A 2023 Delegate’s Guide to Learning from the 2021 Convention (Or: A Mandate, not a Menu)

The DSA will convene representatives from its nationwide organizers in Chicago this August. The 2023 convention will return socialists to the convention floor to hash out the future and structure of the organization. Internal democracy makes many squeamish – but the project should be seen as something special, exciting, and engaging. 

America’s questionable commitment to democracy has turned off many to political engagement, leaving few inroads to meaningful participation in the political life of this country. This facet makes the opportunity provided by the DSA’s convention unique: It’s a real opportunity for masses to determine how to spend and focus activity, attention, and a big lump of money over the next two years.

In order to prepare for the 2023 convention, we wanted to take a look at what was passed at our last convention and the outcomes of all of those resolutions and decisions that were made there. We hope others – particularly delegates – will find this analysis useful as they begin to craft their approach to the convention.

The 2021 convention occurred online – a first in the organization’s long history – which created some…unique dynamics that time around (you can read a primer that was excellently covered by Washington Socialist back in September of 2021). But it was also the first post-Bernie convention following an extraordinary time of growth in DSA’s history: The convention initiated a moment to decide the political future for the organization of the left-wing that, while failing to attain the presidency, had positively reinvigorated socialism into the lexicon of American political life. 

Before going any further, here is a list of all the expenditure resolutions passed during the 2021 convention, categorized by type of resolution along five categories: administrative, internal campaign structures, national campaign structures, and priority campaigns. We recommend taking a look at this to familiarize yourself with some of the items referenced over the rest of this article.

To round up, here’s what the body passed then:

  • 20 Resolutions (with four amendments), 
  • 1 Constitution or Bylaw Amendment
  • 1 Platform
  • And 5 NPC recommendations

The total expenditures approved, according to calculations, totaled $3,245,405 annually, with $1,393,067 in annual costs referred to the NPC. 

Of the 25 resolutions, amendments, and recommendations passed at the convention, nine have not been implemented. Four have been partially implemented, and twelve have been implemented without full staff and funding support.

Simply put, the convention approved much more work and spending than the organization could have reasonably taken on within two years, and the result has been confusion across the organization and a fair amount of internal conflict. We can learn lessons from this experience and how we have operated over the last year and a half, and we’re hopeful that delegates can be more precise in the mandate the convention provides coming out of the 2023 convention. 

The NPC was forced to make hard choices on priority focus

At the beginning of the 2021—2023 term of the National Political Committee – DSA’s elected decision-making body outside of the convention — the NPC flatly acknowledged that they could not take on all of the resolutions that were approved at convention. Six priority resolutions, six national campaigns were authorized, and four internal resolutions were passed. 

At the NPC’s August 2021 NPC meeting, criteria were finalized for deciding on the term’s priorities among what was approved by the convention, and advised by the organization's staff directors. The following were chosen:

  • Resolution 31. Making DSA a Multiracial and Anti-Racist Organization
  • Resolution 12. 2021 Ecosocialist Green New Deal Priority
  • Resolution 8. Toward a Mass Party in the United States (Electoral Priority)
  • Resolution 5. Building Worker Power to Win Democratic Socialism: A Labor Strategy for DSA in 2021-2023
  • NPC Recommendation 2. Growing Staff Proposal
  • NPC Recommendation 3. Adopt Standardized Guidelines for National Committees and Working Groups

In the end, the national formations that did not make the NPC’s priority list failed to receive many, if any, national resources. Additionally, non-priority national campaign resolutions, such as Voting Rights and Abolition, did not receive substantial resources from the national organization. Candidly, this has created an ongoing issue where national formations outside of the priority committees and working groups have struggled to thrive. Without material support from national, many of these formations struggled to cohere as groups and launch national campaigns, and this had mostly churned on over the last nineteen months without redress. 

A 2023 proposed resolution, “Accountable National Commissions,” which would require each national committee to be reauthorized during Conventions, could partially address this by creating a mandate for each commission via bi-annual reauthorizations. But, it also has the potential to exacerbate these issues by shutting down national committees that have grown stagnant, at least in part because they have not received the basic resources they require to function or launch national campaigns.   

With twelve separate external campaigns authorized or prioritized, the NPC was ultimately tasked (empowered) to choose what work the National DSA would take on based largely on their personal or cadre preferences. This is to be expected — and largely, the convention delegation is aware of this dynamic going in. However, there's been tension across the organization, with some organizers in certain priorities seeing national-level support for their political objectives — which again were approved by the convention — sidelined or ignored. 

