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The Top Takeaways from the 2023 DSA National Convention
A debrief on the direction of America's largest Socialist organization.
I apologize for being a day late on this week’s free post. I drove back from Convention through the night and was quite depleted come Monday. I decided to wait until I was back to normal before publishing, as opposed to writing something sub-par in my delirium.
Last week, I hopped in a rental van with fellow Denver DSA members and made the 15-hour drive to Chicago. There, we joined over 1,200 other members at the 2023 Democratic Socialists of America National Convention. Meeting in person for the first time since COVID, the Convention is the highest governing body of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA), which is America’s largest socialist organization. After four days of spirited debate and contentious voting, the Convention determined DSA’s top priorities for the next two years.
Though most of my readers are not DSA members, as the organization is well-known in the political sphere, I find it important to inform my political-interested readership on the direction and priorities of the Democratic Socialists of America. Though much longer than the 1,000-word limit I typically hold myself, I encourage you to read this post in its entirety so that you understand the state of the American Socialist movement, whether you agree with our politics or not.
Without further ado, here are the top five takeaways from the 2023 DSA National Convention.
#1. DSA is focused on the post-Bernie world.
There’s no denying that Bernie Sanders has been the catalyst behind DSA’s explosive growth. His first campaign drove membership from 6,500 in 2015 to 8,500 by election day, 2016, only to be outdone by his 2020 run which bolstered DSA’s ranks to the approximate 92,000 members it has today.
But with Bernie stepping back from the political limelight, DSA is well aware that we can’t count on the Vermont Senator forever. Instead of crossing our fingers and hoping some unforeseen firebrand will arise and lead the charge for Socialism, DSA has decided to create the leaders we want. To do this, the Convention voted to amend the DSA constitution to pay some members of our National Political Committee (NPC), empowering them to focus on communicating DSA’s values and visions to the American public on a consistent basis.
As one delegate put it, the reason Leftist leaders like Sarah Nelson, Bernie Sanders, and Lula da Silva were able to become recognizable and drive change is that they weren’t trying to squeeze in TV spots in-between shifts at Starbucks. Paying NPC members so they can fully commit themselves to the movement is key to not only growing DSA’s membership but continuing the momentum generated over recent years. If there’s one takeaway from the last decade of American politics, it’s that the working class is much more interested in Leftist politics than previously thought.
DSA is looking to continue this momentum, courting more supporters and furthering our cause.
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#2. DSA wants to separate from the Democratic Party in a manner that benefits the working class.
The perpetual problem facing Leftwing political organizations, especially those far from holding power like DSA, is the hotly-debated choice between supporting establishment parties in hopes of reducing harm or separating entirely in an attempt to build something better. As the argument goes, on one hand, the lives of the American working class will be better if liberal Democrats hold office instead of fascist Republicans, as they are less hostile to workers and civil rights. On the other hand, however, is the recognition that these same Democrats have no interest in changing the Capitalist system, which is the underlying cause of society’s ailments. Because of this, many leftists, both within and without DSA advocate for abandoning the Democrats altogether and becoming an independent party.
The obvious downside to this approach is that not supporting Democrats opens the door for Republicans to get elected, upon which they will immediately begin to bust unions, attack marginalized groups, and amend the Constitution to prohibit Lesbians from appearing in Disney movies. And while it’s seldom addressed, DSA just doesn’t have the capacity or resources to be an effective independent party. That requires full-time staff, around-the-calendar organizing, and other logistical feats DSA can’t currently muster. Additionally, being explicitly anti-Democrat would make it harder for DSA to assist the labor movement, as unions are historically intertwined with the Democratic Party and are not fond of those who oppose their chief political ally.
DSA is not the first left-wing organization to face this quandary, and it won’t be the last. Fortunately, I believe the Convention found the best path forward.
With 79% support, the Convention adopted the resolution to “Act Like an Independent Party” as part of DSA’s electoral strategy. This resolution does not push for a “clean break” from the Democrats, but to start building the infrastructure DSA needs to one day have its own party identity (such as voter lists and software systems) so that we may run candidates as Democratic Socialists. I, and many of the other comrades present, believe this is the best option for navigating DSA’s controversial relationship with the Democrats for three reasons.
First, this strategy clearly states that DSA’s intention is to improve the lives of the working class through the creation of Socialism, not just reduce their pain under Capitalism with half measures like Obamacare and an inadequate $7.25 minimum wage.
Second, DSA’s rank and file are beyond frustrated with DSA-endorsed politicians straying from our beliefs. Whether it’s Jamal Bowman’s coziness with the Israel lobby or AOC’s decision to endorse Joe Biden, many members (myself included) are sick and tired of working to elect ostensible change-makers, only to have them acquiesce to the Democrat’s pressure once they arrive in Washington D.C. Building party-like power will help DSA bear teeth, forcing our elected officials to act in accordance with DSA’s values or risk losing DSA support.
