Is DSA Really in Crisis? (Spring/Summer 2023) Responses

Yes, DSA is Really in Crisis
By Joseph H and John Lewis

In a recent piece in Socialist Forum, Emmett McKenna asks whether DSA is really in crisis, and answers the question with a resounding “No.” McKenna, a member of the Socialist Majority Caucus that is currently in the majority faction of the NPC, makes the case that DSA has been building influence in electoral politics by following the tried and true Bernie Strategy, that this “influence” makes DSA the strongest it has ever been, and that we should stay the course despite the hiccups of this NPC term, which are dismissed as “online drama.”

It may be that for the author and their political allies, there isn’t a crisis. DSA is the most influential socialist organization in the US, local candidates are winning races, and we’re forming coalitions with left-liberal groups to advocate for reforms. The article points to abortion protections in Kansas, defense of rent control laws in Maine, and the BPRA passage in New York.

The biggest threat to this winning formula would be a turn toward “sectarian,” “inward facing” debates that scare away potential members. A chief example of this is the “alienating” debates around electoral discipline, like the conflict following Jamaal Bowman’s vote to fund the Iron Dome, or the vote by the Squad to preempt the rail strike. Avoiding internal turmoil and always marching forward with external organizing, primarily around electoral politics, builds coalitions and attracts liberals and moderates who want an alternative to centrist Democrat politics. Such members, in this telling, make up the Silent Majority of DSA, and staying our current course will ensure that DSA doesn’t sink into irrelevance like the sectarian left of past generations.

In this formulation, DSA has no meaningful unresolved political questions, and all that remains is to do the work of running left-wing candidates, winning elections, forming coalitions with progressive allies, and increasing the favorable polling of the term “socialism” among younger and minority demographics. Winning socialism is an organizing problem, not a political problem.

For the rest of us though, enormous crises loom over the upcoming convention. Even a cursory look at DSA’s membership and finances in the last 3 years reveals a stunning failure of electoral do-the-workism to grow or strengthen the organization.

First up is the imminent budget shortfall. At current rates, DSA will be bankrupt before the next convention. Most of our expenses are on staffing, so that means mass resignations or layoffs of our unionized staff, which would essentially drive DSA off a cliff. The article makes no mention of this, but it’s an essential part of many NPC campaigns this session. Staff know this as well. Income-based dues and other revenue-generating methods are being actively promoted by our Director of Development. While most DSA work is done by members at the local chapter level, our staffers are the foundation that keeps the organization going. They offer vital organizing assistance, connect members, help organizing committees and chapters get off the ground and perform a multitude of administrative and highly skilled support that we would be immensely worse off without. Layoffs could cause a domino effect of staff burnout, creating a toxic environment where jobs are both unattractive and untenable.

Underlying the budget emergency is a membership crisis. This is dismissed as unimportant in the article, which also misstates or elides some important information. DSA tracks two main membership statistics: members in good standing (MIGS) and lapsed members. The first category includes everyone who has paid their dues within the last year. The second category is those who are up to one year behind; that is, up to 2 years from having paid dues. Together, these two categories compose our constitutional membership, which peaked around Spring 2021 at 94,000 with 78,000 MIGS.

Currently we have around 76,000 constitutional members and below 60,000 MIGS, with the numbers steadily declining each month, as predicted by our Director of Development at the 2022 Q1 National Political Committee meeting. This trend has continued since then. We have also lost chapters over this period, with existing chapters failing faster than new ones are being chartered.

Lapsed members are sometimes pointed to as a potential organizing fix to this problem, as if most people who stop paying dues would re-up immediately if they were reminded. While doing this work will be an essential task for the incoming NPC, it’s a false hope as an apolitical way to right the ship. Our last recommitment drive had very little impact on the consistent downward trajectory of our membership numbers. Callers get a hold of very few of the lapsed members on their lists, and of these only some fall into the “I forgot to renew” category.

It’s essential for us to acknowledge this situation and examine our current organizing patterns. This doesn’t have to be exclusively tied to any faction or leader of the organization, but rather should indicate that our entire system of organizing is struggling right now. If we are going to survive, we must change this system.

