When DSA is a Family Affair

A father and son, both members of DSA, talk about the challenges facing our organization and our movement.

For Dominic Driscoll and Don Driscoll, DSA is a family affair. Dominic has been a DSA member for 8 years, and his father, Don, has been a member since 1983. They recently had a wide-ranging conversation about democratic socialism, DSA, and the challenges facing the democratic socialist movement. Socialist Forum presents an edited transcript here in the interest of promoting inter-generational dialogue in DSA.

Dominic Driscoll: I’m pretty sure I asked you this when I was a kid. I may be biased growing up in a red household, but I think every kid starts out as a socialist until it is drilled out of them. Everyone doing their part and sharing is important. These are two key components of preschool. I still call myself a socialist, anarchist, or whatever I’m feeling that day for ethical reasons. I still hold onto what I was taught, that all people are created equal, that we should seek to improve the world with love in our hearts, and that everyone should have a say. Apparently, because capitalism is opposed to all those concepts, I am some sort of radical. How about you?

Don Driscoll: It started at home and at Mass. I listened when our priest talked about loving your neighbor and taking care of the least of these. Your grandparents lived and taught us those values and actions, fighting for school desegregation and funding, participating in their unions, and working to elect women to office. Later I understood that it was family tradition: Irish Wobblies, Italian anarchists, and women who demanded their place in the world. We were taught to fight for ourselves and for others. Simply put, I am a socialist because human beings matter and we are all in this together.

Dominic Driscoll: Why did you join DSA?

Don Driscoll: I turned 14 in 1979, and my teen years were radicalizing. Ronald Reagan was elected, launching the corporate right’s deregulation of capital and globalization. They forced plant closings, created mass unemployment, went to war with labor, and intervened in Central America. Four of my uncles were laid off. The Soviets repressed dissent and invaded Afghanistan, while the Chinese Communist Party repressed dissent and invaded Vietnam. Nuclear war seemed possible.

I start fighting and looking for answers. I got involved with union and peace activists. I started reading and looking for answers. Massive resistance was flowering, especially in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and South Africa. It was crystal clear that both capitalism and “communism” needed to go. I decided I was fighting for a world where every human is valuable, collectively and individually, and where people are subjects and not objects. The only solution is a society that is democratic in every way.

DSA had those values, and the strategy was common sense. There is no mass movement for socialism without uniting the progressive forces. Those forces have been gathering in the Democratic Party since the 1930s, which is when our family started voting Democrat. It helped that I could explain it to my great-aunt.

Dominic Driscoll: Did you keep paying dues?

Don Driscoll: My compas and I dug in as organizers in unions and social movements. I went to work in the South, where DSA largely wasn’t. I want to stay connected to the democratic left around the world. And the strategy still made sense. I was glad I stayed because in 2016  Bernie executed that strategy and the ground shifted. Suddenly, I went from being the youngest person at meetings to the oldest.

Why did you come along with me to that first meeting?

Dominic Driscoll: I was looking for a new place to organize that focused on the problems at hand. DSA had this energy that “anything was possible if we put our minds to it.” I haven’t seen that in many other places.

That said, I think DSA faces some big internal challenges. There is a bad habit in the organization, especially when we look at the national level, of looking at others in the organization that we disagree with as enemies or “not real socialists” instead of what they are, which are comrades with different opinions. This has led to some “cut your nose off to spite your face” behavior. We see members will ignore a point not based on its validity but on who is saying it and if their side can “win.” This type of mindset is unhealthy and detrimental to all of us, both as individual organizers and as a greater organization.

Don Driscoll: The energy of young activists was electrifying and filled me with hope. I also saw toxic internal conflict and an absence of trust. I have some impressions as to why based on my experience in Seattle DSA, and from my work in Texas and Florida.

Most of our activists are relatively new to radical politics. With shrinking civic engagement and unions, many activists have never been in functional, sustained organizations. In uncertain times people tend to look for certainty. There have always been tendencies in the socialist movement to believe that only one line is correct and that those who disagree with us are the enemy. When you add in a pandemic that challenges the personal connections that build trust and understanding, you have a recipe for conflict. It also put us out of contact with the bulk of our membership, with many falling behind on their dues.

Dominic Driscoll: A major piece of declining membership is opening up accessibility. Right now we are running into a problem we’ve had since the founding of the organization, which is how to accommodate parents of young children. While hybrid meetings have helped with this, we still need to have our chapters have events that are accessible to parents with children. Mobilizing members is the best way to prevent them from leaving or letting their dues lapse. Another major component is chapter culture. We need to make sure we are using our ears to listen to people and their concerns, even if we disagree with them. For example, I’ve talked to many disabled comrades who have had issues with the accessibility of meetings and socials, especially the immunocompromised.

Beyond that, when we look to remobilize inactive members and recruit new people, we need to listen to them just as much as we talk to them. We have one mouth and two ears, and we need to use that to our advantage.

