On Electoral Tactics, Strategy and Accountability

This piece began as a short recap of the debate over whether the DSA NPC should expel New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman from DSA. The debate emerged in DSA chapters nationwide — including in our own chapter — as calls grew for Rep Bowman’s expulsion from DSA due to the congressman’s position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. During the week of November 28, our chapter’s Steering Committee and the NPC issued decisions related to this question. I saw the need to write this recap at the end of that week because Metro DC DSA chapter members had asked me at various points throughout the week what had happened and what was happening — likely due to the fact that no short summary existed elsewhere in our chapter.

However, what began as an accounting of events quickly turned into me formulating my own thoughts on the intersection of accountability, strategy and power in electoral politics. Below is the recap that I set out to write, followed by a discussion of a clear path forward for our chapter, and then some questions that I will be keeping in mind as we enter into what will very likely be an active electoral cycle.

Recap on the Question of Expelling Representative Bowman

On Tuesday, November 30, our chapter’s Steering Committee voted by a 5-4 margin (with two abstentions) to sign on to a statement published by the national DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group that called for the expulsion of Rep Bowman. The full roll call vote results: FOR - Abel A; Karishma M; Lauren K; Brendan G; Stephanie G // AGAINST: Kareem E; Irene K; Stu K; Brian W // ABSTENTIONS: Runal D; Kurtis H.

In the morning of Thursday, December 2, as chair of the Steering Committee, I sent a letter to the NPC notifying them of our Steering Committee’s vote in favor of signing onto the statement calling for expulsion. In the afternoon of Thursday, December 2, the NPC decided not to expel Rep Bowman. The NPC published their rationale for that decision here.

The votes cast at the upcoming chapter convention this weekend — on Saturday, December 11, and Sunday, December 12 — may add to this list of decisions. But these are the finalized decisions at time of writing. 

Charting a Clear Path Forward in Metro DC DSA

In the past, I’ve found that continuing to relitigate narrow questions after democratic votes on those questions tends to distract from current and future organizing. With the NPC’s decision on Rep Bowman’s expulsion finalized, Resolution 2 withdrawn from the agenda at our local convention and our chapter Steering Committee having voted, my impression is that the specific national question of whether the NPC should immediately expel Rep Bowman is behind us. If fellow chapter members wish to discuss electoral strategy in the context of this question — which may be the case with the addition of amendments to local convention resolutions — I welcome that discussion. However, whether Lower Hudson Valley DSA (Rep. Bowman’s home chapter) or the NPC each choose to endorse Rep Bowman’s candidacy for re-election is one that will depend solely on the future decisions of Rep Bowman and members of Lower Hudson Valley DSA.

That said, accountability of DSA-endorsed candidates more broadly is still an open question for members of every DSA chapter, including our own. My impression is that, as a result of the debate on Rep Bowman and BDS, many members in Metro DC DSA have thought deeply about how we should structure our chapter’s endorsements and electoral relationships. The electorally focused resolutions and amendments facing local convention delegates this weekend show that our chapter hopes to solidify some of that deep thinking into charting a clear path forward, and I look forward to the debate on how we do so.

I strongly support two of those electoral resolutions, which are now combined into one. Resolution 5, which I sponsored with Nicole Z and Michael B, will help our chapter power-map the Metro DC region and recruit active DSA members to run for and win elected office. Resolution 4 will start our chapter on building our own engagement and accountability program for chapter-endorsed candidates and elected officials. I’m in favor of the combined version of these resolutions because I believe their substantive parts are complementary. Together, the combined resolution will make our chapter’s electoral program more proactive, more responsive to member concerns and, ultimately, more likely to result in delivering material benefits for the working class through electoral victories and external political engagement. I want to thank the sponsors for their work on combining the two resolutions.

Open Questions and Possible Responses

Additionally, as our chapter endorses electoral candidates and works with coalition allies to support those candidates, we will likely run into scenarios on the local level similar to the ones we faced on the national level regarding Rep Bowman. These scenarios will bring up questions that are hard to predict and near impossible to preempt with even the best-written resolution. Considering the number of candidates our chapter typically endorses, it’s not a matter of when we’ll face those questions, but if.

Below, I’ve included three of those questions — and my related thoughts — that I’ll be keeping in mind for our chapter’s local electoral cycle.

