Emerson Bannon Cutri reports on this summer’s convention and reflects on what the political dynamics mean for DSA going forward
This summer’s 2020 Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) convention occurred in the midst of one of the most pivotal times in U.S. history, as well as a year of reckoning for the left as a whole. The BLM uprisings, the defeat of Bernie Sanders, the COVID-19 pandemic, and down ballot Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) victories were key events in the past year alone. Whether our movement is at a high point or a low point is still a matter of debate. DSA is taking serious stock of what is needed in the current moment. Broader debates about the role of the organization, how we want to present ourselves, and the organization’s relationship to the wider movement were at the core of the YDSA convention and will likely return at the 2021 DSA national convention.
Debriefs are a great resource in an organization with a steep internal learning curve, so I wish to primarily present an illustrative view of convention processes for future delegates to know what they are getting into. DSA lacks a strong organizational onboarding process, so my goal is to provide a window into an opaque organizing culture. But, of course, I was no dispassionate observer of the proceedings, and this debrief is offered from my own perspective as a convention delegate.
Lead up to convention
The 2019 DSA national convention largely centered around the debate on centralization. It saw the emergence of many of the current notable caucuses, like Bread & Roses and the Collective Power Network. There was broad agreement at the convention over issues like Bernie Sanders and the need to eventually build an independent working class party. For the most part, the more centralized factions won, and a more firm national organization has been established. That largely held true for this convention, with only a small faction opposing centralization.
To state the obvious, 2020 has been an incredibly eventful year for DSA and the country. The end of the Bernie Sanders campaign was a massive defeat that removed one of the elements of general unity across DSA, although it did give way to many Students for Bernie groups transitioning into YDSA chapters. Many of the chapters at the convention were former Students for Bernie groups.
DSA has not endorsed a candidate in the 2020 presidential elections since Bernie Sanders exited the race, offering neither approval nor condemnation of Joe Biden. The pandemic has left a large portion of the country in dire economic straits and entirely shifted the discussion of economic policy. DSA has had a number of resignations from communist members of the National Political Committee (NPC). DSA finally crossed 70,000 members, and DSA members have picked up seats in congressional and state races.
But one of the biggest events central to the year and the YDSA convention was the BLM uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd, which has inaugurated the largest year of civil unrest since 1968. The national organization has given vocal support to the uprisings but has not had a campaign, coalition, or major resources involved. Many chapters have been active in supporting and organizing local actions, but there is still some dissatisfaction with DSA’s response to the protests overall.
The YDSA convention was delegated, with chapters apportioned delegates relative to their number of dues-paying members. Delegates were elected by the chapters. Several new chapters did not report their rosters on-time and were awarded only one delegate, even if they had members for more. Resolutions and constitutional amendments were arranged by asking for primary submissions, then amendments, then final submissions. Amendments approved by a proposal’s original author would be considered “friendly” and incorporated into the text of the resolution as it appeared on the floor; those considered “not friendly” would be voted on separately at the convention.
There were three factions leading up to the convention:
- Bread & Roses– The YDSA section of the national Marxist caucus of the same name.
- Towards Power– A slate running on centralized campaigns, allied with the Collective Power Network.
- Revolutionary Power (RevPower)- A new revolutionary Marxist caucus launched right before the convention allied with Reform & Revolution.
The various factions released their resolutions, hosted town halls, and attempted to win support from delegates through outreach or op-eds. Bread & Roses kept the items it supported and opposed secret until the convention, while Towards Power released a full slate with an official position on each item up for debate. YDSAers independent of the caucuses also attempted to win support for their resolutions, though, without a caucus publication, they had more trouble reaching an audience. Several unaffiliated delegates published their convention op-eds in small publications or on YDSA’s The Activist website. Delegates networked through social media, either on a public platform like Twitter or in more project-oriented services like Slack. Delegates also had a private forum for discussion in the YDSA Slack workspace.
The convention occurred over three days: Friday July 31st, Saturday August 1st, and Sunday August 2nd.
The first day saw a few big-ticket resolutions and a recurring problem: time. There was the resolution to replace regional organizing with national organizing, as well as RevPower’s resolutions to support the BLM uprisings and the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL).The consistent time crunch meant that resolutions at the end of time blocks would be pushed back or have debate shortened. All of the resolutions introduced by Towards Power and Bread & Roses came at the beginning of time blocks. The resolutions related to the uprisings were pushed back after the vote to extend time failed, putting them in limbo until the next day.
After the first day, one other thing became clear: how much influence Bread & Roses would have over the proceedings. Their official delegate tally was 19 (around 15% of the total delegates), but they drew support from many technically unaffiliated delegates, and, at the time, I estimated their total support to half or more of the delegates. They were well-organized and had several amendments on the resolutions that they didn’t introduce. Their operation even had a text-alert system to whip votes.
