Reflections on the 2021 DSA National Convention

A veteran DSA member reflects on the recent national convention and our organization's tasks moving forward.

The article below reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Socialist Forum editorial committee, any particular DSA caucus, or any other group or affiliation. We invite our readers to submit responses to this piece in the spirit of democratic debate and dialogue – eds.

The 2021 Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) national convention was a step towards maintaining our consensus on issues such as labor and electoral strategy, while advancing existing momentum around internationalism and a new organization-wide platform. The National Political Committee (NPC) election results, however, left much to be desired. In my view, the convention’s decision to adopt Single Transferable Vote instead of Borda had serious, even if unintentional, racialized outcomes that reduced Black leadership in DSA.

The convention programming was a watermark of the rise of DSA both here and abroad. US House of Representatives members Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) participated in formal remarks, something none of the Squad did in 2019. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) sent regards from the sit-in for a rent moratorium extension Cori Bush (D-MO) led at the U.S. Capitol. Former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff were two of the international guests. My previous seven DSA conventions only had one or two speakers of that prominence. Both DSA’s rise and the unique online nature of 2021 gathering compared to other conventions contributed to both. .

DSA delegates largely defeated amendments and resolutions put forward by hardline factions such as Socialist Alternative (SAlt) dual-carders. If adopted, these measures would have isolated DSA in both mass union work and national politics. The labor and electoral resolutions the convention passed were consensus motions written by delegates from multiple caucuses and delegate-members who are not aligned with any caucus, as well as members of the Democratic Socialist Labor Committee and National Electoral Committee, respectively.

On labor, a SAlt-backed resolution that described the existing union movement leadership as the main barrier to the further growth and development of the workers’ movement was defeated soundly, 156-898 (all vote totals can be found here).

Concerning electoral politics, a motion from Reform and Revolution, a group primarily not exclusively composed of former SAlt members who have joined DSA, and one from some members of the Bread & Roses caucus (which was not backed by the caucus as a whole) were both defeated. The latter amendment sought to emphasize a “dirty break” to electoral strategy; discourage DSA-backed candidates from endorsing corporate Democrats; and explore alternatives to VAN, a Democratic Party-sponsored voter database. The Reform and Revolution-backed amendment was defeated in a 359-623 vote, but the “dirty break” amendment failed by a narrower margin, 442-577.

I was happily surprised this amendment failed; its defeat demonstrates a shift against the official “dirty break” position the national convention adopted in 2019. As the new DSA matures, a consensus seems to be building that emphasizing a “break” with Democrats per se can be alienating to voters we need to win over, and put DSA-backed elected officials in a difficult position.

DSA did not need to officially endorse Biden over Trump in the 2020 election, but it likely would have been counterproductive to ask elected officials to do the same. If DSA had asked elected officials to not endorse, this likely would have alienated the organization from officeholders rather than producing non-endorsements. Both DSA itself and DSA officeholders need to maintain flexibility on these questions.

Other stand-alone resolutions to narrow our political work were handily defeated, including a Tempest-backed proposal (232-754) that would have greatly limited what national DSA could do with elected officials and a SAlt-backed amendment (151-838) that would have called on DSA electeds to forego and donate part of their salary.

Many of the resolutions and constitutional/bylaws proposals that were backed by only one caucus failed. This go-it-alone approach probably tanked proposals that might have otherwise won majority support from the delegates.

My own caucus, Socialist Majority, proposed a resolution to create an intermediate body between the NPC and chapters that failed by roughly a two-to-one margin. It failed even after I proposed an amendment to the resolution that would have limited the proposed body to making recommendations for constitutional changes while leaving the power to actually make changes in the hands of the convention. My sense is that a lack of buy-in from other caucuses was a big reason it did not pass, even though there is a consensus that we need more structures between the NPC and the local chapters. To that end, DSA members are starting to build more statewide organizations like in California positive development supported by the passage of the outgoing NPC’s set of recommendations.

The Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) resolution to provide more funding to the youth section and stipends for YDSA leaders also failed, after being removed from the convention’s consent agenda. My sense is that it was removed largely because of the estimated cost of the resolution. The resolution’s backers also didn’t do much outreach to YDSA alumni and other stakeholders, which I think also helped to ensure its defeat. Had the authors secured more support from a broader set of members, especially those with student organizing backgrounds and history in YDSA, it could have passed.

One notable resolution that passed was a matching funds proposal to help chapters get funding for staff and offices. It was initially proposed by Bread & Roses members, but some of the resolution’s authors reached out for feedback and advice ahead of time – unlike with some of the caucus’s other proposals which were defeated – which helped this pass with the support of over three-fifths of the body.

Proposals putatively aimed at creating more “democratic accountability,” but likely would have generated more internal organizational conflict, were soundly defeated. This included motions to mandate the Single Transferable Vote (STV) method for all elections in DSA (320-732); establish a recall process for NPC members and replace NPC vacancies by national election (236-799); and elect the National Director by a membership vote (256-811). The fighting between factions (and sometimes even former caucus-mates) over convention week created an atmosphere less open to effectively prolonging convention season by creating more organization-wide internal elections and votes.

A global solidarity resolution put forward by Emerge, a caucus based in the New York City chapter, may have failed (by a 270-653 margin) for similar reasons: single-caucus support, plus delegates’ wariness of more internal elections. For example, it called for the International Committee’s (IC’s) Secretariat to be elected. As a former member of the IC’s Steering Committee, I disagreed with this proposal because unlike other DSA bodies the IC has a diplomatic function. Its leadership should represent the will of the organization expressed through the NPC which currently and rightly selects the members of the Steering Committee and Secretariat.

Additionally, the body passed an international resolution just two days earlier after it was removed out of the consent agenda. That resolution reflected current trends in the IC; its most notably policy change calls on DSA join the São Paulo Forum (Foro São Paulo, FSP) which includes a diverse range of left-wing parties across the Americas. I voted to remove the resolution from the consent agenda because I felt joining any international association needed public debate, and I ultimately voted for the resolution.

Something that a few people have overlooked is that DSA delegates passed a new platform for the organization by unanimous consent. Unlike other DSA platforms, such as the Resistance Rising document that was created after more than a year of debate last decade, this platform came about in a few months of discussions alongside the convention proposals. The delegates also rejected by a 340-640 vote a constitutional proposal to make members accountable to the platform. I believe this was because delegates felt despite good-faith arguments to the contrary, platform items would be unfairly weaponized against DSA members and elected officials.

The NPC election was, in my view, much less successful than the other outcomes. The final number of candidates was just 20 out of an original two dozen, after several candidates dropped out due to personal reasons and caucus-related disputes.The loss of so many candidates was not healthy for DSA’s democracy and I believe this also helped proposals like stipends for NPC Steering Committee members (which I opposed) narrowly pass. About half of the 16 NPC incumbents are returning, which was similar to the first four conventions I attended. This institutional memory is a welcome departure from the past couple of conventions where only two incumbents were re-elected each event.

Against the recommendations of the convention’s Credentials Committee, the convention voted to use STV instead of Borda for the NPC election. Borda likely would have led to the election of more broadly consensual candidates whereas STV favored candidates with strong but limited support. Two of five Socialist Majority candidates, who would have been elected under Borda but lost under STV, were incumbents and Black.

The convention was successful in keeping DSA on the path of its effective electoral strategy and growing labor work. In addition, the defeat of resolutions and constitutional proposals that would have turned the organization inward saved us from unnecessary difficulties and likely self-marginalization. DSA has a long way to go in having more comradely debate, although the incoming leadership looks to continue the collaboration developed by the outgoing NPC. As DSA adapts to a return of a Democratic presidency, more unity is needed as external enemies and events will not provide the unplanned membership surges seen in the last four years.