DSA is intended to be a member-governed democratic organization, but its national leadership body–the National Political Committee (NPC)–is the same size that it was when we were one-tenth our current size. Our effectiveness and internal democracy are suffering for it. The 2023 DSA convention will have the opportunity to enact an overdue expansion of our national leadership through the “Democratize DSA 2023” proposal, and it is urgent that delegates pass it. This proposal would triple the NPC from the current 17 votes to 51 votes, and increase the NPC Steering Committee (SC) from 5 to 13. The proposal retains the ultimate authority of the NPC as the highest decision-making body in DSA between national conventions, and strengthens it by making explicit its power to reverse any decision of the Steering Committee. We wanted to make the proposal as minimally disruptive as possible to make it acceptable to the broadest possible coalition of delegates. The proposal is not a panacea; it does not and cannot represent the totality of all the democratic reforms we believe DSA needs. We put forward this simple proposal because any constitutional change requires the agreement of two thirds of the delegates. Consensus on these issues has been elusive, so this proposal is meant to be a simple, straightforward change that can finally break the impasse of the last 3 conventions and enact real structural reform. Delegates should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good – we should pass Democratize DSA 2023 at the convention to address serious issues with our national leadership structure now and build the capacity at the national level to develop more substantial reforms in the future.
DSA’s structure is seriously out of step with other large organizations such as trade unions or political parties. At the national level, we are structured more like a typical mid-sized non-profit, albeit one with an elected board, than to a democratic mass political organization. Unions can provide a helpful contrasting example. One of us works at a progressive and democratic public-sector local union representing 20,000 dues paying members at many different work sites. Members primarily engage with the union at their workplace, and each workplace unit holds elections for their local leadership, as well as electing “delegates” whom they send to the union’s governing body, the Delegates Assembly. In this democratic union of 20,000, the highest decision-making body (equivalent to the NPC) is an assembly of 200 delegates who meet monthly, in person, to make decisions about the union’s direction. A subset of the Delegates Assembly, an “Executive Council” of about 30 people, including the 4 officers of the union, are elected at large by the membership, meet much more frequently, and are responsible for administering the union and overseeing the staff. They are accountable to the Delegates Assembly, and the delegates are accountable to the membership.
Compare this to DSA’s structure. At the local level it is similar—most members who engage with DSA do so through their chapter, and likely have an organizing relationship with someone in chapter leadership, like a steering committee member or co-chair. Just like in a union, these are not the passive relationships of a thin, “representative” democracy—they are the two-way organizing relationships between leaders and members that make collective action possible. With approximately 200 DSA chapters, this vital layer of local political leadership—the connective tissue that holds our organization together—probably ranges from 500 to 2,000 active organizing leaders at any given time. So far so good!
But at the national level, things fall apart. DSA is more than three times larger than the union, but our highest decision-making body is less than one tenth the size of the union’s Delegates Assembly. Rather than a leader to member ratio of 1:100, we have one that’s well over 1:4,000. Other than at national conventions, held once every two years, the gap between the 18 people who serve on the NPC and the key layer of organizer/leaders who make DSA work is vast. (The NPC has 16 at-large members elected at the DSA convention. An additional 17th vote is split between two YDSA co-chairs who are elected at the YDSA convention, for a total of 18 members).
NPC members are effectively the administrative oversight body of DSA, much like the board of a non-profit or the executive board of a union, and they are responsible for overseeing DSA’s staff and finances. But unlike in a mass democratic organization, they have no real continuing relationship to DSA members or leaders other than the thin “representative” one. Members can make demands on the NPC, and the NPC can pass resolutions on what DSA “should” do, but there is no structure for the NPC to connect with what is really the most important political layer of leaders in the organization. This gap means that there is nothing knitting DSA’s membership base into a collective whole.
We find the union comparison helpful, but others could certainly quibble with it or may use different frameworks to articulate the growing consensus about DSA’s democratic deficit. Below we try to address more concretely how Democratize DSA 2023 can help resolve some of the dysfunctions that arise from our current structure, and also respond to some common questions that have arisen in the course of the pre-convention debates so far.
Dysfunction #1: The current NPC is incapable of fulfilling its constitutional requirement to liaise with chapters.
As Democratize DSA 2023 supporter and Growth and Development Committee member Michaela B has pointed out many times, the DSA constitution requires that “[t]he at-large members of the NPC shall act as liaisons to the Commissions and the Regional, State and Local organizations.” This might have been possible for 16 at-large NPC members to accomplish before we joined DSA in 2016 and 2017, but since then it has been an impossibility, so much so that it is barely even attempted. Today, it would require each of the NPC members to liaise with at least a dozen and maybe as many as 15 chapters and national bodies, an impossible task for someone in a volunteer position also tasked with substantial administrative burdens.