When someone wants to make membership seem higher, they typically quote the constitutional membership, even though it includes people who have essentially quit the org as much as a year ago, or who may have never attended a meeting or come to an event. It’s an echo of members that stopped paying dues and dropped off many months ago. When someone wants to reflect how many members who are at least somewhat actively engaged in the org, at least enough to not resent texts and membership costs, they count MIGS.

In the piece, the author blithely says, “Even if DSA’s membership were to decline to the 70,000s from its current level, that would still be nearly twelve times as large as DSA was before the Trump-era surge and five times as big as DSA’s height before 2016.” Not only had MIGS membership dropped below 60,000 well before the piece was written, it also betrays a vastly different expectation of what DSA should be. Prior to 2016, DSA was extremely marginal as a political force, with a membership roughly equal to the United States Cactus and Succulent Society, and we can’t be content with being only 12 times as large. In addition, the overhead costs of DSA are vastly greater, with over 30 staffers, a national office, and dues sharing arrangements with local chapters that didn’t exist in the Before Time.

The stakes are extremely high for anyone concerned with making sure that DSA becomes a viable force for building socialism in the US – a fundamentally different question that proponents of an “influential” DSA are not as concerned with.

The difference in these analyses comes down to different conceptions of power; in the author’s analysis, member’s dues, time, and effort are being invested to cultivate electoral influence, thereby building the power that will eventually be used to legislate socialism. In our analysis, electoral campaigns are just one method among many by which to recruit new members, develop organizers, and build the robust democratic mass movement that forms the actual basis of socialist power.

The Green New Deal and PRO Act campaigns, (two of the NPC-selected priorities for the last term) were legislative campaigns that depended entirely on following the lead of electeds and offered little or nothing for most chapters to engage with outside of phone banking and turnout campaigns. The organizing conditions in DSA that emerged from the Bernie 2016 campaign have created a culture that emphasizes electoral “wins” guided by dedicated staff and member donations. This culture has led electorally-oriented members, committees, and caucuses to flourish, as the pursuit of winning led to an increasing share of org resources being funneled to electoral campaigns.

The Bernie Bumps in 2016 and 2020, which are essentially the entire organizational history of the current DSA, led by default to a preeminent role of electoral organizing around presidential campaigns. We organized and hired staff as if we should expect boom after boom every four years, but the Biden presidency has clearly shown the naivety of that, and DSA is deep in the middle of a historic membership bust.

It’s clear that this orientation hasn’t had the advertised effect of recruiting and retaining a membership energized by electoral success. As our electoral apparatus became over-developed, the rest of the organization atrophied. Even discounting the effect this has had on active membership, which is notoriously hard to define, our donor base of paper members has continued to shrink. The membership at large is clearly not enthused about being part of DSA, and the staff apparatus that was built with the expectation of waves of excited dues-payers joining during the Biden years is about to sputter out.

The value proposition of DSA versus the non-profit landscape is not its ability to offer electoral “work” to politically inclined volunteers, but the promise of giving dues-paying members the opportunity to make political decisions at the local and national levels, and to develop and participate in a democratic culture. The political positions of the national organization, good or bad, aren’t enough. There needs to be a place for people to take hold of DSA’s levers of power. In practice, hands-on decision-making occurs primarily in chapters, which provide in-person events, projects targeting local issues, and regular democratic debate and votes to practice being part of a member-run organization.

We should expect our membership to ebb and flow with political events outside of our control. There have been claims, in my view exaggerated, that a lack of elected discipline or a lack of principled internationalism has a direct link to membership decline. Looking at the graph, there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between membership drop-off and any particular event; rather, people who joined during the Trump presidency just stop renewing dues. One year later they stop being MIGS, and 2 years later they stop being a member at all. We’ve dropped the ball on things that are under our control, and that we need to develop in order to sustain a functional org during the downturns. The lack of national support for a vibrant, democratic organizing culture at local chapters is the biggest self-inflicted wound during this NPC term.

