All the Rules of the Art: The Struggle for Good Governance in DSA
Sam H-L. and Megan R.
The crisis of leadership represented by the DSA National Political Committee’s handling of the Bowman Affair early last year has evolved into a slow-burn generalized crisis of governance for DSA. Conditions of general political stagnation nationally have accelerated contradictions within DSA’s organizing structure, escalating and highlighting some of the governance issues that have always been at play for DSA since its rapid growth post-2016.
A discovery that hundreds of thousands of dollars of member dues are being paid annually to an independent contractor whose body of work is seen as broadly unsatisfactory. An anemic response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Refusal by the NPC to seat the National Tech Committee’s steering committee, in favor of finding an independent contractor to do the same work. Multiple high-profile resignations of elected leaders and staff. An organization-wide fight over the hiring of a National Electoral Director. Chapter-level debates spilling out into nationwide social media brawls, over and over and over again.
These issues represent what we believe has become the principal contradiction within DSA, or at least its national organization: the contradiction between an outdated system and style of leadership and the emergence of a robust, rigorous socialist democratic culture.
The 2023 convention should be fought along these lines, with delegates demanding the strong leadership we need to ensure this democratic culture can be allowed to flourish. Simply put: our project is too big to run as though it was a casual book club; our success is too important to be stymied by a refusal to develop not just as organizers, but as an organization.
Why does governance matter?
Our experience in local, state, and national DSA bodies has shown that governance, the processes and cultural practices by which an organization reproduces and performs its work, has an outsized impact on the ability of an organization like DSA to meet the moment and achieve its goals.
Good governance does not replace political struggle – nor should it. Political struggle is the lifeblood of a socialist organization, and governance is the substrate in which productive political struggle can grow. Absent good governance, political contradictions have no productive way to be resolved, conflict boils over in avoidable ways, and tensions flare in ways that harm unity and sap capacity. Often one faction can get its way in the end. Still, if they do so without reckoning with the predictable consequences of their actions, those consequences lead to often-debilitating blowback.
We say “governance” and not just “culture” because in the messy reality of an organization, some individual leaders, elected by membership, have an outsized role to play in setting the tone and culture for political struggle. For example, take a contentious deliberative meeting where many members are clamoring to make points and wage parliamentary warfare. One can crow as much as they want about whether this or that member is behaving properly, but it often is as simple as this: if the presiding officer of this meeting does a good job enforcing order and shepherding members through the disposal of business, the meeting will go pretty well, people will feel heard and empowered by the process, and they will understand that they have participated in something democratic. If the presiding officer doesn’t do a good job, the meeting will go poorly, people will feel demotivated and disempowered, rightfully frustrated by an ostensibly-democratic process that left them confused or browbeaten, all-too-familiar feelings that they’re likely to encounter in their bleaker daily interactions with capitalist structures. Such as it often is with governance at all levels of this organization.
In addition to its negative impact within the organization, bad governance is inherently unconvincing. If we are trying to sell people on the viability of a socialist political project, we need to show by example that our theory can be put into practice. We aspire for the working class to hold and wield state power, literally to govern production. To ignore the crucial questions of management and governance, prioritizing a political program absent a mechanism actually to carry it out, does us no favors if we hope to achieve this goal.
Of course, there’s no such thing as perfect governance. We are scientific socialists and understand that “good governance” is a moving goalpost and requires constant checking and debriefing. These are necessary skills to develop for our broader project; we must be able to identify where our work is not meeting the moment, and adjust it accordingly.
Good governance from majority and minority factions
Within a deliberative and executive body such as DSA’s National Political Committee, majority and minority divisions are inevitable. Divisions into minority and majority may have different splits depending on the issue, or the body may coalesce into factions that form a consistent majority and minority. Regardless, we believe there are a few rules of thumb for what good governance can look like from organizers who find themselves in the majority or minority.
For members in the majority, the name of the game is “reading the room” and identifying the best path to achieve your goals, while preserving a critical mass of support to avoid becoming a minority. Sometimes it involves making concessions to a minority element, either in concrete work or in how you operate the body. This can mean managing operations in a way that minority viewpoints can be heard and contradictions can be resolved in a manner that minimizes pushback.
For members in the minority, this means identifying what goals you can push for while steadily building the organizational capacity and rhetorical case for being a future majority. Finding points of commonality or fractures you can push on to achieve governance victories can be good, but good governance from a minority position also means recognizing where your focus should shift toward highlighting bad practices and organizing for future victories.
Good governance for DSAs National Political Committee
With this in mind, we have a list of proposals for improving the operations of our national organization that can greatly improve the organization and its work. We believe that the current National Political Committee should immediately adopt these proposals, but at minimum, a new NPC elected at the 2023 convention should take them up - either to adopt them or to demonstrate that those who oppose them are not interested in the basic reforms they represent.