Things were far more factional than I was expecting. Many of the other unaffiliated delegates worked with a caucus, even if they weren’t members of it. I heard from another delegate that at previous conventions the caucuses were prominent, but people had a greater sense of camaraderie from the shared space. There was no such sense at this convention. Most votes were determined on caucus lines, with people siloed off into their own respective caucuses.
This factionalism was and is a major issue, especially for a growing multi tendency organization. Sometimes, it felt like votes were predetermined. This was especially frustrating during voting on resolutions where it seemed like the major caucuses could extend or end debate whenever they wanted. Overall, the atmosphere created stress and tension between groups. There were a number of minor clashes on Twitter between delegates over the debate and the discussion in the breakout rooms. I think it would be in the organization’s interest for the caucuses to have a discussion on general conduct and maintaining a friendly organizing space.
At this convention, being caucus-independent seemed largely untenable, and this led me to start Green Bloc, an ecolibertarian faction, on Friday night. I was originally unaffiliated, but, after I saw how difficult it was to operate and cohere votes without a faction and the complete lack of organized presence from the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, (LSC) I decided to throw something together. I have always been on the more libertarian/decentral end of things, and I was alarmed there was no real presence of that perspective at the convention. There were a few LSC members and sympathizers among the delegates, so I was able to organize a small group. We had friendly relations with the LSC, but have had no real connection with them or any national caucus. Due to the faction being essentially improvised halfway through the convention, Green Bloc’s aims were limited to representing our perspective on a few votes we found important and uniting sympathetic delegates.
Despite prior concerns, there were no real tech issues throughout the convention. The debate system worked via a stack, alternating speakers for and against, with those who have not yet spoken generally prioritized. By the second day, every group was able to fill a stack queue on-command for votes they found important. When caucuses had already made up their mind about the resolutions months ago, it seemed like the debates were little more than a stressful race to see how fast a caucus could fill up the stack with their supporters.
It was frustrating to see some of the resolutions be denied a fair debate. The large caucuses were able to draw out debate on their resolutions and had the votes to kill debate immediately on any they didn’t care for. One person spoke against the resolution and then someone passed a motion to end debate altogether, with a full stack of people in favor and against the resolution.
On Saturday, there was extended debate on most issues, such as the resolutions to support the uprisings, rank-and-file pipeline, and grievance protocols. If the central question of the 2019 convention was centralization, the question of this convention was whether to adopt a more revolutionary strategy. Many more revolutionary-minded delegates wanted to support the uprisings as a focus, while other delegates wanted to focus on more traditional issues like Medicare for All and union organizing.
With Bernie Sanders out, the strongest tie between DSA and the Democratic Party was severed, and one of the main recurring themes in debate and resolutions was whether to further the independence of DSA as an organization or even to pivot more towards the Green Party. There were a number of resolutions encouraging socialist coalition building, condemning Joe Biden, and strengthening ties with the Green Party from multiple caucuses and unaffiliated delegates, which all failed.
Though the NPC had already given vocal support to the BLM uprisings, RevPower introduced the M4BL campaign resolution to get more specific with support and messaging, which was opposed by the major caucuses on organizational grounds. The resolution was given a non-friendly amendment from Bread & Roses to be merged into the COVID-19 relief campaign. Bread & Roses argued that it recognized the links between racial and economic justice, and RevPower argued it would deprioritize the issue and sideline racial justice in DSA. The amendment passed widely.
There was a contentious fight over a resolution for a new grievance protocol and a non-friendly amendment to make it similar to current protocol, which ended with the whole thing getting sent to YDSA’s national leadership, the National Coordinating Committee (NCC), to figure out.
On Sunday, there was heated debate on a resolution to condemn Joe Biden as an abuser and imperialist and hold a democratic process on whether to issue a call-to-vote for Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins or Party for Socialism and Liberation presidential candidate Gloria La Riva. The latter provision became the center of the debate, despite the protests of the author.
The two closest votes of the convention were on the YDSA constitutional amendments to lift the age cap for YDSA members and to lift the democratic centralist ban. The age cap amendment was introduced by Towards Power and was aimed to further inclusivity and incorporate campus workers into YDSA. That amendment had a slim majority but not the required supermajority, and the vote to end the ban on democratic centralism failed with just under half the votes in favor.
At this point everyone was tired and just sent the remaining items to the NCC. The leadership elections went on caucus lines, with Bread & Roses winning all but one of their slate of candidates and securing both co-chair positions and four at-large NCC positions.
The actual changes that occurred at the convention though were minimal, largely a modified status quo. There were some significant new campaigns, like COVID-19 relief and support for the BLM uprisings. The largest change, spearheaded by Towards Power, was the restructuring of the Regional Organizing Committees into a National Organizing Committee. Green Bloc and RevPower decided to become standing caucuses, while the future of Towards Power is unclear. These new caucuses will likely try to make a greater impact at the 2021 convention.
