Red Star Opposition to Constitution / Bylaws Change #1: “Democratize DSA”

Red Star Opposition to Constitution / Bylaws Change #1: “Democratize DSA”

A proposal put forward for this year's convention by NPC Candidate and SMC member Renée Paradis and her caucusmate Sam Lewis aims to expand the size of the NPC from 18 members to 51, and to expand the Steering Committee of the NPC from 5 to 13.  This new Steering Committee would take on many of the responsibilities that currently fall to the full NPC.

A companion resolution would implement this change immediately after the current convention by having the current elected delegates vote on an additional roster of NPC candidates that would be nominated by chapters within 90 days, instead of at the 2025 convention as would typically be the case.

This proposal has received support from outside of the bloc that proposed it, including by members who are politically opposed to SMC’s broader program.  After an NPC term that was often seen as a complete breakdown of NPC governance, members from across DSA are looking for “structural” change; this proposal is one of several that are going before Delegates that aims to significantly change how DSA’s highest body relates to the rest of the organization.

The idea is that it allows a broader swathe of membership into top leadership positions, especially people who are unable to make the “overwhelming commitment currently required to serve on the NPC,” and that adding these people to NPC will vastly improve the capacity of our National Org.

Objections regarding the election of a MegaNPC

First off, the proposal claims that DSA’s NPC is “far smaller than the leadership bodies of comparable historical, international, and contemporary mass political organizations.”  It’s not necessarily clear that this is the case; with 16 NPC members and 2 YDSA seats representing about 55,000 members in good standing, our ratio is actually far higher than some other “Left” analogues like the UK Labor Party or Brazil’s PT and PSOL parties.  Obviously differing leadership structures make these imperfect analogues, but it doesn’t appear that the size of our NPC is an aberration.

Assuming we do need to expand our leadership body, this proposal is predicated on the notion that there exists a large pool of experienced leaders that is ready and willing to run for NPC seats, if only it required less work.  While anecdotal evidence is sometimes presented to this effect, the evidence from leadership elections on National bodies suggests otherwise; a number of Working Groups have struggled to replace outgoing leadership, including Abolition, Socialist Feminist, Queer Socialists, Political Education, and Disability.  Some leadership also sits on multiple bodies, to compensate for the severe lack of capacity.

It’s very common for local chapters to have the same issue; contested Steering Committee elections are relatively rare in most chapters.  Even with the lowered time commitment, there’s not an obvious place to source 32 additional NPC candidates that wouldn’t entirely deplete leadership of existing bodies.

Even with dozens more candidates, the resulting election wouldn’t be especially competitive.  In this first election, it’s likely that candidates who were rejected by membership during the initial convention would simply run again to fill the newly-created vacancies if the resolution passes.  There are currently 41 candidates running for 16 seats; there’s probably vanishingly few people who think all of them should be on NPC, but that’s a distinct possibility under this proposal.  To have an election of the “Mega-NPC” that would be as competitive as the current one would require about 123 candidates.  

The current election process involved each candidate answering a questionnaire and completing a video interview.  Many others did extensive campaigning on panels, chapter Q&As, etc.  That was a herculean effort for 40 candidates; with 100 or more, it would be entirely impossible, and even if it was the resulting torrent of information would be completely impossible for any Delegate to follow.  In an election where little or no information is known about any individual candidate, it seems likely that the influence of slates and caucuses would become even more pronounced.

Finally, it’s important not to forget the budget crisis that will be looming over the head of the incoming NPC.  This proposal requires an immediate second election, for twice as many seats as the original, to be conducted within 90 days.  This will inevitably become the single focus of the 18 NPC members initially elected, at a time when they should be devoted to keeping DSA from going bankrupt.  The current NPC approved a 2023 budget that runs a $1.6 million dollar deficit.  It’s likely that the incoming NPC will have the unenviable task of immediately cutting costs, deciding how to fund priorities, and fundraising aggressively.  Instead, this proposal would have them overseeing an unwieldy election, unable to take decisive action since they would only represent a minority of the full MegaNPC.

