DSA could have a much more effective national mobilization than it currently does in the important struggles taking place in cities and towns across the country today. The biggest hindrance to this isn’t a lack of militancy or of willingness from its membership to organize, but rather its existing organizational structure. As currently constituted, DSA is the inherited form of the organization as a nonprofit advocacy group rather than being oriented by the intentions of its present membership. The current model was its organizational form for most of its existence, when its national membership — even on paper — never exceeded 8,000 people.
The fortuitous membership surge that came out of Trump’s election was in no small part a matter of happenstance. Bernie Sanders called himself a Democratic Socialist during his 2016 campaign and, tens of thousands of internet searches later, the DSA was effectively co-opted by an influx of newly radicalized leftists and progressives, predominantly made up of middle class college educated former liberals. This scenario then encouraged thousands of more longtime radical leftists — excited by this newfound, mainstream left pole of attraction — to jump on the DSA bandwagon and become members as well. This new membership formulation then found itself at the helm of a ship it had no part in building.
Two National Conventions later we still have not succeeded in restructuring DSA in any meaningful way to meet the more ambitious aspirations of DSA’s larger and more radical rank and file membership. One could argue that the hesitancy for restructuring has been partially due to how amenable the inherited non-profit advocacy model is to an organizational emphasis on electoralism, which has been National DSA’s primary strategic focus since its political reemergence in 2017.
But even these electoral ambitions haven’t shown to be better served by holding on to the current national structure. Many of us have observed the results of National DSA’s strategic focus on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign over the last two years. When compared to the focus and resources exhausted, the actual electoral influence gained has been marginal. It has become apparent that, even in the electoral arena, the current structure of National DSA has arguably been only minimally beneficial logistically in helping achieve local election victories, and that this success could be more attributed to the tenacity of the specific chapters involved rather than the national organization’s influence and material assistance. For example, the Portland, Oregon, chapter endorsed two internal member candidates in the most recent campaign cycle, Paige Kreisman for State House Representative and Albert Lee for Congressional House Representative, and it received no substantial material or logistical assistance from National in these efforts. The experience for many individual chapters has been similar: when it comes to national priorities, what is emphasized on paper doesn’t necessarily translate to tangible support for those goals on the ground. The organization simply isn’t set up to effectively channel national resources into improved capacity and coordination for local chapters.
In the wake of Sanders receding as a national political focus and the growing economic and social precarity of this moment of uprisings and mass protest, we have, as the largest socialist organization in the nation, an exceptional opportunity to actually help strengthen all sectors of the working class struggle in the United States. But first we must soberly assess whether DSA is sustainable or politically effective as it is currently constituted. I would argue that the current structure is more than flawed; it is materially unable to meet our short- and long-term goals.
DSA has a national top-down structure typical of other membership-driven 501(c)3 and (c)4 non-profits: an elected executive board that oversees a national staff. Structurally, DSA could be described as sitting somewhere between the NRA, which doesn’t have chapters, and the Sierra Club, where a council of representatives from each chapter advises their member-elected Board of Directors. Needless to say, radical democratic processes are not currently on display in our national procedures. Outside of the bi-annual convention when chapter and at-large delegates vote on resolutions and bylaws amendments and elect the National Political Committee, the national organization currently operates with minimal to no formal direction, oversight, or input from individual chapters and their members on national strategy, tactics or basic organizing activities.
This lack of coordination on the ground fosters a reality for most rank and file members where their local chapter and the national body can effectively be perceived as two separate organizations. In my own local chapter, there are numerous examples of people who are actively involved in national work such as communications, design, and writing but are completely uninvolved in the local chapter, and vice-versa. This is all to say that the current national structure can appear to many members, especially newer ones, as disjointed and strategically unfocused while being steered by an organizational model that fails to adequately embody socialist values of organizational democracy and political militancy. We can and must fix this.
There are numerous ways we could do this. One option could be to put routine national decision making and strategy under the purview of a congress of chapter or regional representatives. In addition, we could create and enforce better standards on how the activities of our national working groups and bodies report back on their efforts and receive feedback and direction from the membership. We could institute more transparent national oversight mechanisms and bolster better communications between chapters, so when discussing national issues and strategies, we could more cohesively work through the more contentious debates productively. And rather than rank and file members having to wait two years every time they want the opportunity to influence national priorities or propose logistical changes, we could better utilize existing technology to foster more frequent and direct democratic input from the national membership. Ultimately, we should be looking at the examples provided by the different socialist experiments undertaken across the globe and examine what has worked and what hasn’t and why.
Regardless of whatever type of change we eventually agree to endorse and pursue, those of us who understand how crucial this topic is for the organization’s future should be actively instigating these important conversations throughout the organization wherever and whenever we can. As anyone who was present for the failed restructuring attempts made at the 2019 national convention already knows, we need a minimal consensus on at least the need for some kind of restructuring if we want to succeed in seeing it happen. We must ensure that DSA not only remains relevant, but also grows and thrives as a consequential force on the radical left in the coming years and decades.
Serendipity may have brought tens of thousands of people into the ranks of DSA in recent years, but it is incumbent on those now steering the ship to transform it into the mass organizing vehicle we need. Before we can hope to change the world outside of DSA, we must consider what extent we need to make change inside it first.