From August 1-4, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, the Democratic Socialists of America held our bi-annual national convention, gathering 1000 elected delegates from chapters in all 50 states. It was by far the largest DSA convention ever, and the largest socialist gathering of its kind in generations. Although DSA has existed since 1982, the 2017 convention represented a new beginning after the 2016 surge that took our membership from around 6,000 to 25,000. DSA’s size has doubled again since that time, with the 2019 delegates representing an membership that is now close to 60,000 strong. Mid-Hudson Valley DSA sent a delegation of five, three of whom were attending a national convention for the first time.
The core objective of the convention was to set national political priorities for the next two years, to direct the use of national DSA’s approximately $4 million budget (which comes mostly from member dues), and to elect the 16 member National Political Committee (NPC), which is the governing body that oversees the day to day operation of the national organization. In addition, there were speakers including Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour and Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants. Delegates also attended breakout groups where we learned skills and made cross-chapter connections to aid our work on everything from tenant organizing to operational security.
DSA is a big-tent, multi-tendency organization, and that diversity made itself felt on the convention floor. There were differences over both external organizing priorities and the internal structure of DSA, which were debated and voted on over the course of the weekend.
An official accounting of all the resolutions passed is still forthcoming. However, key priorities that were approved include eco-socialism and the Green New Deal, labor organizing (both within existing unions and among unorganized workers), organizing for affordable housing, and opposing mass incarceration. Anti-fascist organizing and anti-imperialism also received a boost, as new national committees were formed to concentrate on each. And the centrality of reproductive labor was recognized, as we passed a measure to concentrate on child care, both by ensuring that child care is provided at our own DSA events, and by allocating resources to the national fight for guaranteed paid parental leave. In addition to all of this, DSA will continue its support of the Bernie Sanders campaign and Medicare for All, which have been two of our most prominent projects in recent years.
The resolutions that were passed create national working groups and allocate staff time to our priorities. This will help to support local work in our chapters. For example, MHVDSA’s efforts to secure tenant protections in places like Kingston and Newburgh, alongside allies such as the Kingston Tenants Union and Community Voices Heard, will be aided by national support and connections to ongoing housing work in other DSA chapters from New York City to Washington DC to Omaha to Des Moines.
The convention also adopted a resolution stating that national DSA will not endorse any 2020 Presidential candidate in the event that our current endorsed candidate, Bernie Sanders, fails to secure the nomination. While some argued that the overriding imperative of defeating Trump should make us open to other candidates, the majority were apparently swayed by the argument that no other candidate aligns with DSA’s values and objectives in the way Sanders does. This does not, however, prevent members or local chapters from working on another candidate’s campaign, as many undoubtedly will in the event that Sanders loses.
Some of the most contentious proposals at the convention concerned how DSA is organized: how the dues paid by every member are used and distributed, and how national bodies are organized and connected with local chapters. Delegates rejected several measures that would have decreased spending on national staff in favor of redirecting money directly to chapters; we also declined to adopt resolutions that would have replaced the NPC with an “assembly of locals”, or supported regional organizations to mediate between the local and national.
However, we did pass a measure on “Grassroots Fundraising and Small Chapter Growth” that should help small chapters like Mid-Hudson Valley DSA. This measure sets up a national dues drive to encourage members to switch from annual to monthly dues. Any member reading this is encouraged to go monthly if you can! Doing so provides a more reliable stream of funds to DSA, but it also helps chapters: chapters can directly receive a share of dues according to the portion of their local members who pay monthly, and this share is doubled for the first 50 chapter members, which is especially helpful to small chapters like MHVDSA.Towards the end of the convention, the assembled delegates elected our new National Political Committee. Of those elected at the 2017 convention, only one was successfully re-elected to the new body (most chose not to run again). The previous NPC struggled with personal animosity and factional infighting–time will tell whether the new body, which includes representation of all of the main political tendencies in DSA, will be able to work together more productively. However, the convention was promising on that score: the constructive debate and well articulated political visions displayed on the floor showed that DSA, which has filled up with young and inexperienced organizers over the past few years, has taken great steps forward in political maturity since 2017.
Predictably, the right attempted to ridicule the conference proceedings, which were live-streamed for anyone to watch. Failing to find the chaotic convention and outlandish resolutions they no doubt hoped for, the likes of Fox News seized on particularities of the convention’s ground rules. Simple and sensible requests that delegates not clap (so as to respect those with certain disabilities and to make the proceedings speedier and less divisive) and that we use gender-neutral language (such as “comrades” rather than “you guys”) were portrayed as outrageous fringe ideas rather than simple agreed-upon norms of efficient and respectful debate. That the reactionary media (along with a few fellow travelers among “left” critics) were reduced to such meager sniping suggests that the truth of the convention was closer to the impression it left on this author: it was a remarkably disciplined and well-run meeting, where delegates experienced true democratic participation at a scale that is rarely found anywhere else in contemporary life, even in most unions and progressive activist groups.
The real test, of course, will come over the next few years, as local chapters including MHVDSA attempt to follow through on the commitments made in Atlanta. But we return from the convention energized, and reminded that our struggles in the Hudson Valley are not just are own, but that we are part of a broad movement for socialism in the United States and around the world.