Objections regarding the operations of a MegaNPC once elected

Even if these objections were somehow overcome, it’s not obvious that having these additional people would automatically translate into a greater ability of the NPC to do the work it was established to do.  Principally, the NPC is tasked with meeting regularly to debate, vote on resolutions, and resolve the issues within DSA.  Current NPC members have noted the difficulty of coordinating the schedules of 18 people, at times leaving months-long periods without any official NPC meetings.  This would be worse by orders of magnitude with a 51 person body consisting mostly of people who are unable to make a large time commitment to the organization.  This would extend to every aspect of coordinating work; adding 34 more people into a remote-organized  group that’s spread across 4 time-zones would require a huge additional lift in organizing that is not provided for in this proposal.

The proposal calls out the “impossibility” of fulfilling NPC’s obligation to liaise with Chapters at its current size, and it would certainly be easier to assign more liaisons to chapters with 51 members.  In a Socialist Forum piece written by the resolution authors, they add more detail to this argument.   They essentially consider the “chapter liaison” function of the NPC to be the equivalent of chapters having a designated representative on leadership.  However, unlike the National Delegates Council, which actually creates a body of similar size and composition to the example presented in the piece (the Delegate Assembly of a New York teachers union), where leaders are members of the chapters that elect them.  The NDC would actually require a far lower threshold of involvement, as well as solving the issues of representation that the MegaNPC authors raise.  They say that the NDC, which they don’t endorse, “isn’t incompatible” with expanding the NPC, but it would be more accurate to say that it makes it redundant.

However, the people taking on these NPC roles would, by design, not have the capacity to carry out large amounts of DSA work.  With around 200 chapters, that’s still a significant task to establish regular meetings, conduct report backs, etc.  That’s also assuming that no-one from the NPC resigns or drops out.  Considering that 4 members of the 18 person NPC elected at the 2021 Convention have done one of these, it’s likely a larger body would also see at least this much turnover.

NPC would functionally consist of a group of dedicated (and possibly paid) 13 Steering Committee members, with a rotating cast of however many NPC members can attend any given meeting.  Non-Steering NPC members would likely be less-informed and less decisive.  Steering would use the greater powers allotted to it under this proposal to conduct the majority of DSA’s business, and the enlarged NPC would have the opportunity to consult or overrule them.

Objections regarding the political dynamic of a MegaNPC

Even if the issues of electing 51 NPC members were overcome, and they were somehow integrated effectively into the work of National DSA, the logic of this particular reform remains unclear.  First off, I think very few people who have had issues with NPC during the last 2 years would say that “capacity” was the principal problem.  The issues around Bowman and the BDS Working Group, the Rail Strike Vote, the hiring of an Electoral Director, the renewal of the NHGO contract; I don’t think most people would say that capacity was the primary cause of these controversies.

Rather, people objected to the governance of the NPC majority, and the resulting political decisions that emerged from it.  A reformist NGO leadership culture was in conflict with membership expectations of democratic input and control, and when NPC was tasked with making significant decisions, the majority typically defaulted to deference to Congressional Electeds with very little consultation or conversation with membership.  Even DSA members who might agree with NPC positions on these issues could see that the outdated system and style of leadership tended to escalate contradictions rather than resolve them.

With that being the case, what exactly does it mean to claim that this proposal would “make DSA’s national leadership more democratic, deliberative, accountable, and representative of DSA’s membership.”  More Election doesn’t automatically create More Democracy, and sometimes it’s exactly the opposite; a larger body composed of lower-participation members is more likely to end up just tailing a dominant faction that has the time, energy, and resources to advocate a political direction.   Democracy is a difficult thing to cultivate; it doesn’t emerge automatically from organizational forms, but is cultivated through practice.  Filling a new pot with sterile dirt won’t democratize DSA.  Filling the same pot with fertile soil just might.

Would a larger body be more “deliberative?” Assuming this is referring to actual internal debate and not anything more nebulous, it is by no means automatic that introducing more NPC members will bring this about.  In a meeting with 51 participants, it’s less likely that everyone will have a chance to speak to advocate a position, or that everyone would even try.  Is an expanded NPC likely to have more in-depth discussion asynchronously (in a group chat for example) or is it more likely that a few dominant voices will emerge to shape debate, especially if some participants are full-time paid political leaders and the rest have reduced capacity for involvement?