We see the current scenario, in which electoral success occurs amid a drop-off of membership, as an enormous crisis which can only be resolved by totally supplanting the theory of socialist power building that currently decides the direction of the organization, and putting all of the national organization’s resources and infrastructure into building a more dynamic and participatory local culture. Retaining and reactivating members requires building a different organizing environment than the one that prompted them to stop paying dues.

When McKenna talks about a crisis in DSA, they are talking about a crisis of electoral work. In this paradigm, DSA’s most important resource is the influence it wields as an electoral vehicle for social democrats on the Democratic Party ballot line, much like the Working Families Party or Sunrise Movement. If DSA collapses, the project of electing left-leaning Democrats could be carried out equally well by some other organization. But the truly vital project of building a mass democratic movement is the unique challenge of DSA as the largest socialist organization in the U.S.

The article uses the public perception of socialism as a proxy for the success of DSA, but it’s very possible for DSA to collapse while the favorable polling of socialism remains high. This would be a generational setback for the effort to institute material change. Many ideas remain popular but flounder for lack of a coherent force to push for them. DSA is that force for socialism in the US, and its internal politics and governance must be seriously considered, rather than dismissed in favor of “doing work.” The crisis isn’t about The Work, it’s about DSA as an organization, as the emerging vehicle for socialist transformation in the U.S. Attention to the finances, membership, structure, and internal politics of DSA is an essential and intensely political investigation that affects the future of the country and the world. Taking socialism seriously means taking DSA seriously, and not dismissing internal struggles as “drama” that should be ignored by serious leaders.

An investment by National organization in a vibrant democratic culture would require a sweeping change in how we currently operate. We can begin by investigating the state of our chapters, via a report proposed in Red Star’s GDC Amendment. Knowledge gained from our collective practice is the guide that we need through uncharted waters and uncertain situations. By learning from the successes and failures of our chapters in on-boarding, engaging, retaining, and renewing members, we can identify best practices and replicate them across the organization, a process that is currently done informally and unevenly. Local chapters are the primary site of growth and development in our organization, and involving them in the national body tasked with improving this work is essential to its success.

Secondly, when National starts thinking about which campaigns to prioritize, and how they should be carried out, it should base its decisions around what opportunities exist for local chapters to plug into them, to make political and strategic decisions, and to recruit new members. Campaigns like EWOC are making this change via their locals, which allow DSA chapters and labor formations to plug directly into a national infrastructure including training, support, and resources. While by no means perfect, this represents a positive change in National’s orientation. Instead of turning to local chapters as labor pools for big national phone banking campaigns, EWOC is directing its national infrastructure toward supporting and developing local chapter organizers. You can also see similar work playing out with the Housing Justice Commission’s Emergency Tenant Organizing Committee, ETOC.

The firsthand experience of on-the-ground organizers represents a huge wealth of valuable information that DSA isn’t currently able to fully harness, and the developed infrastructure and staff resources are rarely able to be effectively offered to chapters. Building this feedback loop, and empowering local organizers to take on big political projects, develop as leaders, and gradually move into more responsible positions in regional and national formations is a core part of our vision for a DSA that can fully use its members’ abilities as organizers rather than phone bank volunteers.

The debate over whether DSA is in crisis stems from these two very different visions of what the leading socialist organization in the US should be. If it should be nothing more than a pressure campaign within the Democratic Party web, then there is no crisis. If it should become a mass member led organization, powerful and sophisticated enough to coordinate a multifaceted campaign to overthrow capitalism, then there is a crisis that needs to be solved with all the urgency our new leadership can muster.

Red Star is talking about this crisis because we see that future party on the other side of it, and because we’re committing our efforts and leadership to help get through it. Our Leadership Pledge has been signed by NPC candidates and delegates from across DSA (both geographically and politically) who see this as a pivotal moment, when the organization needs to reckon with the accumulated debt of years of poor governance and “Left Wing of the Possible” inertia. They’ve committed to facing our crisis head on, facing the challenges and hard decisions of the upcoming NPC term, and not turning towards the illusion of our growing “influence” in Democratic Party politics.

Joseph H is from DSA San Francisco and John Lewis is from New Orleans DSA.