Jamaal Bowman and DSA’s Crisis of Leadership

Jamaal Bowman and DSA’s Crisis of Leadership

This past December 2, DSA’s National Political Committee released a statement in response to growing calls from membership to discipline Rep. Jamaal Bowman for a recent string of votes to provide over $4B in military aid to Israel. In the statement, the NPC stated that they “have seen considerable movement from Representative Bowman and his office” and that “expelling Bowman would mean handing the perfect tool to the establishment to stoke divisions within the Palestine solidarity movement.”

While chapters (including DSA SF) and the National Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions & Palestine Solidarity working group voted to dissent from the decision, it’s unlikely the NPC will take up the question before Bowman’s 2022 re-election campaign begins.

Writing in response to the NPC statement on DSA’s forum, one member, a part of the Tempest Collective that led the initial charge for Bowman’s expulsion, said “the statement shows that DSA, too, will roll over when it comes to the needs of Democratic politicians.”

But the DSA I know is not the one that will roll over when it comes to the needs of Democratic politicians. The DSA I know is already solving the questions facing us and showing that things don’t have to be this way.

The DSA I know here in San Francisco is revitalizing San Francisco’s labor movement with new worker organizing, and fighting to build a slate of  ballot measures to set the political agenda of the city. The DSA I know in San Francisco has already built allergic mechanisms to the Democratic Party Club complex that dominates our city’s political life. The DSA I know in Florida organized to win a $15 minimum wage and elect the state’s first open socialist in a century. The DSA I know in New York is building a machine of our own to contest electoral races with DSA partisans. The DSA I know across the country is performing mutual aid projects and doing phone banking for protests, texting you late at night to make sure you got home safely.

Talented local organizers and the lessons they’ve learned are proving that we don’t need to accept a sclerotic and unresponsive national organization. So the question we need to ask ourselves is this: why do so many of us look at our national organization and not recognize in it the DSA that we know?

This is the question facing DSA at this stage of our development. The National DSA is both structurally and politically trailing locals in almost every way — including its political horizon, its lack of administrative capacity, and its inability to operate under democratic principles even among the 16 NPC members. But where some see this as an intractable issue or proof that we should defang the national organization, I believe it is a concrete collective and individual failure of leadership that can and must be tackled practically; this article will outline a few examples of this issue, and some steps we can take to address them.

1. Lack of Leadership Development

DSA has few mechanisms to systematically evaluate, train, and promote leadership within the organization. What this means is that our leaders, including the NPC, are simply not equipped to oversee an organization with tens of thousands of members and a budget of millions of dollars. And when members in leadership have strong political convictions like the need to build a clear apparatus for discipline on Palestinian solidarity, they often don’t have the practical skills needed to effectively struggle democratically within leadership to advance them.

This is an administrative problem that exacerbates political tension within the organization. In poorly-facilitated meetings, particularly those that prioritize free discussion over debate on concrete proposals or have high levels of political disagreement, there is no well-structured way to resolve contradictions into a majority position. A lack of leadership training also affects our ability to exercise our political principles in moments of contradiction — being able to, for example, put forward a motion you know will fail in order to call attention to the political tensions on display requires knowledge of parliamentary procedure and principles of the democratic process.

How this played out:

The opportunist wing of the NPC smells a threat to their legitimacy and starts kicking into overdrive. Because the NPC doesn’t operate with a robust democratic process or follow Robert’s Rules strictly, the political contradictions are not hashed out over debate of a concrete proposal but in “discussions.” Leaders opposed to discipline of any sort make threats against the organization, and because the NPC tends to operate by consensus, leaders who may otherwise actively push for discipline feel that they have to respond and build that consensus. They moderate their proposals, and ultimately fail to achieve any of their intended results. A membership statement providing more context into the NPC’s decision not to discipline Bowman comes a full 8 days later due to a slow-moving communications process, meaning leaders on the NPC have squandered their opportunity to organize chapters or other factions into a useful intervention.

What we need:

We need to staff up the Growth and Development Committee and ensure there is a robust national apparatus to take members from local organizers to local leaders, advance them up for regional and national work, and systematically improve their ability to guide the whole organization in struggle. Leaders at all levels, but especially our NPC, should be receiving regular mandatory training in the skills they need to be effective — political education, compassionate and effective communication, task management, delegation, parliamentary law, etc.

We need to demand that the NPC operate democratically, moving to strict parliamentary procedure facilitated by a chair who has a strong knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order. NPC members who found themselves on the losing side in favor of disciplining Bowman should train themselves in waging parliamentary struggle, and refuse to cooperate with any attempt to stray from strictly-followed democratic procedure. They should also take their responsibility as leadership more seriously, and start working on plans to marshall forces within DSA to effect the change they think is necessary.

