DSA Convention 2017:  Organizing for a New Era

DSA Convention 2017: Organizing for a New Era

Bring a Democrat to the DSA National Convention and they may balk at the lack of well-remunerated consultants and credentialed Ivy League thought leaders. Bring a Republican and they may recoil at the sight of free-range journalists not safely locked in a cage. Such is the state of American politics today.

At a time when the erstwhile party of the people expects its rising stars to hobnob with billionaires in an age of instability and of total corporate capture of the political apparatus, one might think it would be easy to see what distinguishes Democratic Socialists from the rest of the American political landscape. But the commentariat continues churning out takes that deny the ideological dissonance between the grassroots left and many liberal Democrats. The difference between the left and the center is said to be more cosmetic than substantive, if only we would listen to one another.

But at the DSA convention on August 3–6, about 700 delegates from across the country ratified a platform that in clear terms spells out exactly what differentiates us from our nation’s entrenched political interests.

We overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the very time that many congressional Democrats are trying to criminalize it. We endorsed Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda to Build Black Futures. We amended our priorities resolution with near-unanimous consent to advocate not just Medicare for all, but socialized medicine and the complete elimination of the profit motive from healthcare provision.

It’s an ambitious and distinctive agenda, not just a refutation of our country’s prevailing political currents but a vision of a more equitable and just world beyond the scope of politics. It’s an affirmative mission statement, not just reactionary #Resistance. It’s also notable for the simple fact that there was no guarantee this experiment in democracy was going to work at all.

This wasn’t just the DSA’s largest-ever convention. It was also the first time many young delegates had ever participated in a meaningful democratic process of this magnitude. It could have blown up in our faces. The weekend had its fair share of shouting, hissing, and internecine dust-ups over votes, but no more than you would expect from any nascent democratic body. As the weekend wore on we became more comfortable with Robert’s Rules of Order, more disciplined in using our limited time to address every item in our thick packets of resolutions and amendments.

To me, anyway, the hours-long debate sessions captured an important paradox of democracy, that it’s both boring and exhilarating at the same time. This strange cocktail of sensations is especially invigorating when contrasted against the limitations of American democracy writ large. For most Americans, democracy means merely a biennial pull of the lever or tick of the box in support of candidates we’ll never meet whose values we seldom share. To be a member of a deliberative body, to consult and consider, to be simply present felt meaningful.

Those of us from Illinois had the added comfort in knowing that the world we hope to create is not conjectural. We are already taking power. DSA member and Rock Island alderman Dylan Parker was on hand all weekend, and Chicago’s 35th Ward alderman, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa — another DSA member — dropped in on Saturday evening.

Two nights earlie,r he hosted a de facto convention kickoff event that doubled as a campaign fundraiser. It was a freewheeling talk with Jacobin’s Micah Uetricht, where he denounced establishment Chicago politics (even criticizing aldermen by name) and touted his familiarity with left political theory (sprinkling in terms like “non-reformist reforms” to a receptive audience) in a candid display you don’t expect from a sitting alderman.

If we keep at it, all this will become much more common.

Socialism or barbarism” is a nice rallying cry, but it can feel opaque. At this convention, we spelled out what it means in practice. Equal rights for Palestinians or indifference in the face of apartheid? Healthcare as a human right or a health-insurance racket catered to rent-seeking corporate interests? Black liberation or mass incarceration? Politics for the many or politics for the few?

— Charles Austin