Branches of the same tree

Local chapter member Kurtis H provides some insight into the Chapter-Branch relationship within the Democratic Socialists of America. How does the regional structure of socialist locals impact organizing conditions? Musings on the aspects, strengths and drawbacks of the model...

FOR THE UNINITIATED, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is a national organization that consists of the National Political Committee (NPC), national working groups and committees, and serves as an umbrella under which smaller formations (Chapters or Locals) are organized. Since DSA’s founding, Chapters have served as the foundational building block of the organization and are emphasized as the focal points in which members organize and carry out campaigns. This emphasis on the creation of Chapters that can plug members into work where they live, rather than being solely engaged in national staff coordinated volunteer activity, is part of what differentiates DSA from many non-profit organizations. Despite this, the DSA’s constitution only prescribes that Chapters are to be chartered by the NPC and that the NPC “may not charter more than one Local in a given city/metropolitan area. Locals may form subgroups as they deem necessary or appropriate.” Beyond that language, DSA is effectively silent on the question of local formations (though there does seem to be a push toward statewide organizations, those are beyond the scope of this article). At the time the bylaws were written, the level of membership density we have now would be almost unthinkable.

In the growth that followed Bernie’s 2016 presidential campaign, the “Trump Bump,” Bernie’s 2020 presidential campaign and the uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd, many DSA chapters saw fit to subdivide into Branches. A Branch is a subformation of a Chapter that is typically assigned a geographic jurisdiction within a larger Chapter. Though some locals, like Twin Cities, have Branches for issue organizing, it is far more common to see Branches as solely geographical formations, as is the case in Metro DC DSA. The reasoning behind the subdivisions varies, but geographic Branches are typically justified as: 1) necessary for the administration of the Chapter (in cases where the Chapter is seen as too big to be effectively organized as one administrative unit) and/or 2) necessary for the organization of members toward more localized issues. The generally organic growth of Chapters means that these justifications are typically post-hoc. It also means that how Branches function and on what basis they are formed varies from Chapter to Chapter, as does their purpose and success at meeting their purpose. As a result, Branches end up occupying a nebulous space from Chapter to Chapter and in the national organization. Tensions from the unclear purpose of Branches and their unclear relationship to Chapters arise quickly and are pernicious. In Metro DC DSA, these tensions manifest as a sense that Branches are Chapters-in-waiting and the error of Regionalism. 

The Metro DC DSA Chapter comprises a Steering Committee (SC), an Administrative Committee (AdCom), a Political Engagement Committee (PEC), a Publications Committee (Pubs), a Finance Committee (FinCom), 5 or fewer Priority Campaigns, numerous Working Groups and Sections and three geographic Branches: Northern Virginia (NoVA), Montgomery County (MoCo) and Prince George’s County (PG County). Each of these three Branches has its own Steering Committee, some have a version of an Administrative Committee and most have their own Working Groups with varying levels of connection between similar Working Groups in other Branches and with the similar Working Groups at the Chapter level. There is an impulse encouraged by the very structure of these Branches to function with ever increasing levels of autonomy and redundancy despite being from the same Chapter and ostensibly working in the same labor market. The impulse manifests in a variety of ways – notably in the interest of the Branches to determine their own priorities, to issue their own endorsements, and to have dedicated voting Branch members on the Chapter Steering Committee. The simultaneous effect of redundancy and siloing is what can be referred to as Chapters-in-waiting.

The fact that each Chapter is organized around a shared labor market is worth emphasizing, and it is helpful to ask: Why does the working class in one labor market or region of commuters need multiple Administrative Committees? Despite the artificial lines drawn by the State and replicated by our Chapter/Branch structures, people, money, and resources are constantly moving across these lines. A NoVA Branch member may work in DC. A Prince Georges resident may work across MoCo and DC. To exacerbate the issue, our enemies also span across the region and are well served by division of the working class. 

An immediately obvious example of this is billionaire Ted Leonisis’ attempt to move the Capital One Arena out of DC and into Northern Virginia. Workers at the Capital One Arena are union, and moving them to the significantly less union-friendly Virginia would have been an easy way to bust the union. The first set-back for Leonsis' scheme came from the Northern Virginia Labor Federation, which publicly announced their opposition to the project unless it had labor standards. But this regional effort to push back against capital obscures the fact that most of the affiliates of that labor federation are unions that cross the Potomac river and State borders. The unions that fought that effort recognize that capital uses these borders to fight against them, and they need to organize across these lines to fight back. These political borders are invisible or fluid for both capital and labor. 

Capital only sees political boundaries in terms of relative rates of state subsidies, revenues, and profit, measured against the costs of moving. This is one interconnected region. DC gets the vast bulk of its energy generated from out-of-state sources. WMATA has the majority of its bus garages and rail yards outside of the District. DC gets its water supply from upstream on the Potomac, far outside of DC. Both Northern Virginia and Montgomery County would likely not have been developed the way they are if not for the federal money that flowed through the region in the 40s, 70s, and early 2000s. Formations that exist to organize solely within their regional purview can quickly lose sight of the broader strategic necessity of the cross-border fight. We should not be blind to the fact that this effect is replicated at the National level, though distribution by metropolitan region or labor market does help blunt the worst of it. This phenomenon of self- or organization-imposed hyperlocalization, of the over-prioritization of concerns within largely artificial boundaries, is what I mean when I say the error of Regionalism. 

