How to Win in DC: Where’s the Strategy?

Local chapter member Hayden L thinks on the Metro DC Democratic Socialists' strategy. What are we doing, and how might we do it differently? A proposal...

IN THE END, what does DSA hope to accomplish? Are we just hoping to get people elected to office? Do we want to build a political party? Is the hope to end capitalism and usher in the next epoch of history? Or do we just want to make the conditions right for the developing world to overthrow their colonial oppressors? To be honest, I think we could make an argument that both our chapter and our organization nationally are in some ways attempting to do all of the above. This begs a serious question, where is our strategy? To take on something as entrenched as the capitalist world order, if that is our goal which I can’t say for certain that it is, we need a strategic orientation from which we make all of our choices both as a chapter and a national organization. The question we should be asking at every fork in the road is “does this get us closer to our goal?”

No matter where you fall in our chapter’s eclectic assortment of political ideologies – democratic socialist, communist, anarchist, etc. – I don’t think anyone is fundamentally opposed to the concept of “having a damn plan.” However, we currently run away from strategic planning as if we were reading theory or debates about the Soviet Union. This means we can never hope to lead the working class. Without a clear goal and plan of attack, we play ball on the capitalists’ terms. We can only hope to move and react to the events they create, rather than boldly seizing the initiative and forcing them to adapt to us. 

To answer this question, I think we need to address a more fundamental one at its core: What are the Metro DC Democratic Socialists trying to do? Really dig deep and think about it for a second. Are we trying to win power for its own sake? Trying to take over the Democratic Party? Maybe we are trying to make ourselves feel good about our place in this horribly dystopian world before we die of a combination of super Covid and impending climate disaster. Or are we, and this is the one I’m personally partial to, trying to smash the capitalist world order and usher in a new era of socialism?

I would like to think we can all agree that the last point is what we are hoping to do. If that’s the case, I’d like to make a structural proposition for our chapter:

  1. Create a small committee within our chapter’s Administrative Committee that researches, synthesizes and publishes a yearly material analysis of the conditions of our country and city.
  2. Debate and amend this analysis until it can be adopted by a vote of the entire chapter.
  3. Steering uses this chapter-wide analysis to create a strategic outlook and priorities for the following year.
  4. Approve this strategic vision/priorities by another chapter-wide vote. Caveat: The analysis could be published before the local convention, enabling local election slates to publish strategies based on this, with the elections serving as this approval.

I believe this would solve a number of apparent and stifling problems within the chapter. Firstly, it would give us a clear and actionable project to coalesce around. I think we can all agree, Metro DC DSA is at its best when it is pushing towards a common goal (see: Initiative 82 campaign). Instead of pulling in disparate directions that we hope will eventually link up in the larger struggle, we would each be taking the reins to push towards a common goal. Knowledge, organizing models and skill sets can be distributed broadly in hopes of achieving something.

Next, it would rationalize and simplify the fights around priority status working groups. Does it fit our chapter priorities? Can we justify it within our analysis? If the answer is “no,” then priority status could be justifiably denied until the conditions change. It should be said that debates do currently exist on priority status and those debates attempt to be grounded in chapter-wide priorities, however there needs to be a clearer elucidation on what those priorities mean in practice more than the idea that they “contribute to our socialist goals.” I think for most, if not all, of our working groups and campaigns, we could make an argument that they fit our goals as socialists in the abstract. However, to make meaningful contributions towards a better society, abstractly gesturing towards socialist ideals is not sufficient. The point here is not that we should or shouldn’t have particular working groups, or even that we should discourage certain working group formations. The point is, while our principles as socialists shouldn't change, the manifestation of them in the real world absolutely should. Given we don't have a clear program of chapter wide objectives with relevant, material justification to back it up, I struggle to understand how the debates we have are based in substantive criticism rather than opinionated hearsay.

Further, engaging in this exercise of debating and refining a chapter program creates a self-documenting history of our chapter’s outlook and attempted tactics. Rather than simply saying “this doesn’t work” to one another or “we tried that before,” we can point to our chapter’s history and records to demonstrate how and why we think this. The conversation can then continue, as we will have a context attached to the success or failure of these tactics, instead of it merely stalling at the irreconcilable impasse of “nuh-uh” followed with the classic “yea-huh.” Just because something hasn’t worked before doesn't mean it will never work. The inverse is also true. If a tactic has worked, situations could have changed and it may need rethinking. Having these discussions is productive. What isn’t is attempting the same tactics over and over with no measurable success, hoping something changes at some point. For instance, our endorsement of candidates for office that are already running in hopes of making them “play ball” if we get them over the line. What ability do we have to make them cooperate if they win? If they lose, is it a total loss? By keeping a running list in this manner, we can soberly quantify gains, if any, made by executing particular tactics, address them chapter wide and discuss how the lessons learned inform future strategy. This means even in a zero-sum scenario, such as an election, we will still move forward in the event of a loss through knowledge gained.

Which brings me right to my next point: this new process would allow the chapter to effectively hold steering accountable, and steering to hold working groups accountable. Consent and support for steering can be informatively and justifiably withdrawn if they refuse to fulfill the wishes of the chapter in the way of executing strategic priorities. Additionally, incumbency elections are simplified with incumbency bias more easily overcome. “Did you do what we asked of you? If not, why?” This becomes the simple question the chapter asks of each steering member. It allows elections to be more than mere squabbles of bourgeois representative democracy; instead, they can be based on measurable results. But accountability cuts both ways. If an accusation of not doing one’s job is lobbied at a steering member by a working group, this can be compared with their given record. Did they faithfully and effectively check the boxes we, the rank and file of the chapter, asked of them? If so, then the accusation can be rebutted.

This on-the-record structure allows democratic chapter participation beyond that of just voting in elections. Therefore, it makes it more difficult to simply whip votes for personalities or chapter brands, and evolving chapter engagement to mean participation in a wider strategic plan. Getting a number of people to show up and vote on any one particular day is one thing, however sustained engagement in ushering forward the chapter’s program creates a deeper point of democratic engagement and enables an actual achievement of our project. At that point, the exercise is less “whipping” and more “member engagement” – also known as  “organizing.”

Lastly, this proposal would give Metro DC DSA a coherent platform. We can present our positions clearly, up front and for all to see. People will know what we stand for and consider that before deciding to engage with us. This can only be a good thing in my mind. No more opportunists coming to use us for political clout. Our organization will say outwardly and forcefully that we believe in overthrowing the capitalist system and building a socialist future. It will make it a lot more difficult for an official to play both sides of the aisle if such a position is asserted by one of their support groups.

Right now, we are directionless not only as a chapter but arguably as a national organization. Disagreements over seemingly mundane national questions such as our current budget crisis lay this bare: the elected NPC struggles to come to some consensus on what cuts need to be made, or even if any should be made at all, because we don’t have a unified vision of what we want to create. This isn't to say our chapter, or even the DSA as a whole, has been unsuccessful, unproductive or uninspiring — hardly! But lack of a clear, ambitious end goal — in the short and medium terms — frustrates mobilization and planning efforts.

It is time to take up the banner of the DSA and lead our movement from within the heart of the empire itself. A clear program based on principled material analysis will give us a lens through which to evaluate our current programs and future opportunities. Instead of guessing reactively about how to best respond to events, let's tell the city proactively how we are going to change it. Will there be debates within our organization about the program? Of course. Will we always agree on everything? Absolutely not. But instead of our current, zero-sum game of often vague internal politicking, these battles will end with a product that we can all be proud of, because we worked to make it together. We will go forward, unified in the face of reaction and those who oppose progress, as our movement presents an articulate, consensus-built plan of action.

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