The rules and Robert’s Rules
I hate Robert’s Rules, and the DSA should scrap them entirely. Beyond them being confusing (another aspect to DSA’s organizational learning curve), they constantly seemed to constrain what could be done at the convention. The only motions we could do were procedural. There was no way to issue a statement or make an amendment to address a delegate’s concerns without suspending the rules completely. The rules were also not applied evenly: a delegate was reprimanded for questioning the motives of an amendment, while other delegates openly lying and being insulting on the convention floor were given a free hand. If one of the delegates is concerned that an amendment was proposed in bad faith, what does scolding them accomplish? Perhap it was not the most proper thing to say, but trying to dismiss them by saying “Robert’s Rules says you aren’t allowed to question people’s motives” does nothing to resolve the situation or change that person’s mind or make them feel heard by their organization.
I am not accusing bad faith or intentional manipulation, but the rules as they stood and in their application favored the major caucuses. Several delegates left feeling that they had not been treated fairly. There is more to leading a successful organization than having the votes to ram through the policies you want. When organizers leave feeling ignored and disillusioned that is a failure on the part of that convention and the organization.
I was incredibly disappointed with how the votes fell. I have to admit I left the convention with my view of the organization somewhat diminished. The reform-minded section seemed completely unwilling to begin building an organization independent of the Democratic Party and equated any attempt to do so with dead-end third party-ism.
The votes also did not change DSA’s reputation as a hostile organizing space, as they were unwilling to condemn Joe Biden as an abuser and punted the grievance protocol to the NCC against the wishes of the resolution author.
The centralist orientation of the dominant factions was concerning, though I was not really surprised and was never expecting Green Bloc to seriously swing votes. Green Bloc largely succeeded in its primary mission, which was to bring a decentralist perspective to a convention that had none previously. Most of the major organizational changes passed were written by Towards Power, which favors heavy centralization, a pursuit of campaigns and campaigns only, and a general deference towards leadership.
I was disappointed but not surprised with many of those resolutions. My bigger fear, however, is that now that a central national organization has been established, at the next conventions they will try to erode chapter autonomy.
While a number of resolutions, like my own, peripherally or indirectly dealt with the uprisings and the M4BL, the two resolutions from RevPower centered them. This surprised RevPower, who explained on the convention floor that they had separated out the demands resolution from the campaign resolution in anticipation of several competing resolutions related to the uprisings. But RevPower ended up being the only faction to bring explicit BLM resolutions to the floor. Their resolution for a M4BL campaign passed after being forcibly merged with COVID-19 relief.
However, the resolution for demands and messaging failed, probably in part due to RevPower’s decision to split the resolutions. Detractors were able to argue the resolution “wasn’t actionable,” a bit of a puzzling argument as we had just passed the campaign resolution. Green Bloc enthusiastically supported both resolutions, but ultimately, with opposition from Towards Power and Bread & Roses, the demands resolution failed. The unwillingness to have focused campaigns centered on racial justice seriously holds DSA back, both in image and practically.
Due to DSA’s virtual absence from the uprisings, I proposed a framework to collaborate and communicate with other organizations, as well as pool resources for a movement that is in desperate need of them. This coalition resolution was defeated decisively with both Towards Power and Bread & Roses apparently opposed it.
As much as there was conflict and drama, the one-on-one interactions with my fellow YDSA members were incredibly good. With the factionalism, I probably make things sound very tense, but what made it tragic is that I would say I made friends in every caucus there. It was the process that made things dehumanizing. I was able to connect with so many good people at the convention, and I can honestly say getting to organize Green Bloc was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.
What comes next
The actual results of the convention are hard to predict. There is an emerging view of YDSA as a campus organization that should involve staff as well as students. The campaigns and reorganization are still underway but were mostly recommitments to past projects. Some of the uncontroversial items like growth, diversification, and political education may not be major changes but are still promising. The M4BL support campaign is the most intriguing resolution passed–I hope to see its success. Green Bloc and RevPower are going to be standing caucuses past the convention, so they will likely reappear at the 2021 YDSA convention. I am going to bet that questions of strategy that were debated here will also be central to the next national convention, especially considering the growth of radical factions like Red Star, Emerge, and the Communist Caucus.
Without fear mongering, we live in a time of many crises. As more of the public sees and is radicalized by the collapse of our political and economic institutions, there is an opportunity to present them a real alternative. Today, DSA is the most powerful socialist organization in the country. I hope that soon it accepts that responsibility and steps up to the challenge.
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Emerson Bannon Cutri is a student and YDSA member currently based in Cincinnati metro and originally from Pennsylvania. He is a co-founder of the Green Bloc YDSA formation and an environmental scientist by trade.