The power of our class enemy is found in their control of the means of production, in their control of wealth and capital and in their control of the State. Our class’s only advantage is our numbers. We are strongest when we work together in concentrated mass. Structures that silo us away from larger efforts or more strategic fights can only weaken us. It often feels that we must be in every fight on every front, and to some degree, that is true, but we must contend with the contradiction that our power is found in magnitude and that person-time is a limited resource. 

This is all to say that Regionalism should be avoided in favor of the bigger picture. A careful analysis of the terrain across any given Chapter is warranted, and Chapter-wide buy-in and commitment to a finite number of specific campaigns is necessary to win and build power. This is not to say that campaigns cannot be carried out across a broad region. In fact, it is likely that a lasting victory in any issue area will require a region-wide effort. That effort needs to be carried out in concert, however. There must be clear communication of the situation on the ground across the locations in which our members are operating. Historically, MDC DSA has seen success when we move priorities and volunteers across state lines. Immediate examples include: the Chapter-wide mobilizations for the elections of Janeese Lewis George in Ward 4 of the District, and Gabriel Acevero in the 39th House district of Maryland; the regional mobilization of members and allies into the District for protests against the carceral system following the murder of George Floyd; and against the ongoing genocide in Palestine.

As a result of and in addition to Regionalism, the structure of Branches as Chapters-in-waiting foments antagonism between the Chapter and its Branches. The common analogy historically deployed by Branch partisans to describe this antagonism is one of DC as the core and Branches as the periphery. Replicated structures tend to encourage Branch members to think of themselves first and foremost as Branch members. This means that in conversations about resource distribution or priority creation, Branches tend to prioritize their own direct interests and end up feeling pitted against other Branches and the rest of the Chapter as a whole. Generally, these arguments hinge around claims about differing conditions. It’s worth interrogating those claims—are conditions really that different between and across the municipalities of the Chapter? 

I would suggest that, generally speaking, they are not. The lines over which we organize are not given much weight by capital, and labor generally follows suit. While specific targets may differ (for example, in any given campaign we may want to pressure the DC Council and/or the Maryland General Assembly and/or the Alexandria City Council), there is little reason to think that our priorities should vary much across the region. As debates around priorities become more about the distinction between Chapter priorities and Branch priorities, and as identities form around Branch membership as opposed to Chapter membership, discussions of representation in leadership begin to emerge.

This is a four panel comic titled "Organizing Conditions". It consists of two people in conversation. In the first panel, the first person says "Well, my region has completely different organizing conditions!" The second person asks "How so?" In the second panel, the first person says "My area is dominated by capital worshipping, ineffective, spineless Democrats where the primary determines the General Election outcome, but there's a rising unhinged right wing backlash on crime and culture issues, and labor doesn't have the resources to organize all the workers interested in joining unions!" In the third panel, the first person asks "What do conditions on the ground look like for you?" The fourth panel is a close up on the second person's face.

In chapters like Metro DC, where not all territory is represented by a Branch, providing guaranteed seats on leadership bodies elected by those Branches could create what is known as the “West Lothian” problem. Simply put, if Branches were given representatives on leadership that only they could vote for, while also maintaining the ability to vote for representatives at large, they are given an outsize influence in leadership relative to those in non-Branch areas. The solution is not necessarily to incorporate all areas as Branches and give them equal representation in leadership. Every year members of DSA accidentally re-invent the concept of the Senate and ignore one of the core principles of democratic representation: proportionality. If the goal of an elected leadership body is to be representative of a Chapter, representation in leadership should be an attempt to reflect the views of the Chapter’s members, not the particular land they live on. Even if seats in leadership are all allocated to Branches proportionally, you risk a “gerrymandering” effect where certain views are “packed and cracked” into certain Branches and therefore get over- or underrepresented in Chapter leadership.

There is no easy path to an ideal state of organization. I can only offer rough thoughts on how we might get there:

  1. Members must feel themselves part of the wider Chapter. This is much easier said than done. Chapter leaders and Branch leaders need to consider how they frame discussions of activity across the Chapter. Chapter leaders should commit as much as possible to articulating strategies at the labor market level, and highlight opportunities for cross regional activity. Members should be directed to Chapter work, determined at our local convention through priority campaign status when possible. 
  2. Working Groups must do more to work with leaders across the Chapter and the Branches to coordinate activities and plan strategically. Multiple same-issue Working Groups serve no one and mean that we miss out on learning from each other as we engage in similar (or in some cases the same) fights.
  3. Redundancies in administration should be investigated and reduced if possible. Every person funneled to behind-the-scenes work is one less person spending their finite time on public-facing work. There is, of course, a balance to be struck, and maintaining the administrative capacity of the Chapter is important, but that maintenance can be better scaled by pushing up administrative work to the Chapter level where possible. 

While it’s important that the Chapter act as one unit as much as possible to fully leverage our power, it is also important for growth and retention that members and potential members feel that they can plug into work closer to home. Simply abolishing Branches is clearly not the answer. That being said, we may wish to consider more radical departures from our current structure. For example, it may be worth exploring setting Branches up as their own independent Chapters, a move which should be done only after a careful consideration of the impact within a shared labor market. Alternatively, we may explore a complete reorganization of Branches away from Chapters-in-waiting and towards engines of mobilization and recruitment for Priority Campaigns. In any case and however members may choose to proceed, it is necessary that we are all on the same page around the tensions and contradictions present in the discussion. Furthermore, it is vital that we acknowledge that our current structure, and any alternative structure, reflects political commitments. 

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