At the 2023 Convention, delegates must be more realistic about our choices and what the organization can reasonably take on and accomplish as priorities. We would like to see our incoming leaders provided with clear instructions for what we want to prioritize and how to do so. Short of larger structural change in the national organization, this will mean saying “no” to good ideas proffered by great comrades. If more is passed than can be done, the NPC will be left with a menu, not a mandate.

Priority campaigns received less staff support than approved

We can’t really analyze the staff portion of the resolutions because we don’t have full insight into staff time and assignments. However, we can comfortably say that most resolutions, even priority ones, did not get as much staff time as approved via convention. Over 30,000 hours of staff support was approved, which would require the hiring of 10+ new staff positions. That was not financially feasible for this term and is unlikely for the next one. 

It also reveals how relying on staff to build our internal infrastructure will always be limiting. We have to not only win our campaigns to create a movement, but we also need to build out an organizational, democratic, logistical, and technological powerhouse. 

It will be very difficult (and really, financially impossible) to hire enough staff to do all of this. Organizations with hundreds of staffers have them because they take corporate funds and eschew democratic controls, and we cannot do that. We need to find a way to open up the organization and expose our members to expertise like the National Tech Committee. And we need an organization that is able and willing to incorporate professionals and skilled organizers who can help us build out and run the anti-capitalist machine we all want. DSA cannot hire its way out of empowering members’ organizing efforts (but staffing roles with specific and clear tasks and objectives can help).

We are slow to move on internal resolutions, but it is happening

The 2021 convention body approved several measures meant to address internal structure and processes. 

Stipends to the NPC Steering Committee were among the first resolutions to be implemented, with the full $2,000 for each of the steering committee members approved during the first meeting of the newly appointed SC post-convention. This was one of the biggest changes between the 2019 and 2021 of the NPC, although there is a 2023 proposal that would change this. A resolution titled “Strengthening Democracy by Strengthening DSA’s Elected Leadership” would expand the stipend to the entire NPC, beyond just the steering committee. And a resolution titled “Full-Time Political Leadership” would fundamentally alter the NPC by turning three elected NPC members into full-time staff responsible for organizing the NPC.

The NPC recommendations have all been at least partially implemented, save for creation of a robust fundraising plan. We were not able to staff up the organization as approved by NPC Recommendation 2, and as of writing there are still several positions open. Based on minutes from the Steering Committee and NPC, this delay was due to a combination of transparency concerns, difficulty attracting suitable and diverse candidates, and lack of capacity of current staff responsible for doing the hiring. It is clear from SC and NPC meetings that our staff is at capacity and overworked in preparation for the 2023 convention.

NPCR1, which included notice of statewide organizing, has begun, with the most successful cross-state coordination campaigns being observed in California and New York. Locally, we’ve seen Maryland statewide organizing take its first real steps in February of 2022. DSA’s Virginia chapters have also begun to coordinate in creation of a statewide formation. Metro DC DSA had taken its own steps to boost regional engagement – such as aiding the Southern Maryland chapter organizing committee and supporting and promoting Baltimore DSA’s efforts. A 2021 PRO Act rally in Northern Virginia – which corralled not just Metro DC DSA but also members from chapters across Virginia and Maryland – teased the potential of serious statewide organizing.

The Multiracial Organizing Committee, the NPC’s major internal priority, was able to kick off work with a training retreat in October 2022, which received positive feedback. The MROC Resolution for the 2023 Convention proposes continuing training and building out the committee to continue its work. Split into two subcommittees, one dedicated to implementing the Institute while the Chapters subcommittee hosted a focus group (for lack of a better term) to suss out experiences and lessons learned in trying new organizing tactics. While MROC did host a convening in Minneapolis in September 2022, training and concrete materials for chapters have yet to materialize. 

Resolution 28, Building Transformative Justice through a National Committee of Grievance Officers, has had distressingly little movement. The assignment for this had shuffled around the NPC – starting with Matt M., but re-assigned to Kevin following Matt’s resignation. In July 2022, Kevin was appointed as the liaison to the Committee, and the Work Plan for the Resolution was amended to “focus on conflict resolution trainings, communications to membership about [the] grievance system including newsletter [and] approv[ing] committee members by September.” 

