The NPC Needs Improvements. But “Democratize DSA” Isn’t It.

An argument against the “Democratize DSA 2023" resolution at the upcoming national convention.

Democratize DSA (CB1), a proposal at this year’s national convention, is a bylaws change that would dramatically reshape the National Political Committee (NPC). Marxist Unity Group urges delegates to vote no.

What is the National Political Committee?

The NPC is DSA’s highest decision-making body between conventions. It consists of 16 members elected at DSA’s national convention and two YDSA co-chairs who each have half a vote.

Once elected, the NPC elects a five person Steering Committee (SC), which is required to meet at least bimonthly. The SC is responsible for decision-making between NPC meetings, planning meetings and agendas for the NPC, and coordinating the work of the committees of the NPC.

The remaining 11 NPC members are the At-Large NPC members. DSA bylaws require them to act as liaisons to national commissions, as well as to regional and state bodies and chapters. The full NPC is responsible for staff, finances, publications, and education. The NPC is responsible for hiring and discharging staff as necessary, and hears expulsion cases.

What happens in practice?

Many of the NPC’s decisions are made outside of meetings of the full NPC and with little deliberation through Loomio, an asynchronous online voting tool. The procedures for online voting by the NPC have been criticized and reforms have been made, but frustrations persist. There are complaints of overwork and burnout, but participation is extremely uneven (some NPC members serve on multiple committees while others serve on none). Despite recent efforts by NPC members to attend the district calls held by staff Field Organizers, the required liaising with chapter leaders has historically not happened.

What changes does CB1 make?

CB1 triples the size of the NPC to 51 members. 48 members would now be elected at the national convention, a major increase from the current 16. YDSA representatives expand from 2 members sharing a vote to 3 with their own individual votes. Once elected, the NPC would choose a 13 member SC and have the ability to recall any SC member.

Several powers of the NPC or other committees would be given to the SC. Steering would now be in charge of taking applications for the National Director position and recommending candidates for hire. The power to hire and fire regular staff would be taken from the NPC and given to the SC. Expulsion decisions would be made by the SC, instead of the full NPC.

CB1 could be summarized as adding many more people in the interest of adding capacity, and changes that mean the At-Large members need to vote less between quarterly meetings of the full NPC.

What does CB1 do? 

The rationale for CB1 in the convention compendium states that the NPC is too small for an organization that exploded in size over the past few years. In their own words, “the “NPC” would become an entirely new body; being on the NPC would no longer require a taxing full-time commitment, but could instead be as simple as attending quarterly NPC meetings, liaising with DSA chapters, and serving on a national committee, working group or commission. The NPC would retain its role as the highest decision making body in the organization between conventions, and would have deliberative, voting meetings in which it made binding political decisions, but would no longer serve as the executive body running the day to day operations of the organization.”

The authors write that their efforts to change leadership structures have failed at the past conventions, and describe CB1 as the simplest way to expand DSA’s leadership. However, the simplest way to expand DSA’s leadership is found in the recommendation unanimously put forward by the 2019-2021 NPC to expand the committee from 16 people to 25 without other changes. It is unclear why a massive expansion that shifts the balance of power on the committee must be done before attempting this much smaller change.

The rationale of CB1 primarily talks about increasing the capacity of our leadership. Adding more people to solve a capacity problem does not always have the intended result. If the NPC cannot ensure even distribution of work and adequate participation while there are 11 At-Large members, the drastic expansion in CB1 provides no solutions. Putting more people into a disorganized body will make it even more chaotic. The NPC must agree on who is responsible for making sure all NPC duties are fulfilled, which will be even more difficult with 51 people.

CB1 uses the familiar name of NPC but dismantles the committee as we know it. The sheer number of SC meetings between voting opportunities for At-Large members ensures that almost all decisions will be made by the SC. The authors describe the At-Large members as empowered to make “binding political decisions” while the SC handles day-to-day operations. The SC’s duties should not be overlooked: all of these daily decisions impact DSA resources and functioning, and they are political choices. The primary decision-making function of At-Large members will be to occasionally confirm or overturn SC decisions. This may seem like a minor distinction, but there are already problems with NPC members being denied information on decisions they are responsible for. If At-Large members are demoted from making decisions to reviewing SC votes, this problem is almost certain to increase.

CB1 transforms At-large members from equal members of top leadership into a new intermediate body that (supposedly) provides accountability to the SC and connects membership to them. However, CB1 does not provide any of the democratic structure necessary for a successful intermediary body. Increased time for chapter leader liaising is presented as a hollow stand-in for accountability and connection with DSA membership. Increased liaising with chapter leaders would be a good thing, but it is not the same as a clearly defined duty to engage with membership. Nor is increased liaising a mandate to represent membership as an intentionally designed middle layer would. Telling members there is now an accountable oversight method for our top leadership without actually having one is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

What about the elections and amendments?

If CB1 passes, convention would not select the people who make most of the important national decisions. Factions could coordinate to choose voting methods that would allow them to turn a slim majority on the NPC into a controlling super-majority on the SC. An alternative amendment for consideration would implement a direct election for the SC by convention delegates. While this amendment is an improvement over CB1, it does not fix how the body would function in office.

An amendment to the procedures for the special election states that the Convention Committee may use regions for the candidate elections. This amendment is intended to avoid incomprehensible rankings on an endless ballot in an election for 48 positions. Election by regions is not inherently problematic, but we all know the importance of maps to election results. The way in which these regions are created has a huge role in determining the winners. If members object to how the regions are set and lack avenues to appeal, the lack of advance approval by convention or membership could lead to a legitimacy crisis.

Small changes in how an election is run can have enormous effects on the results. We should not rush a bylaws change that requires many leaps of faith to (hopefully) have coherent elections. Changes of this magnitude should go through the Democracy Commission (Member-Submitted Resolution #10: Launch a Democracy Commission for DSA)  to allow delegates to evaluate whether these new methods of electing our leadership are acceptable.

What should be done? 

There are many possible improvements to our national leadership that do not create a lower tier of NPC members. The NPC could be expanded to 25 people as stated in the 2019-2021 NPC’s unanimous recommendation. The NPC should use the quorum requirements set in the bylaws to meet more frequently to reduce decisions deferred to the SC or made without debate. The NPC should adopt and enforce standards for the quality and quantity of liaising work for each NPC member. An intermediate body connecting DSA members to our top decision-makers between conventions must give members a democratic structure to engage with, not an arbitrarily assigned leadership liaison who can ignore membership.

Marxist Unity Group recommends voting no on CB1, with or without amendments.