2. Selection pressure against leaders

At most levels of the organization, leadership is simply not an attractive prospect. It is seen as an exhausting duty, not a path to exert your will and shape DSA to your vision. Furthermore, because of the structure and inertia of the National organization, few talented leaders see a positive role of any sort for national leadership, and choose to avoid it at all costs. Between this general trend, and the phenomenon of last-minute negative statements driving out candidates the week of Convention, the election for NPC this year had only 20 candidates for 16 slots. There simply wasn’t the critical mass this time around to shape the organization into a stronger direction. We need to be able to run more and better candidates to vie for national power and wield it to improve DSA.

How this played out:

Because of contradictions within and among caucus formations and because the elevation of anyone not caucused up is near impossible beyond the local level, the slate of leaders vying for national positions is greatly reduced at the 2021 convention. Going into the Bowman situation, there’s likely no working two-thirds majority in favor of expulsion or even a simple majority in favor of censure to start with.

What we need:

We need to increase the pool of talented, politically mature, and well-trained organizers vying for national leadership. If the NPC fails to build out the Growth and Development Committee to analyze and develop the work of local leaders, we should build new infrastructure to call attention to successful organizers at the local level and share the work that they are doing. This will provide a counterbalance to the “caucus/political faction-first” approach to national leadership elections and give talented leaders the ability to advance to higher levels of responsibility.

3. The “National Chapter” Issue

National leaders oversee the work of our hundreds of chapters less than a semi-separate “National chapter,” which contains national campaigns like the Green New Deal for Public Schools, PRO Act, Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, International Solidarity work, etc. Often these campaigns spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with little on-the-ground impact for local chapters and at-large members to be able to connect to.

Though the DSA constitution states that the National Political Committee is the “highest decision-making body of the organization between meetings of the Convention,” in practice this rarely filters its way down to local chapters. The NPC often oversees work in crisis moments to adjudicate grievances or respond to membership calls like the Bowman issue as well as carry out some campaigns for chapter support, but there are limited mechanisms to proactively analyze and change the direction of our local chapters. NPC members are assigned to lead national committees which administer national campaigns, while mechanisms for actually understanding conditions locally and providing proactive guidance are severely underdeveloped.

National staff organizers run District Calls, but they are largely focused on announcing developments in national campaigns and celebrating the wins of smaller chapters. They are not evaluative in nature, and local chapters are rarely asked to change their work if it’s not meeting the standards of leadership or in line with the decisions passed at the national convention.

How this played out:

The Bowman expulsion comes to the NPC’s desk after months of deferring the issue and letting the BDS & Palestine Solidarity WG take the charge on meeting with Bowman’s office on the issue. Because of how the national organization is structured, leaders see calls to discipline a major Green New Deal for Public Schools spokesperson as a threat to the national campaign they care most about.

There are no mechanisms to overturn this decision of the NPC, and when you get down to it, this doesn’t really change all that much practically for locals. Some organizers may get demoralized, but in making their decision NPC isn’t telling locals that they can’t expel members for breaking with organizational priorities — so the practical impact on local electoral work beyond peoples’ emotional relationship to DSA is minimal. And if their decision does harm a local’s ability to, for example, build a coalition with local Palestinian organizers, the NPC is unlikely to have any mechanism to hear about it. So, receiving a lot of pressure from national groups and the “progressive” apparatus, they make the decision that causes them the least amount of pain from their vantage point, and decide not to act.

What we need:

We need the National Political Committee to reorient its focus away from splashy national campaigns and toward the hard work of understanding and guiding local chapters. This will cause tensions, as the NPC is not used to this work and local chapters have a mostly-ambivalent relationship to national, but it is a necessary step. In addition to training and developing individual leaders, the Growth and Development Committee needs to be able to train and develop individual chapters. Rather than Organizing Calls mostly focused on celebrating smaller chapters and providing “support” when requested in moments of crisis, staff should be holding 1:1 meetings with local leaders to understand their conditions, and providing direct guidance on improvements they need to make. The National Political Committee and their hired staff are the highest body of the whole organization, and they need to begin acting like it.

When considering the future of our national organization, we should reject the vulgar “all power to the locals” framing that eschews the need for national leadership. We need strong organizers with the will and ability to steer DSA, and the leveraged positions of national leadership are there for the steering! It’s an open question whether the 16 members of DSA’s National Political Committee have the desire and capacity to play that role, but we can and should demand more of them. And when it comes down to it, if they’re not able to step up and take charge, we need to demand and organize to win leaders who will.