1. Hold a review of policies adopted by the NPC and make them available to membership
DSA has a set of complete bylaws available for all members to peruse and reference at any time. However, every new controversy seems to reveal a separate set of complex, questionably bylaws-compliant policies that have been adopted instead or in addition; a sort of “shadow bylaws” that members have no way of reading or analyzing. For example, in the complex discourse that spilled out of a botched hiring process of a National Electoral Director, members discovered that the hiring process laid out in the bylaws had been supplemented by a more complex process, one which was opaque to the membership and, seemingly, even some members of elected leadership. Particularly troublesome is a collection of policies that make considerable changes to the functioning of DSA’s grievance process.
Where did this policy come from? Why isn’t the process transparent? Many of these sorts of policy and process changes are done without the knowledge of the membership, and aren’t cataloged in any formal way that allows for membership review.
The NPC should review these policies and either publish them in a clear and searchable way for members or make an affirmative decision to keep them secret, at minimum divulging the topics they relate to, to make the course of NPC governance legible to members. This is likely to be an extensive process (we have no way of knowing how extensive these policies are), but it is crucial.
2. Better oversight of director-level staff work and improved personnel management
Though hiring staff is, in a well-functioning organization, an opportunity for the elected board to take a step back from direct governance, events have shown that more attention is needed to director-level operations to ensure the national organization is functioning to the satisfaction of its membership and leadership. It’s crucial that this not be read as a call for the NPC to act more like bosses, in the capitalist sense, but to recognize that satisfactory relationships between staff and members of the organization at all levels are their responsibility to manage with care.
The NPC should conduct an operations review to ensure the organization is functioning as an employer in ways that are fulfilling for staffers, satisfactory from the standpoint of the staff union, and functioning in a way that allows members and leaders to feel like the relationship between paid staff and member-organizers is mutually beneficial all around. We should be cognizant of the fact that DSA is fundamentally a socialist organization and that its function is unique relative to other comparably incorporated organizations.
3. WG and Committee Oversight
Instead of being generative hubs of cross-pollination between chapters, most national working groups continue to function as standalone projects, disconnected from each other and the work of chapters. Concerningly, many of these also see no significant input from or pathway for influence on the NPC, particularly those working groups and committees that don’t meet the criteria of “priority” (a designation ultimately set by the NPC and not by Convention resolutions that, after the 2021 Convention, would have included no fewer than 10 priorities as per resolution language).
Information is distributed unevenly and often in ways that feel chaotic to working group leaders. Major requests are made with short deadlines (2023 annual budget requests were made by the NPC’s internal Budget and Finance Committee with only 12 days’ notice for working group leaders, with no significant guidance on what could be expected). The National Tech Committee continues to be unable to get their steering committee approved, yet members have expressed a lack of clarity on why that approval is held up or on a timeline for that approval. It’s difficult to create data from a series of anecdotes, but a troubling trend is emerging: the NPC does not adequately communicate with, support, or provide guidance or clarity to national working groups or committees.
The NPC should clarify their relationships to the Committees and Working Groups of the national organization. What can a body expect from their liaison? What sort of commitment should an NPC member expect to make liaising with any given body? There is much to be clarified here, and it is crucial that the NPC do this work both to improve the functioning of these bodies individually and the organization as a whole.
4. Make decisions using formal deliberative procedure
There is neither a requirement nor expectation that NPC members be trained in Roberts’ Rules of Order (or any other method of parliamentary procedure, for that matter). In a standard RONR-led meeting, proposals are brought before the body, debated, and voted on. In the current iteration of the NPC (and some, but not all, before it), members may be asked to propose three or four different motions, which the body then somehow needs to consolidate into one, often chatting about them with the group to finesse the wording in real time. Though the instinct toward finding consensus and operating more casually is an understandable one, in a body with lots of business to dispose of and high political contradiction, strong facilitation and strict adherence to rules of order are a must.
Being a body with a high level of political contradiction, the NPC should operate under Robert’s Rules of Order, with “discussion” kept to a minimum and members trained in the process of proposing, modifying, and approving concrete proposals to avoid confusion and effectively resolve contradiction. This is not to say that the NPC should not hold additional, differently-structured political discussion – they should! Often! But meetings are for business, and there is a great deal of business to do.
5. Loomio votes
A significant number (likely a majority, but transparency issues make it somewhat unclear) of the NPC’s votes are held via an online software product called Loomio. Over-use of this platform has been internally and externally criticized by the general body and the NPC itself. However, even after a resolution passed at an in-person NPC meeting last year limiting Loomio votes, it still seems to be the primary method by which decisions are made.