With 51 members of the NPC, this role could become central to the position, as it should be. Each NPC member could liaise with roughly four chapters and one national committee. This would mean every single DSA chapter could have an NPC member at a monthly meeting (be it a check-in with co-chairs, a Steering Committee meeting, or a general membership meeting), and each NPC member could fulfill that expectation by attending just one chapter meeting a week. This would dramatically expand DSA members’ and chapter leaders’ ability to directly communicate with the political leadership of the national organization, rather than just the staff. Simultaneously, it would strengthen the ability of the national organization to develop, execute, and evaluate effective nationwide programs and campaigns, which necessarily fail if they are disconnected from the DSA chapters that must carry them out.
Dysfunction #2: The current NPC is too small for meaningful debate and too large for effective administration.
The NPC is the only democratic body at the national level that has the authority to make political decisions outside of conventions. It should be and must be a place for democratic deliberation, debate, and decision-making about DSA’s direction. But at 18 NPC members, representing tens of thousands of people, it is far too small to serve as an effective forum for debate.
At the same time, the NPC is actually quite large as an administrative body. When it comes to the administration of DSA, the NPC probably meets much less frequently than it ought to, for logistical reasons, which means much of the administrative decision making (which is very important!) happens via online votes, or informally, or in unelected committees, or rests with the five-member Steering Committee or the national staff.
Expanding the NPC can help address both these problems. The expanded NPC can be a more representative body that has regular contact with chapters and members in ways that can inform a practice of regular, transparent, democratic, public debate about DSA’s direction at NPC meetings. The steering committee could continue many of the administrative and coordination functions that the NPC currently does, but they would no longer be doing them in isolation as the NPC does now—instead they would be accountable to a larger, more democratic body with much stronger connections to the chapters.
Dysfunction #3: The current NPC is not seen as legitimate.
The NPC is the only democratically elected decision-making body for national DSA, and outside of the conventions, it is the only arbiter of what DSAas an organization thinks or does. But the truth is that many DSA leaders simply don’t trust the NPC or respect its decision-making, and many members see the national organization as irrelevant to the work they are doing in their chapters. In our view, at least some of the criticisms of the NPC and national organization are overblown, or are political arguments made in the guise of procedural concerns. But the sentiments are real and widespread enough that delegates ignore them at our peril. For DSA to be capable of collective action, we need a much bigger, more legitimate forum for decision making between conventions, made up of people who have regular, ongoing, meaningful engagement with DSA chapters. Expanding the NPC can be a major step towards restoring the legitimacy of democratic decision making, a prerequisite to effective collective action.
Dysfunction #4: Serving on the current NPC is too demanding
Anyone who has encouraged a friend or comrade to run for NPC over the last seven years has likely heard many of the same objections—it’s too much work, it’s too much stress, it’s too scary to be in the national spotlight, it would draw me out of fulfilling work I’m doing in my chapter. Those of us who have seen organic leaders in our chapters get elected to the NPC often see the same things—even if those members were deeply engaged in the chapter before, the NPC pulls them away from the vital work and they become less connected to DSA’s membership. For workers with demanding or unpredictable schedules, children, responsibilities in their unions, or just who value preserving some personal time outside of DSA, the commitment required to be an effective NPC member is daunting. This discourages many fantastic DSA leaders from even considering running, and at times it has led to uncompetitive NPC elections (though thankfully not this year.)
Expanding the NPC to 51 will allow many more people to participate in the national leadership, but crucially, by reducing the shared workload and expectations, it will allow many more people to run, which will strengthen our democracy.
Dysfunction #5: The current NPC size drives factionalism
The reality is DSA does currently have a layer of political leaders whose functional role is to connect the thousands of organizer/leaders carrying out DSA’s work to the NPC, and even to hold the NPC members accountable to a certain extent. It just happens that due to our weak structure, that layer is a remarkably nontransparent, unaccountable, highly factional and totally uncoordinated layer of leaders from the competing informal factions, caucuses, and tendencies in DSA—leaders who by the very nature of their roles are not just trying to build DSA, but also build the power of their own organizations within it. If a DSA member gets active in their chapter and wants to have a real influence on the direction of DSA, their best bet under the current structure is unfortunately to join one of the caucuses that is attached to some number of members. As founding members of Socialist Majority Caucus, we appreciate that we’re part of the problem. But in 2019 being part of a caucus seemed like the best way to protect and further the electoral work we had been doing in NYC-DSA, which is what drove us both to get involved in national DSA politics in the first place. To the extent that DSA caucuses are a way for members to organize for their viewpoints, or around internal elections, they are a healthy (or at least, inevitable) expression of democracy. But currently, caucuses are substituting for some of the basic functions that DSA needs to formalize through a stronger national organization.