What would make such a body more accountable?  This proposal includes no mechanism of recall or override by membership between conventions.  Steering can be overruled by the full NPC, but again, this would likely become a contest between the most committed, invested, and caucus-backed members and the less available, involved, or aware.  Even this mechanism only makes NPC available to itself.  The authors claim that with an expanded NPC, rank and file DSA members can “get information” from their designated NPC liaison, whom they can petition to bring up their issues in the highest body.  Creating more regular contact between NPC and chapters will definitely be an important task, but this proposal doesn’t create any formal accountability, and it much more closely resembles the informal back-channeling that has been a recurring complaint on the current NPC.

Finally, the proposal claims to make NPC more representative of DSA’s membership.  How so?  There are already quotas in place to ensure that NPC reflects the makeup of the U.S. working class.  Is the idea that tripling the size of the NPC would smooth out demographic rough edges, like increasing the resolution of an image?  Is this a reference to geographic representation?  The vast majority of DSA members are in a few major chapters (NYC, LA, East Bay, etc.), and if the proposal passes unamended, it would likely continue to draw largely from these locations.  If it’s a reference to political representation, that would be interesting, considering SMC’s past arguments against proportional representation of political minorities.  Assuming it is, what prevents an 18 person NPC from serving that purpose?  There’s only so many distinct political tendencies seeking to elect someone to steering.  At best, a larger body would simply scale up the representative blocks of the major organized caucuses.

Some parts of the DSA Left may think that in the event of the Social Democratic wing taking over a majority on NPC, an expanded NPC would give them another bite at the apple to guarantee some representation on the highest body.  As I’ve laid out, this proposal, which originates from a Social Democrat candidate for NPC, would objectively give larger, more right-leaning caucuses an advantage in getting candidates on, and the SMC/GND wing would likely have a commanding plurality on a body of any size.  The dynamic of the last two years has clearly demonstrated the impotence of being in a minority faction of a body governed by backchannels, informal rule, and procedural maneuvering, with strict majoritarianism as a last resort.  That would be no better with 51 members than it is with 18.

The likely outcome of MegaNPC

In Socialist Forum, the authors say that the size of the current NPC “drives factionalism” without explaining what that means or how that happens.  Possibly what they mean is that it results in competitive elections, where caucuses have to organize to convince unaligned delegates.  The real political impact of this proposal would be to reduce that competitiveness, making it easier for factions that can field their own delegates to vote their candidates onto the NPC without needing any external support.  

Assuming that next convention we have the same number of members and Delegates (possibly optimistic, considering the steady decline in our membership over the last 2 years), and we're still using Single Transferable Vote, the threshold for getting onto NPC would be about 20 delegate votes, down from about 60 currently.  If DSA continues shrinking at its current rate, we’d be looking at single-digit delegate counts to be on NPC.  Larger caucuses can field many times this amount from within their own ranks: SMC for example has at least 45, and likely more.

Once a faction has gotten their back-benchers onto the NPC, they would be a decisive factor in electing a Steering Committee to whom the bulk of the NPC’s current powers have been delegated.  The proposal includes no specified voting method for Steering, and it would be no surprise if an attempt was made to use something like the Borda Method, as has been done at past conventions.  Under such a system, a slim majority on the NPC could allow for supermajority control of the Steering Committee.  Instead of making the effective decision-making body of DSA more accountable to members, it would in fact create an additional layer of insulation from direct selection.  

This proposal to expand the NPC depoliticizes the election, by lowering competitiveness, decreasing the necessity of campaigning for undecideds among DSA’s rank and file, and significantly limiting the ability of convention to reject political tendencies.

The Amendments

After the original proposal was brought forward, amendments were proposed.  Some, around staff hiring authority, were incorporated directly; two others received 300 member signatures, and will be considered at Convention.

