Every two years, delegates from across DSA meet to share what we're doing in our chapters, vote on resolutions and bylaw changes, elect a new National Political Committee (NPC) and effectively set the course for the national organization. This year, over 1,000 delegates met on August 1-8 in a first-ever entirely virtual convention.
The convention was a mix of panels, workshops, debates and voting over the week. Delegates passed resolutions that committed funding and staff support to ecosocialism, tenant organizing, labor organizing, Medicare for All and electoral pursuits. Broadly speaking, delegates affirmed and strengthened the direction of the International Committee and Growth and Development Committee. The newly elected NPC is a mix of incumbents and newcomers, and is diverse across geographic and demographic lines. Although the NPC election itself was dominated by internal and factional tension, the convention largely stayed on course and productive across its week-long schedule.
Delegates from the Metro DC chapter put together a few detailed resources to help navigate what was passed:
With that, here is a more detailed roundup of the 2021 convention:
In total, convention delegates voted on 27 resolutions, 7 constitution/bylaw changes, 5 NPC recommendations and a DSA platform with 3 amendments.
The resolutions with the widest support and most funding show that the organization made its strongest commitments along the following issues: ecosocialism and fighting climate change, housing and tenant organizing, Medicare for All, labor and union organizing, and maintaining a flexible approach to electoral strategy. The resolutions on ecosocialism (R12), housing (R21) and Medicare for All (R37) were included on the consent agenda along with eight other resolutions, which passed overwhelmingly (936-61) with little debate. The resolutions on labor (R05) and electoral strategy (R08) generated a lot of discussion, though debate mostly focused on the amendments to each which would have prescribed specific strategies. Delegates overwhelmingly rejected these amendments and passed both resolutions unamended, indicating a desire for DSA to remain flexible in its approach to both of these campaigns.
Delegates generally favored the course charted by the 2019-2021 International Committee (IC), which included sending DSA delegations to Peru and Venezuela in 2021. R14, which expands DSA’s international outreach to leftist socialist parties worldwide (including kickstarting the process to join the São Paulo Forum), passed with a commanding majority (673-361) following a lively debate of the issue. R18, which would have restructured how decisions are made in the IC and set a change of direction for the IC, failed (270-653).
Delegates also boosted the work being done by the Growth and Development Committee: R27 (passed by unanimous consent) provides support for more analysis, training, recruitment, understanding of local conditions, mentoring chapters on organizing workers and tenants, and growth with BIPOC comrades and in rural and Southern chapters.
There were a few new areas covered by the resolutions. R23 (passed 711-256) sets up a fund and adaptable templates for organizing childcare-for-all campaigns based on local conditions. New River Valley DSA, one of the newest chapters in Virginia, was a major source of support for this resolution and has already started work on a statewide childcare-for-all campaign. Another new area was expansion into statewide organizing: NPC Recommendation 1 (passed by unanimous consent) sets out a template for building statewide formations, based in part on cross-chapter organizing in California and Virginia.
For once, DSA adopted a national platform at the convention. The platform is a lengthy set of policy positions on several planks defining DSA's support for political topics such as ecosocialism, internationalism, economic justice, DC statehood, and more. Most of the discussion on the platform occurred in the months leading up to the convention between various national-level working groups and the general membership, so at the convention there was relatively little debate except over three proposed amendments which all passed. However, delegates stopped short of declaring any firm commitments on how the platform would be used. Although the platform passed (818-196), BC8, which was the only bylaw change that defined the role of the platform, failed (340-654). So for now, DSA has a platform, but we will see what this really means over the next two years. (View the latest draft of the platform at DSA Platform Draft 2.0, and the three amendments at Platform Amendments Compendium.)
The delegation declined to make any major structural changes to the organization. The only bylaw change that passed was BC1 with Amendment 1 (by unanimous consent), which removes the requirement that convention locations be cycled between specific regions of the US. All other constitution/bylaw changes failed, including proposed changes to the NPC structure, voting requirements and intermediate decision making bodies between the convention and makeup of the NPC.
However, one notable change to DSA's operating structure slipped by: NPC compensation. As outlined in R29, which passed in a close vote (542-471), the NPC’s 6-member steering committee are now given a $2,000 stipend each month meant to reimburse the important (and exhausting) work performed by the national body’s elected committee.
The delegation also failed to seriously reform the national harassment and grievance process. NPC Recommendation 5 (passed 581-395) implements several fixes, but includes provisions that could effectively commit anyone filing a grievance to remain silent about any abuse. An amendment which tried to remove this language failed. (For a more thorough analysis, please read fellow Metro DC comrade Allison's article Against Quick Fixes). Issues with this process could be fixed through the process outlined in R28, which passed in the consent agenda. The resolution sets out to form a national grievance committee of chapter harassment and grievance officers (HGOs) and is meant to fix and update issues with the current HGO process in between conventions.
Lastly, the resolutions and amendments that failed show a few themes. Most consistently, it was difficult to get support for any resolution or amendment that appeared to lock in a specific strategy or approach: R20 (failed 430-570) committed to affiliating with the Autonomous Tenant Union Network (ATUN) and building specific legal resources, and R38 (failed 232-754) committed to breaking with and building institutions separate from the Democratic party. Meanwhile, similar resolutions which had similar aims but less specificity passed: R21 (passed on the consent agenda) had less specific strategies on tenant organizing, as R08 (passed 734-218) commits DSA to its unique strategy in approach towards local elections.