In November 2022, it was noted that the costly (approximately $28,000/mo) National Harassment and Grievance Officer (NHGO) contract was extended in part because the execution of Resolution 28 had stalled. A vote to pay an NPC member a stipend to lead this work was also voted down. We have independently confirmed that an interim steering committee for this process had been appointed (seven of the ten authorized seats) and that a kickoff meeting took place on April 29th. In April, it was decided that an alternative to fill the NHGO role would not be searched for due to lack of capacity, and that resolving this would not be allowed to fall onto the HGO Committee. 

(Implementation of the NHGO resolution is a remarkably complex one – the saga was summarized in DSA Observer (now the New Majority Education Center) back in June 2022, and it may be the clearest explanation of what’s going on with that process up to that point.) 

Regardless, we are hopeful that, in an organization often mired by conflict that warrants systematic intervention, this committee will be able to build out a plan to structure the organization to address these issues more productively. Though at the moment, as there is only one proposed resolution aiming to address the mired HGO process (titled: “Resolution to End Contract with PB Work Solutions..”), this conflict is only likely to be settled by some consensus within the NPC.

Conducting internal research and analysis of DSA national operations is tougher than it should be

There is also a dire need to standardize reporting across the DSA. It is exceedingly difficult and time-consuming to pull together the information required to complete this kind of fairly basic analysis. The difficulty for anyone but the most actively engaged at the national level to understand how our organization is functioning hampers our decision-making and dialogue. 

Too many internal DSA happenings are relegated to either caucus blogs, forum posts (of questionable veracity), and Twitter gossip. As written about before, clarifying information about what’s going on and how to get involved is critical for staving off burnout, keeping up momentum, and reducing the potential for conflict and tension. In Metro DC DSA, we’ve seen how valuable it is to have a consistent reporting team and publishing arm – they don’t just keep the chapter’s local lines tight but create offramps to conflict and help to facilitate the production of a larger political consensus.

This is something that can, or rather should, be picked up either by DSA’s in-house publication (Democratic Left), or assigned to a specific NPC member for report back. An alternative may be to provide periodic updates through chapter-level publication hubs, such as Washington Socialist or Midwest Socialist, to boost and normalize reporting at the chapter level. Clearer reporting will make it easier for chapters – many of which have dedicated or motivated memberships who want to help or fulfill passed resolutions – to sync with resources and networks operating at DSA’s national level to make things happen. Standardized reporting would also aid in depoliticizing conflicts by abating suspicions provoked by triaged flows of information.

Lasting thoughts for Delegates (and spectators)

This is a lot of information, and we could only cover so much, but we hope this rundown clarifies, at least, where the DSA has moved on implementing the will of the body since convention. Below are a few points that we hope can summarize some lasting points we draw from above. Regardless of your objectives or orientation, we think remembering these will be useful for engaging in convention for delegates on onlookers alike:

  • Look at the numbers: DSA has supported three external national campaigns and one major internal priority over the last year — were those well supported, and do we think we can do more? Think about your top priorities with the understanding that you won’t be able to support everything you like and follow through with it. 
  • Submit an amendment: The period to submit an amendment to a convention resolution closes June 28th. If there is a resolution you would support if tweaked, work with comrades to submit amendments. You might even be able to get the motivators to support it as friendly. 
  • Think about your votes for NPC: Rank NPC candidates you think will take our issues and limitations seriously and have a vision and plan for how to work through them. This includes time and attention to internal structure building and raising funds for the organization. Avoid being distracted by candidates (or proposals) based on ideological buzzwords ("anarchist," "communist," etc.) and instead pay more attention to what they say, who their friends are, and how they'll approach the responsibility we're tasking them with.
  • Be as tough on a resolution’s tactics as you are on their goals: There can be resolutions with great intentions that are completely unworkable or unrealistic, have limited use for building our internal capacity in the long run, or will take more resources than we can afford. We all want this organization to be ambitious.  But, we do not have the time or the resources to operate in a “good things are good” mentality. 

Finally, delegates should have faith in the democratic deliberation process that is the convention. Building a socialist organization is no easy task – there is no playbook, and best practices are hard to come by. Theory can provide a framework for thinking through problems, but material conditions are always in flux and might sink or devalue ideas that worked elsewhere. Studying the successes and missteps of the past can reveal obvious mistakes or pitfalls in the present to avoid. But it will be up to the delegates in August, thinking and building a collective strategy now, to build towards the political vision we want to enact in the future. 

Related Entries