When candidates/elected officials veer from their stated positions in our local questionnaire or from the DSA national platform, how should we engage with those candidates?

I agree with NPC member Justin Charles that we must use elections and our organizational relationship with elected officials to materially advance our struggles, whether those struggles are Medicare for All, tenants’ rights or — in the case of Rep. Bowman — anti-imperialism and liberation for Palestine.

How this engagement looks on the local level should be dictated by our local conditions, relationships and the possibility we see of advancing our material struggles. As the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) stated on Dec 2, “reconciling principles with strategic effectiveness is a key factor behind the BDS movement's growing impact worldwide.” In previous electoral cycles, we have by and large been able to hold strong to our principles locally and, due to powerful on-the-ground organizing, win elections. This has also empowered our chapter to raise our standards of endorsements for each cycle. I predict that this trend will continue, but we need to keep working at it.

In Metro DC DSA, we have a democratic, chapter-wide process enshrined in our bylaws that governs the process of revoking an endorsement from a candidate. Though we’ve never revoked a candidate endorsement, to be fully transparent, I’ve always mentioned it as a possibility to candidates. Future chapter Steering Committees could theoretically expel a candidate or elected official without a general body vote, but I would hope that the Steering Committee would consult the general body before taking such an action, especially since the general body would have voted on endorsing that candidate in the first place. I am glad to see that the combined Resolution 4/Resolution 5 now includes text to this effect.

How should our chapter engage with other DSA formations and coalition allies to materially advance the struggles that our chapter has prioritized?

As our chapter debated how the NPC should react to Rep Bowman’s egregious recent actions related to Palestine, it was clear that allied organizations supported the national DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group letter to expel Rep Bowman. Another letter from the national Palestine/BDS Working Group noted support for expulsion from “Palestinians everywhere.” However, according to the NPC statement published on December 2, these calls were not universal across Palestinian liberation organizations and activists. As the NPC statement noted, “As with any group of people, Palestinians are not a monolith.” I would hope that, in the future, comrades avoid claiming generalized support across a movement or a population for a specific action.

I mention this observation about the Bowman/BDS debate because the same question has played out and will play out again for our chapter. As we have grown our capacity and developed coalition relationships, our chapter has faced calls through these relationships — especially related to candidate endorsements and Metro DC DSA elected officials — about our internal chapter priorities and activities. Often these calls are paired with the claim that the entirety of some population or movement supports a given action. I’m not running for the Steering Committee again, but I trust that future Steering members will tactfully navigate these sorts of pressures.

How should we engage with each other in our DSA chapter during debates?

Simply put, we should always engage in good faith and with the assumption of others’ good faith.

Every member of this chapter has their own (probably very personal) reasons for becoming a socialist and joining DSA. I also believe, unless someone tells me otherwise about their individual views, that every member of this chapter supports Palestinian liberation and is committed to the anti-imperialist cause. That’s why it was extremely concerning to me, during the Steering Committee meeting on November 30, to hear support for Palestinian liberation predicated on support for the expulsion of Rep. Bowman from DSA.

DSA is a big-tent organization. We may not all agree on the strategies that we should use to achieve the specific goals of campaigns or broader goals of long-term movements. However, during these disagreements, if we don’t start from the understanding that — as members of a socialist organization — we’re mostly all in agreement on those goals but disagree on strategy, then our debates are doomed to descend into personal attacks rather than useful exercises to refine our tactics.

As I mentioned above, we have and will continue to face the same questions locally as we have faced nationally in recent weeks. I’m confident that we’ll work through those questions (and debates) together, but we need to trust each other.

Moving Forward

As someone who’s been steeped in our chapter’s electoral activities for almost five years now, I’ve grappled constantly with how, why, when and where our chapter engages in electoral campaigns. I hope to answer some of these questions during our local convention.

But at this point, I also know that it’s impossible to craft a convention resolution or chapter rule to guide us through every single conflict or high-stakes scenario. For me, what I’ve seen have an effect on our ability to materially advance our struggle is building power through external organizing — which includes, but is certainly not limited to, engaging in elections. To that end, at least for the electoral side of things next year, I look forward to seeing fellow chapter members on the doors, on the phones, coordinating communications or supporting our endorsed campaigns in whatever way(s) you can. And I’ll join in on the non-electoral activities, because I know we can build a better world together.

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