Two of the main amendments to resolutions proposed by members of Socialist Alternative (a political party based largely out of the Seattle which opted to join DSA last December) also failed by large numbers: Amendment 2 (failed 156-898) to R05 would have directed labor organizing to target and ultimately take over existing union leadership, and Amendment 14 (failed 151-838) to R38 would have directed electoral organizing to publicly run against the Democratic party itself and build separate institutions.
The NPC is a 16-member body that forms the main "executive" of DSA, and is responsible for carrying out the decisions of the membership and putting into effect the resolutions passed at the convention.
The debate surrounding the election was tense from the start. On Sunday, August 1, delegates voted to change voting methods from Borda Count (a ranked-choice scoring method) to Scottish STV (a ranked-choice transferable-vote method, the same used in the 2019 NPC elections and in Metro DC chapter's delegate elections). The debate between Borda and STV always incites a ridiculous level of debate that always seems to bring simmering political tensions to a boil - and although this election was conducted online, this time was no different. Though tensions were exacerbated on Tuesday, August 3, when a letter alleging abusive behavior by three people running for NPC resulted in a last minute shakeup of the NPC ballot. Several people (some named in the letter, some not named but running for NPC and some associated with the people or caucuses that shared the letter) were harassed and three people dropped out of the NPC race (one of whom, Fern S, was not mentioned in the letter in the first place). On Thursday, the sitting NPC removed another candidate (Kara H) citing the alleged grievance (to note, this was likely not in accordance with the current grievance process), but on Friday delegates voted overwhelmingly to restore her to the ballot. By the time voting opened, there were 20 candidates running for 16 slots.
The NPC elections concluded on Saturday, August 7. The new 16-member NPC is a mix of incumbents and newcomers (5 incumbents, 11 new), spread out between chapters in a way that mirrors the varied geographic distribution of DSA members across the US:
I want to acknowledge that there are going to be different interpretations of what happened during the NPC race. Because my goal here was to provide a roundup of events, and not to revisit the conflicts during the convention, I've chosen to remain light on the details. But personally, I am concerned that we see noticeably fewer candidates running for leadership even as our organization has observed unprecedented growth. This may be a sign that members see the NPC as too harsh or burdensome, and I fear this may be scaring off many great organizers whose experience and judgment would otherwise be valuable on the NPC. I am also concerned that two of the three candidates who dropped out of the race and three of the four candidates who did not win a seat on the NPC are BIPOC comrades. We need to be doing better by our BIPOC members and organizers, and the NPC elections may be a demonstration of how far we are from that ideal.
The first-ever fully virtual convention was made possible through an impressive use of technology: Slack for communications, Cadence for managing meeting rooms, Zoom for conferencing, OpaVote for elections and Airtable for all convention ballots and voting. These distinct systems came together to create a near seamless experience - an incredible display of the innovative thinking and tech acumen flowing through the DSA.
The voting mechanism, which was facilitated through a creative use of Airtable, deserves special mention - not least because the system was developed by Metro DC comrade Walker Green. While there were some bandwidth problems at the onset, by the second day of voting the entire system was capable of rapidly processing ballots and motions for every parliamentary procedure we needed. The system saved DSA tens of thousands of dollars, and was a success to such a point that Metro DC's Administrative Committee connected with Walker post-convention so we can incorporate the same system into our chapter's business.
The virtual convention had many benefits. A remote convention spread out over the course of a week is more accessible for comrades who face more barriers with meeting in person, meeting over several days, or being in a convention hall for hours at a time. Debates via Zoom meant that speaking did not depend on how quickly someone could reach a microphone. Motions via Airtable meant that we did not face interruptions every few minutes while motions could still be entertained.
There were, however, some down-sides. Technology can be a barrier for some – while the only necessary platforms were Zoom (for debates), Airtable (for ballots), and OpaVote (for the NPC election only), the social media nature of the platforms and speed of conversation in places like Slack made events difficult to follow. Technology also presented a few risks – on the first day, DDoS attacks briefly shut down the convention website, and Airtable had consistent problems loading all 1000+ delegates' votes – though DSA’s and Airtable's IT support were able to resolve both problems within a day.
Perhaps the biggest down-side is that there were fewer chances for in-person and unstructured organizing than the 2019 convention. There was no equivalent to the Disability Working Group restarting in 2019 or the authors of several housing and internationalism resolutions working together to bundle and pass their items together. (Though a "Religious Right to Socialist Left" group, which started as a stray Slack conversation where several people shared experiences growing up in a religiously conservative environment and eventually coming to socialist and leftist ideals, ended with a Discord group formed to continue these discussions.)
There is more that I could delve into that would simply take too long: the incredible lineup of speakers at the plenary sessions, the workshops and panels or even negative experiences such as how emotionally taxing the entire week was. But being in a mass movement, or being in a large member-led organization, comes with the often unglamorous work of figuring out logistics and entertaining debate on narrow internal structures and commitments. But my goal has always been, foremost, to democratize this process by trying to explain just what is going on, especially to people who likely do not have time to keep track of the innumerable details. I hope this has been useful to you, and I want to once again thank my comrades in the Metro DC chapter for sending me and 43 other comrades to the 2021 DSA National Convention.