The first, which was written by the authors of the original proposal, is a requirement that NPC elections will be conducted regionally, with the Convention Committee appointed by the current NPC being given the power to draw regions, establish quotas, and determine proportionality.  On its face, this amendment is an attempt to “shorten the ballot for NPC vacancies.”  It would mean that Midwest Delegates vote on Midwest Candidates, and so on, or however the regions are decided.

In reality the effect of this is to lock in guaranteed seats on NPC for factional strongholds; NYC, where SMC is at its strongest, would be guaranteed a portion of NPC seats equivalent to their proportion of Constitutional Membership in DSA.  Some back of the envelope math shows that NYC is about 10% of DSA, so one could expect their region to control about that percentage of NPC.

The second proposed amendment would call for the Steering Committee of the expanded NPC to be elected directly by convention Delegates, rather than chosen afterward by the NPC itself.  This amendment does not originate from the authors of the resolution, and is an attempt to solve the issue that came up before, whereby a faction could get backbenchers into NPC with the reduced threshold, then choose their preferred Steering Committee with expanded powers.

This amendment goes some way towards removing this specific problem, but the others raised above still remain.


As stated at the top, there are some from the broad Left of DSA who support this proposal, on the grounds that it Democratizes DSA.  After two years of what has been at times a profoundly Undemocratic NPC, they’re willing to support any effort to fix that.  However, this proposal reinforces rather than resolves the contradiction that has plagued DSA in the last term.  As changing conditions of the organization are creating a new alignment around developing a robust democratic practice, elements of the former ruling faction are proposing a Structural change that would allow them to perpetuate their outmoded style of leadership.

Materialists sometimes are drawn to this type of “Structural” reform as a deeper and more consequential fix to organizational problems.  In reality, the “structure” of DSA is more concretely represented by the orientation of its factions and powers towards the contradictions of the organization.  This proposal attempts to peel off factions that are otherwise aligned on the issue of Good Governance as a central contradiction of DSA, and to create a new arena of struggle where factions that are starting to find themselves in the minority will continue to have the upper hand.

We’ve all sat in the passenger seat and watched the vehicle of DSA careening around wildly during the current NPC term.  The natural and obvious option, having examined all of the factors, is to make an attempt to seize the steering wheel.  As we’re lunging towards it however, the driver is telling us that what we actually need to do is change the tire, so would you mind getting out and grabbing it from the trunk?

The authors decry the fact that the current NPC is seen as factional, illegitimate, and non-deliberative, while representing the faction that is most commonly seen as the source of these problems.  SMC & GND represent the tendency most strongly associated with informal, undemocratic leadership, the quashing of political debate in favor of apolitical Work, and conducting fierce factional conflict through control of appointments to National working groups and projects.

My vote is to take control of the NPC as it exists now; to exercise Good Governance in accordance with the Leadership Pledge, and to examine the results of organizing under a new paradigm.  Renée P. has signed onto this pledge, along with the rest of the SMC slate.  If they’re committed to exercising good governance and helping build a robust democratic culture in DSA, then we look forward to working with whichever of them are elected.  The existing NPC structure gives them all of the tools and structures necessary to carry that out.  The dysfunction of the current term was determined by the makeup and orientation of the factions that held power, not by the number of seats held by those factions.

There are other options for structural reform that have less pronounced and dangerous implications for the emerging democratic culture of DSA; the NDC and Democracy Commission have much better odds of creating a genuine middle layer of developing leaders that can interface between the NPC and chapters, one that’s suited to the conditions with the organization.  If capacity to do administrative work is a major issue, creating an Admin or Coordination committee would be a more natural fix than expanding the political body itself.

The National Organization of DSA requires a great deal of fixing.  Red Star wants to make those repairs.  But doing that will require a clear-eyed analysis of the problems and solutions, rather than throwing Structural Reform at the wall and seeing what sticks.  It’s why we’ve proposed our GDC Amendment to investigate the organizing environment of local chapters, and why we support the Democracy Commission to propose fixes to our structures.

If we implement this specific proposal right now, we’ll give the current dysfunctional system that has led to sterile, unproductive, personalized conflict instead of robust internal democracy a chance to reestablish itself in a new organizational form, rather than receding from leadership.  Let’s choose instead to give the emerging elements a chance to govern unimpeded.