Since people are announcing NPC candidacies and we'll be voting in just a couple of weeks, I'd like to offer some suggestions to help our choices.
I've been a DSA member for 10 years and in that time I've watched five different NPCs come and go, a few of which rather closely. When I was co-chair of YDS a few years ago, I attended a lot of NPC sessions, and I've spent the last two years serving on the NPC myself. I feel I can confidently say based on my observations that most NPCs have not been very effective, but that there has been a very marked improvement in how well the NPC has operated over the past few years.
This NPC (2015-2017) has, relatively speaking, been an extremely high-functioning and dedicated group that has accomplished a tremendous amount in extremely trying circumstances. These have been probably the most explosive, exciting, and demanding two years of DSA's history, and I'm very grateful for the very long hours that my fellow NPC members put in to keep the organization together and to meet the enormously increased demands facing us -- particularly the five on the Steering Committee: Liz Henderson, Peg Strobel, Jared Abbott, Joe Schwartz and Jose Gutierrez.
I'm not running again (I need to take two years off to write a dissertation), but I want to offer some insider's advice that I hope will be useful both to people considering running for the NPC and to people considering which candidates to vote for. So, here are what I see as some of the most important criteria for a good NPC member:
- Be able to treat the NPC like a part-time job, 10-20 hours a week. The NPC works well only when most or all of its members are able to devote a substantial amount of their time to NPC work. Some of this is common work shared by the whole NPC: reviewing and approving new chapter and organizing committee applications (there have been a lot); debating, writing and editing official political statements; giving staff guidance; attending three in-person NPC meetings in NYC each year; and more. But much of the time each member puts in is devoted to separate committee work. The NPC is responsible for directing the national committees and working groups, and in most cases an NPC member assumes the lead on one or more of these groups. For instance, when I came on two years ago, I volunteered to head up the social media and graphic design committee and the internationalism working group, and participate in the political education committee. A majority of the average NPC member's time should go into this committee work.
I've found that I've only really been able to pursue my NPC duties to the fullest in periods when I've been able to devote 10-20 hours a week to them. In other periods, when I've felt I could only do 5 hours a week or so, that meant letting some responsibilities fall through the cracks. I know Liz Henderson's told me she winds up spending about 40 hours a week on DSA (mostly NPC but also chapter responsibilities)! The ability and commitment to reliably devote 10-20 hours a week to NPC work, I think, is a very important criterion for candidates.
- Be very self-motivated and self-organized. On the NPC nobody will (or should) tell you what to do. You don't work for staff -- staff works for you. You elect and delegate to the Steering Committee -- the Steering Committee is not your boss. You are each equally the elected representatives of DSA, and you owe it to those who elected you to act like it. The NPC falters if certain members make other members have to organize them to get them to be active -- it succeeds if the members organize themselves and all share a high level of motivation, and come up with their own plans. Since most members head up at least one national committee or working group, it's very important that the member really take a pro-active role in organizing and coordinating those groups. If someone instead waits around for someone else to take initiative or to organize them, those groups tend to flounder. This has happened to some of my committee assignments because I haven't been able to devote enough time to them.
- Don't have a position of leadership in a local chapter. Because being on the NPC puts so many demands on your time, it's impossible for almost anyone to do a decent job on the NPC if they're also committed to a position of leadership in their local chapter. The best situation for an NPC member, I think, is if someone has played an important role in organizing a local chapter in the past -- so that they really have a good sense of the nuts and bolts of local organizing, and the needs that chapters have of the national -- but has been able to step back from those responsibilities as others have stepped up, so that they can concentrate fully on the NPC.
- Be good at cooperating across differences and respecting democratic decisions. The NPC often has to deal with very important questions for the organization, and different NPC members sometimes have quite different views on how to address those questions. It's very important that the members know how to be respectful of one another while they discuss and debate. The DSA guidelines for respectful discussion -- assume good faith in your comrades, step up/step back, etc. -- are just as essential at the level of the NPC as with any other group in DSA. And with the NPC it's important that individual NPC members commit to carrying out decisions democratically made by the group even if they personally disagree with those decisions. Those who have a tendency to just do what they want all the time, without concern for collective decisions or duties towards others, are not good candidates for the NPC. Working together, respectful debate and willingness to stick to what's agreed upon together, are very important qualities.
- Have a lot of experience with DSA. Once in a while, someone who's very new to DSA is elected to the NPC and winds up doing a great job (like Russell Weiss-Irwin for the current NPC). But serving on the NPC often turns out to be a much more demanding commitment than a candidate had been expecting, and sometimes people who are relatively new to DSA don't yet have the level of commitment needed to make really serious personal sacrifices of time and energy to keep the pace up for two years. Many have gradually become totally inactive on the NPC after the first few months. And oftentimes people who are brand new to the organization don't yet have a good sense of the organizational needs of DSA, or of how to represent DSA politically. This consideration isn't quite as weighty as some of the others I mention, though. As I said, sometimes very new DSA members like Russell turn out to really excel on the NPC.
- Know your socialism, and know your organizing. The best NPC members come in with a very well developed knowledge of socialist history and politics on the one hand, and on the other hand a lot of personal experience with the nuts and bolts of organizing. Often times an NPC member has an obvious strength in one of these two categories, and that's totally normal. But it's very much essential that each member have a solid basis in both. DSA can't be an inactive talk-shop, and it also can't be a thoughtless action-shop. The NPC works best if each of its members embodies the "unity of theory and practice" we often talk about.
I hope these suggestions are helpful to people considering whether or not to run, and to people considering who to vote for. They come from my observations and personal experience watching several NPCs and being an NPC member myself. I know many of us will also consider other questions when choosing the next NPC: the candidates' geographical areas, their political stances, their visions for DSA's future, etc. But I think the criteria I suggest are equal to or more important than those other considerations in assuring that our next NPC is capable of doing the work that needs to be done to ensure DSA's ability to meet the immense challenges and opportunities of the next two years.
Monahan is a member of Providence DSA (Rhode Island).