Don Driscoll: Well, the number one way is to ask people to join and rejoin. It will work better if we think about who we are talking to and create modes of participation that make sense. You can’t build a mass party if the organization isn’t accessible, and not just inaccessible meetings, but programs that make sense. Done right, electoral campaigns that build mass support build membership.

There has been a lot of discussion about internal democracy in DSA. Do you think we have issues with internal democracy, and if so, how should we address it?

Dominic Driscoll: Yes, DSA has a democracy problem. This is unsurprising for an organization that has grown magnitudes in size in under a decade. Couple that growth with a lot of passion, but limited political experience, and you get to where we are.

While there are macro issues that need to be addressed, I think we need to address the DSA culture first and foremost. While DSA has very low official barriers of entry (and this is our strength), some issues make it intimidating for newer members to engage easily. A good example would be the widespread use of Robert’s Rules of Order. While it can be useful, Robert’s Rule of Order can be very unwieldy, overly complicated, easy to abuse, inefficient as all get out, and very intimidating. This leads to lower participation from newer members. Along with our active members who don’t have time to study parliamentary procedure, 98% of which is not remotely necessary or makes sense.

Having some more requirements for chapter democracy is important as well. We need one consistent policy for issues like the power of steering committees, expulsions, rules for both bylaw changes and resolutions, elections, and even chapter cultures. This is especially important for dissent. We are an organization that believes in radical democracy, and part of that is understanding that often the minority may have a point.

On a national level, it would be wise to utilize the convention delegates more. Technically, a delegate’s term lasts until the next convention. The National Political Committee (NPC) often has carte blanche to make whatever decisions they think we want. While this makes sense when we cannot communicate directly, we have technology that allows 750 people to communicate and vote across the country. We need to build structures allowing the convention to be an oversight body for the NPC outside convention. If our NPC is having issues and acting in a way that doesn’t reflect well on the organization, we should have the right to oust them or override their ruling. This is a part of bottom-up organizing and radical democracy.

I know we’ve had many discussions about this before, and a large part of it is the gap between the membership and the national level of the organization. Most of our work is going to be local, which is a good thing, but there is this gap between our national work and local work that isn’t just communication issues.

We have a missing middle that doesn’t allow us to effectively address state or regional issues. We need democratic state and regional work not only to provide a path to national organizing for members, but also to allow us to address state-level actions like state initiatives, state-wide Socialists in Office committees, gubernatorial campaigns, and state-wide direct action. We could also undertake actions like helping members move people safely across states to address things like inadequate reproductive healthcare and gender-affirming care.

When it comes to caucuses in DSA, my thoughts are a little complicated. I am a member of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, and you are not in a caucus. I think caucuses have become important because they are filling a vacuum in the organization around political education and discourse. I think having them as formations is nice, but it fills the need for lines of communication in the chapter. We do need to emphasize them less, however. The fact of the matter is that most of the organization is not in any caucus. I think that’s good as it has prevented factionalism from overtaking the organization. That being said, I think we need to make sure caucuses do not cause factionalization. We have seen a bit of this already, but we know from history this can kill us as an organization. Caucus beef needs to be squashed because it is not conducive to constructive organizing, and it is often picked up by new caucus members who have nothing to do with whatever issues have taken place in the past. I also think the “left vs. right” dichotomy some promote regarding caucuses is frankly a false dichotomy. It doesn’t accurately capture people’s politics.

DSA faces plenty of external challenges and problems too. To me, and I think we agree on this, there is the threat of fascism both at home and abroad. Currently, we are running into the United States openly supporting a fascist regime in Israel. This is going to cause a fascist regime to be more likely stateside. While this is not a call to support Joe Biden, it is important to acknowledge that a second Trump administration would be much more dangerous than the first one and prepare for it.

Don Driscoll: When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. We do agree that this is the moment I have been worrying about all your life. Faced with this situation, what do you think we should be focusing on as an organization?

Dominic Driscoll: I’ve never been a huge fan of this question as it can lead us to pit ourselves, especially our working groups, against each other for resources. In reality, we need to be fighting on all fronts as it were. That means we need to focus on electoral, labor, community building, and direct action. In my experience, when we are working on all of these approaches they end up strengthening each other instead of detracting from each other. It is important to be in the streets and to be at the ballot box. If you only focus on one it’s easier to lose both. Even for small chapters, it’s possible, but this makes coalitions super important. Chapters don’t have to run their own mutual aid program or field cadre candidates, but you can encourage people to go to others in the community. You don’t need to lead street actions, but you can help with specific parts of the actions.

This is especially true when we are addressing issues like fascism because history has shown that if you leave a political/communal flank open, the fascists will hit you there. That includes the halls of power and the streets. Coalitions are going to be important to form an organized popular front that covers all aspects of society. This is the only way that we, as people, are going to survive.