chamber for the first time–although with much more hope in real, lasting change. I digress, and apologize for my flare for dramatics.
Another reason I stuck with DSA after I joined is that I see it as practice for how to actually run a democracy. People talk about democracy like it is some high and mighty philosophy (which it is), but it is also a verb. How you tactically carry out a democracy is important, and we will not learn it from Washington, our statehouses, and certainly not our workplaces. Our chapter has good, solid structures for running our democracy and I was happy to see that the Convention was set up similarly. There were a few hiccups in getting the agenda set (which was democratically decided with a floor amendment) but overall the actual deliberation time was well-run and exciting.
The proposals that we voted on were a mixed bag. The committee resolutions tended to be the most detailed with plans on what the standing committee would continue to do, what would change, and how much of a budget it needed. Some of the proposals seemed to state ideas/beliefs of how we should operate without a lot of fleshed out details of what that looks like in action. I am more skeptical of these proposals as I feel the platform can be amended to give our political positions and would rather see proposals with detailed action plans. However, I usually voted in favor if I felt they were appropriate.
There were a couple proposals – “Democratize DSA” and “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy”- that showed clear lines between caucuses and forced very lively political debate. “Democratize DSA,” according to its proponents, sought to expand the NPC as a way to help alleviate some of the political issues of past NPCs. Those who spoke against it said it would make the work of the NPC more difficult and the problem wasn’t the number of members. It did not pass the ⅔ majority needed, which prompted some procedural “fuckery” to re-vote, which also failed (all legal per our bylaws and rules). “Party-Like” was a proposal to hold elected officials endorsed by DSA to stricter standards around how to vote on certain issues and to begin bloc voting with other DSA electeds. It failed (41% to 59%) and seems that members are not yet willing to require hard lines for our elected officials. This could potentially lead to another embarrassing Bowman debacle if and when another DSA elected speaks or votes against one of our core principles. I was happy “Democratize” did not pass and disappointed that “Party-Like” failed; however, both of these battles were another lesson in the democracy “verb” and a good experience to have individually and as an organization
Of course one of the more heated debates and a topic many wanted to hash out further was the BDS working group resolution. The agenda was amended to add the full resolution but we only had time for deliberation on the NPC recommendation to move the BDSWG into the IC, which passed 52% to 48%. As someone who was tuned out during the Bowman debacle, I only saw it as an embarrassment to the DSA name and hoped that we could put the measure to rest at this Convention. I think we partially did that and have faith that our new NPC will finish the job. There will most certainly be members still polarized by this issue but I feel they will be in the minority. The debate and fight over drawing specific lines and details for electeds proves the need to have specific and detailed resolutions that our leadership can easily follow as laid out by membership.
Of course the main event at the Convention is the NPC race and election. As a non-caucused delegate, I prepared by watching almost every candidate interview. However, once I arrived and was immersed in Convention electioneering, I realized that most delegates formulated their votes based on caucus and which candidates their preferred caucuses recommended. I did find it very helpful to understand which caucuses seemed to best represent mine and our chapters’ opinions on how to organize and what tactics we should be using in order to continue to grow DSA into a powerful organization and admit that I ranked those caucus members higher on my ballot. Perhaps it is the midwestern in me but the flyering and politicking got a bit old after a day or so. I had done my research and would ask my comrades for opinions when I needed them! But, once I understood how many delegates formulated their ballot I understood the need for it. The best part of the NPC race (and the Convention as a whole) was that regardless of the outcome, I felt extremely comfortable and confident in all the comrades around me. Everyone running has organizing experience of one kind or another and wants to see our organization grow and be powerful. Obviously we have differing opinions on the best way to do that but I feel very confident in the members who were ultimately elected.
Overall, the DSA National Convention 2023 was a success in many ways. I am glad and honored that I was elected delegate and the experience has made me a better rounded DSA member. I believe that when we have significant growth in the next two years we will need to expand the Convention and spend more time deliberating on the core work and structure of our organization. While this experience has engaged me personally into what National does, we need stronger ties than just the ones our delegates make at Convention every two years. I wish National would function in a more integrated way with locals but as it stands now, we will need to force that integration from our level if we want to take advantage of the resources that may be available to us. I feel empowered to potentially write proposals for the next Convention based on what I saw this time around (“stay and try to fix it!”) and would like our national organization to have more of a structure like ours locally.
Finally, I’m expecting individuals or other organizations both to the right and left of DSA to downplay, insult, or dismiss what we did at Convention this year. And I hope that none of our members join with them. Because what we did was impressive. It was a true example of democracy in action. Possibly one of the largest democratic actions that has been held in a very long time. To those critics, I invite you to come join us. If you have improvements in strategy, tactics, organization skills then please, come and help fix it. Because if we really want what we say–a democratic society run by and for the working class, then we better keep getting the practice!
1. While I feel I have supported and helped continue a culture of democracy, much of the hard work and structure was put in place before I joined and I give all the credit and kudos to my comrades who did it!