Third, I don’t believe clean breaking from the Democrats amidst the largest strike wave since 1946 benefits striking workers, the interests of DSA, or the greater project of building American Socialism. This is the greatest battle the labor movement has fought in close to a century. Our cannons should be fixed outward, not in. Instead of potentially driving away unions, I believe DSA should stand shoulder to shoulder on the picket lines with an imperfect coalition while simultaneously prepping the infrastructure, membership, and organization we need to put forth a serious alternative to the “kind” capitalism of Democrats. Unfortunately, despite what many of our detractors on www dot Twitter dot com claim, DSA wouldn’t have the base or tools to help the working class struggle if we were to sever all ties with the Democratic Party.
Fortunately, I believe the Convention’s two-pronged approach of not breaking from Democrats today while building towards independence tomorrow provides the maximal benefit to the working class. One day, I hope DSA can be entirely detached from the Democratic Party. But today is not that day.
#3. DSA is committed to building connections with the global Left through our International Committee.
Personally, I think the International Committee (IC) showed the Convention that it is one of the most robust and effective arms of our organization. After much debate, the Convention voted to abandon an amendment to our international strategy that encouraged vague critique of specific international Leftist governments. As one IC leader put it when speaking against the amendment, “DSA should stop trying to find the ‘perfect Socialist Party’ and instead work on building relationships with and learning from the Socialist parties that do exist. No party is perfect, including the one in this room.”
In my opinion, this is the correct approach to internationalism. Instead of needlessly arguing about whether or not the governments of Cuba, Brazil, China, Norway, or [insert any other country constantly being debated] are “truly Socialist,” American Socialists should build relationships with them, learn from them, condemn them when they deserve condemnation and praise them when they deserve praise.
There are a lot of really exciting aspects of DSA’s international work on the horizon, including the election of anti-Zionist candidate Ahmed Husain to the NPC and a delegation of DSA members being invited to Cuba this Fall. And, as a promising sign of our efforts to build international solidarity, the Convention concluded with an impassioned video address from Carlos Fernandez de Cossio Dominguez, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister, leaving not a dry eye in the house.
#4. DSA is all-in for the labor movement.
Currently, actors, writers, baristas, bartenders, and thousands of other workers are on strike across America (and there’s a chance UPS drivers are about to join them). This is the biggest labor movement in modern American history, brought on by the increasingly-crushing nature of 21st-century Capitalism. In both rhetoric and record, DSA is committed to supporting and empowering the working class through local Emergency Workplace Organizing Committees (a crash course in unionization that helps workers organize quickly), a rank-and-file union strategy (prioritizing communication with unionized workers over their union leaders), and protecting trans and queer workers from the right-wing assault on their jobs, lives, and dignity.
While I have mixed thoughts on the rank-and-file strategy (not every union employee is a corrupt, mobbed-up liberal who’s held their position since the Carter Administration), I’m willing to overlook my sole disagreement on tactics to support an unapologetically pro-worker political movement. Overall, I’m thrilled with DSA’s continued commitment to the labor movement. Solidarity forever.
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#5. Democracy is tedious, tiring, and awesome.
I’m writing the first draft of this article outside a dimly light truck stop somewhere in Iowa. It’s 1 am on Sunday night, and we’re currently 8 hours into our 15-hour return trip to Denver. The past five days have felt like a break in the time-space continuum, somehow lasting as long as both a blink and a decade. I met dozens of awesome people, was urged to “vote for X” hundreds of times, sat through hours of spirited debate, endured disappointing losses, savored sweet victories, and can literally feel my body aching under the combined strain of gas station snacks, hotel bar Old Fashioneds, and sleep deprivation held off only by Costco energy drinks. I’m tired, homesick, and dreading the coming week that will pull no punches on account of my disheveled state. And yet, on top of it all, I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity to have partaken in the Convention and be a part of the larger project it represents.
Make no mistake, as every delegate experienced firsthand in Chicago, democracy is messy, contentious, and sure to make you want to pull your hair out. But it is also beautiful. By sending elected delegates to the Convention, the rank-and-file membership of DSA enacted their wishes for the organization’s direction through the only truly legitimate form of governance — democracy.
Yes, it was frustrating to hold votes on whether or not we should break for lunch (I was hungry, cranky, and just wanted to eat). But that was a minuscule price to pay for the numerous complicated and nuanced questions the convention was able to resolve. I don’t agree with every vote carried by the Convention, but I respect its authority. Unlike America’s workplaces, statehouses, and high offices, the authority of the 2023 DSA National Convention cannot be called into question. It was perhaps the only truly democratic process I have ever enjoyed, free from disproportional representation and oligarchical manipulation.
It is this concept — democratic control over the political, social, and economic forces that dictate our lives — that DSA wishes to spread throughout America. And, much like the proceedings of the convention, should the masses ever win the right to democratically decide their fates, the methods by which they do so are sure to be messy. There will be conflicts, competing interests, and plenty of ugly politics. But, should such a day come, it will also be pure. And that is worth fighting for.
Make no mistake, Socialism will not be utopia. But it will give humanity the best chance of achieving it. I believed that as I walked into the 2023 Democratic Socialist of America National Convention.
And I believed it even more when I walked out.
If you’re interested in learning more about (or joining) the Democratic Socialists of America, please visit DSAUSA.org.
What do you think about the direction DSA has decided to take? Share your thoughts in the comments.