There’s no question that much of the NPC’s work will inevitably involve some rubber-stamping. Simple requests like approval of mid-term replacement steering committee members for non-priority committees, for example, or minor reimbursement requests for necessary staff purchases do make up a significant amount of the votes held by the NPC. While it may be that the sheer burden of these votes necessitates some amount of Loomio voting, that decision should be made in the affirmative, and with clarity, not opaquely and as a default. Results should be immediately clear to members and there should be no confusion about when items are going up for votes. DSA San Francisco has adopted a procedure for online votes that formalizes many of these requirements, and the NPC should continue to refine its principles for online voting.
6. Increase the cadence of full NPC meetings and establish accountability structures for leadership
Currently, the NPC elects a five-member Steering Committee, but the full NPC is encouraged to not only attend these meetings but even to participate, sometimes leading to confusion about who’s voting on what and when. Unfinished business at full NPC meetings is often tabled to Steering Committee meetings, where conversations are completed with the whole body but only voted on by the smaller body.
These highly-leveraged NPC meetings exist in a context of an organization with no strong party press or member-to-member communications to feed into the decision making process. Democratic Left and the Socialist Forum are inert, understaffed and unwieldy enterprises. The national discussion forum has little leadership energy pushing membership towards it, resulting in the abundance of a few prolific posters instead of a wide range of organizers. Lacking a middle layer of leadership that can meet semi-regularly to debate exacerbates the problem, magnifying the impact of the elected leadership group on issues of governance.
The NPC should clarify the roles and responsibilities of its members, establish a clear division between Steering Committee and the full body, and move to a more regular cadence for full NPC meetings to reduce the strain of high-pressure online votes that are taken as a matter of expediency without debate, or only with group chat or email thread debate, fully opaque to membership.
The organization should re-invigorate its party press as a means for debate and dissemination of useful information to chapter organizers. DSA should also consider establishing a body that sits at a middle layer beneath the NPC, able to meet regularly to debate and decide on issues of importance.
7. Reflection and deliberation on past actions
Despite over 30 DSA chapters, 10 YDSA chapters, and 1200 individual organizers signing a petition and/or passing formal proposals dissenting from the NPC’s decision not to discipline Jamaal Bowman, the NPC has not once formally discussed the impact of their decisions. Staff have quit at an alarming rate during this term, citing both the organization’s failure to account for its representatives’ votes to fund the Israeli occupation and members’ inflammatory and disrespectful social media posts. The scale of this impact has not been represented accurately to the NPC or the general membership due to the lack of transparency among the NPC members and the body as a whole.
A body that moves forward without reflection cannot learn from its work and can only continue stepping on the same rakes. The NPC should perform reflections on major events within its tenure and discuss the impacts, positive and negative, of the choices it makes.
8. Basic democratic conduct and behavioral discipline
Starting off with an “August Surprise” that provoked candidate withdrawals and the barring of Kara H from running (overturned only by a vote of the full convention), this NPC has continued a pattern of acrimony and undemocratic behavior. One NPC member resigned after making an offensive and homophobic social media post. Two separate members of the NPC, neither one aligned with the majority faction but also not fully aligned with each other, resigned from the NPC in short succession during the large-scale outcry after the BDS decision was made public. Had they not resigned, they likely would have offered the swing votes to undo the decision; another set of unfortunate and unstrategic choices in a long line of unsteady minority faction struggle.
Another NPC member threatened to recruit a high-profile movement elder in a campaign to denounce the organization if it chose to discipline a member over their decision to vote to fund the Iron Dome and provide billions of dollars in funding for the Israeli military. This of course sits alongside a pattern of organizational negligence like the decision to disband and then re-establish the BDS Working Group that can only have predictable consequences of turmoil for the organization.
The majority faction blocks both minority faction members and their known allies from committee assignments, seemingly as a form of retribution. NPC members across tendencies, as well as their proxies, regularly feud on social media and in the DSA forums, wheedling and needlessly escalating in uncomradely ways and often cross the line into code of conduct violations. NPC members across tendencies use information, and access to it, as both carrots and sticks, leading to wildly inconsistent access to knowledge throughout the organization, furthering a culture of “insiders” vs. “volunteers,” an unacceptable dynamic in a democratic organization, one which is at least ostensibly member-led. While few of us have clean hands regarding information warfare (or social media sniping, for that matter), the burden of discipline can and must be higher at the highest levels of leadership.
The NPC should hold itself to a higher standard of conduct, recognizing its outsized role in setting the tone for conduct across DSA. This standard should not be a factional weapon but a recognition that any behavior that harms the organization, whether bureaucratic maneuvering with predictable negative consequences or unserious use of social media, needs to be rooted out and addressed.
As DSA struggles with enervated political conditions of the Biden regime, issues of governance have brought the organization to crisis after crisis. Both majority and minority elements of the NPC have roles to play in establishing a robust, rigorous socialist democratic culture.
As DSA considers its leadership for the coming term, it should take this responsibility seriously. Will new leaders continue to run roughshod over each other and the membership, or will they take action to bring the organization to a better place?