Expanding the national leadership won’t stop members from organizing through caucuses, nor should it, but it can reduce some of the worst factional dynamics in the organization and bring a lot of conversations that are currently happening behind closed doors (or Zoom rooms) into the light of day. Chapter leaders across the organization can have a formalized political connection to the national organization through an NPC liaison from whom they can get information and whom they can also genuinely challenge on political or organizational questions. This will allow many more members to move from engagement in their chapter to engagement with national DSA without being compelled to choose sides in countless, often esoteric or even personalized, factional conflicts.
Question #1: Why not an intermediate leadership body for DSA?
Some members have asked why this proposal expands the NPC instead of creating an additional body of leaders that has oversight over the NPC. We both believe that a larger intermediate body should be a key part of DSA’s structure and that it is compatible with expanding the NPC. We drafted proposals for a National Organizing Council along these lines that were considered by the 2019 and 2021 conventions, and we strongly believe that if they had passed they could have played an important, positive role in navigating some of DSA’s most challenging political moments over the last 4 years. Unfortunately, neither of those proposals came even close to passing. We believe that this was in part because delegates were rightfully cautious about the risks involved in making substantial changes to DSA’s constitution and governing structures. A more substantial rewrite of the constitution generates a lot more line items to which delegates object, and in DSA’s divided political context many delegates suspect that such changes are secretly meant to empower one faction over another.
Ultimately, in order to get to a more developed structure such as a larger intermediate body, we have to break the impasse on structural reform and bring many more people into leadership. This resolution is just a first step, and we hope delegates will vote for the Democracy Commission resolution alongside Democratize DSA 2023, so the newly expanded NPC will have a clear mandate to start considering additional reform proposals immediately.
Question #2: Won’t the new Steering Committee have all the same problems as the old NPC?
Some members have expressed concerns that many of the dysfunctions they see in the current NPC might simply be recreated in the new, 13-member Steering Committee (SC), or even made worse if the body is made even more insulated from the will of the members. One proposed amendment to Democratize DSA 2023, which is worth considering, would try to address this concern by allowing the convention to directly elect the Steering Committee, rather than the NPC choosing the Steering Committee. But regardless of what delegates decide on that question, we believe the new SC will be very different from the current NPC in a crucial way—it will be carrying out its administrative responsibilities while being accountable to a much larger, more representative body that is far more connected to the chapters and members. The current NPC acting in almost total isolation from the chapter-level life of the organization is what drives the reality and perception of a leadership body disconnected from the needs of the members on the ground. An expanded NPC can provide both the link to the members and the oversight and accountability that are currently lacking.
Question #3: Won’t an election for 51 seats be unwieldy?
Yes, an election to fill 51 seats (or in the case of this year, to fill the 32 at large vacancies created after the convention) is somewhat unwieldy, and certainly not an ideal system. Another amendment to Democratize DSA 2023 contains one possible solution to this issue by allowing for the election to be broken up into regions for the purpose of reducing the ballot size, and making for a more manageable election. But one or two elections with an unwieldy ballot design is a small price to pay for finally taking a first step towards a better system—we cannot wait another 2 or 4 years for change and think it will be any easier to find consensus.
Question #4: Are there enough qualified leaders in DSA to fill 51 seats on the NPC?
Yes, DSA has hundreds of leaders who show in many ways every day that they are willing to make sacrifices for the socialist movement and take responsibility for our organization. The biggest obstacle we face is not identifying qualified potential NPC candidates, it is convincing them to take on what is currently an extremely daunting role. Sharing the workload and shifting the focus of the role to liaising with chapters and leading the organization politically will open the door to many more applicants. When we were asking members of our caucus about running for NPC this year, many who said no also said they’d be willing to run if Democratize DSA 23 passed; many other DSA leaders who we talked to in the course of drafting Democratize DSA 23 have said the same thing.
Question #5: Is 51 members too big?
No, 51 members is still much smaller than the highest decision-making bodies of comparably sized unions and political organizations. It’s fewer than the 80-some delegates to California DSA’s state council, and it’s only about 20 members more than NYC-DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee.
Expanding the NPC through the Democratize DSA 2023 constitutional change and accompanying resolution will not be the last word on reforming DSA’s structure—it is a first but absolutely necessary step. If we fail to take it, the democratic deficit, faction fighting, and lack of faith in the national organization are likely to continue to get worse, regardless of the composition of the next NPC, and with dire consequences for the prospects of the socialist movement in the United States. Delegates should take this opportunity to build a more united, effective, democratic DSA while we have the chance.