Want a More Accessible and Democratic Organization? The Answer is Politics, Not Process

Want a More Accessible and Democratic Organization? The Answer is Politics, Not Process

As a mass organization, transparency and increased democratic participation are unquestionably important and worthwhile objectives for Chicago DSA. It’s true that for a variety of reasons, even the most involved members may not know what’s going on throughout the chapter, information and institutional knowledge is not always easily accessible, and a body of 3,000+ members that’s part of a national organization of nearly 100,000 can be difficult to navigate. 

How to solve this problem has been debated at all levels and areas of DSA, including its National Political Committee (see the transparency pledge by some NPC members and response from others). One such proposal on this issue, “Transparency and Accountability Builds Socialist Power,” will be voted on at CDSA’s April 3rd General Chapter Meeting. We argue that, if passed, this proposal would not make the organization more democratic and accountable, but risks making leadership inaccessible, driving discussion underground in smaller and smaller groups, and hiding political differences behind procedural arguments. Further, we provide an alternative vision for a path forward for increased transparency in the chapter.

Administrative Burden

Since the first wave of DSA growth in 2016, administrative work has been one of the hardest tasks to recruit and retain comrades to do. In that time, there have been at least four CDSA Secretaries, and it is the position with the steepest learning curve and most day-to-day responsibility. Historically, only a handful of members at any given time actively volunteer for additional administrative tasks. These volunteers also tend to be women, replicating a gendered division of labor often seen in the workplace

The proposal at hand contains nine pages of prescriptive rules and administrative processes, and even has its own explainer, which signals that its rules are already inaccessible. Provisions include but are not limited to: an unenforceable ban on EC members from posting more than twice in online debates unless they brought forth the proposal; overly complex mechanisms for soliciting member comment in meetings and online votes; and minutes so detailed that they may better be described as transcriptions. As written, this proposal mandates a lot of work, with little room for experimentation to determine whether any of these interventions are helpful or effective, and has no clear path for implementation.

These rules would require not just the secretary but whatever team of volunteers they are able to cobble together to pay near constant attention to the flow of requests, information, and document production required by this proposal. Even if the workload is more equitably distributed it is still in essence a part-time job of being tied to your phone and making sure you can get to a computer and interrupt your work or family time to be on top of your chapter “volunteer” work. It is not just the amount of work, but the “on-call” nature that makes this proposal unworkable.

In and of itself, this is an incomplete argument; many things worth doing take enormous effort. However, the specific burden imposed by the requirements of this proposal would make elected leadership in CDSA, especially the Secretary’s position, largely inaccessible to huge segments of the working class without flexible desk jobs or independent wealth or who care for children or parents. This is not an acceptable outcome for an organization that seeks to become representative of the multiracial working class, in a country where 13 million workers hold two or more jobs for their survival.  

Leadership: Political or Administrative?

Though obscured behind process, we understand the underlying political ethos of this proposal as one that sees elected leadership serving a purely administrative function. Decisions in the chapter are already being made by smaller and smaller groups and becoming less democratic, a problem which would be exacerbated by this proposal.

That general membership serves as the highest policy-making body is not at odds with the existence of an elected Executive Committee. In fact, many of the organization’s most influential day-to-day decisions are already realized not through the EC or even GCMs, but through the informal leadership of members organizing in CDSA campaigns, working groups, and other areas of the chapter that are explicitly not subject to the requirements of this proposal. By restricting the ability of elected chapter-wide leadership to act, this proposal shifts the political center of gravity to smaller, often unelected and less accountable subgroups—or influential individuals—over elected leadership or the broader membership. 

Online debate on proposals would be sharply limited, allowing EC members to comment a maximum of twice, while allowing other members unlimited comments, privileging those with time to devote to online engagement and decreasing elected leadership’s ability to further inquire, refine, and pass proposals. While a political organization’s internal deliberations should be available to the membership; that goal should be balanced with the understanding that anything shared with 3,000+ is essentially public, including to our class and political enemies. At times, leadership needs to feel comfortable openly debating the organization’s relationship to other progressive organizations, unions, and elected officials, or even a potentially dangerous action. 

When leadership cannot debate and discuss political questions freely, these conversations will not stop happening, they will simply retreat to the shadows—in executive session, text messages, separate email threads, phone calls, or bars (in the not-so-distant future). 

More procedural rules means more procedural land mines. Most people join a socialist organization to do political work, to accomplish things, and to build power. So in practice, these rules will be stepped around, ignored, or excused when it is politically expedient to do so: so rather than creating transparency and accountability, they will act as a constant point of argument and debate themselves, as people look for technical or “emergency” reasons to ignore these burdensome requirements in this case (when it helps a position I like) but not in that case (when it helps a position I don’t like). So instead of debating the political merits of proposals, we risk having constant proxy fights over whether procedure has been satisfied rather than debating substantive politics and strategy. 

A Political Problem Needs A Political Solution

The proposal is modeled after government transparency laws. Chicago City Council requires extensive disclosures; is subject to a strict Open Meetings Act enforceable by private citizens; its officials are subject to the Freedom of Information Act down to their personal text messages; the City Council has two dozen pages of procedural rules of order that require notice to Council members of an ordinance, time for review, public comment periods, and timing. 

So the natural question to ask is: have these procedural rules made the City of Chicago’s government progressive? Aren’t complex procedural rules just as often used by rules experts like Ed Burke as they are by progressives and socialists? In fact, probably more so? And will anything but political power built by organizations like DSA change that? While filing FOIAs can get you useful information to use against enemies, it doesn’t make City Council any better on the whole—only changing who is elected to it will. 

Chicago DSA has the largest leadership body of any DSA chapter in the country, with nearly fifty people and growing. It is nearly three times larger than leadership bodies in similarly sized chapters. In just two years between 2018 and 2020, there was more than 80% changeover of Executive Committee leadership. About one in ten active members is on the EC. This was a conscious choice to make it easy for members to get elected—and it is! No rule—particularly not nine pages of rules that required its proponents to send yet another nine pages of explanation—is a substitute for running comrades for leadership that share your politics. Organizing your comrades around a political vision and coming to collective decisions through deliberation and debate are key components of political democracy. In a political organization, unlike a city government, burdensome technical requirements are not empowering, they undercut the power of the membership to implement a vision.

Our members should be trusted with the power to set the direction of the organization by electing people who have taken the time to engage them on a political vision. Subjecting members’ elected leaders to procedural minefields and onerous administrative requirements disempowers the members in favor of small groups of rules experts and those who can spend hours every day keeping up with DSA.

A Path to Real Transparency

In the spirit of the proposal, we agree that there is much room for improvement to increase transparency and accountability to build socialist power in Chicago DSA. Beyond elections, what would it take to truly have a more democratic and transparent organization? 

Information and Orientation

We agree that minutes could be improved to effectively convey deliberations while minimizing the additional amount of labor and disclosure involved. Using initials instead of full names (a practice used by some other large chapters, like DSA-LA), minutes could include a list of who spoke for and against a motion and a high-level summary of why, for example, “LS spoke against motion to create a new committee, citing cost concerns”. A repository of proposals and campaign and committee reports would be similarly useful to EC members and non-EC members alike. The volume of available information alone does not guarantee members will read it or that it will be useful. It’s clear that there’s much more work to be done to orient new members and leaders to the organization. The Member Engagement Committee and Rose Buddy program are a promising start in this direction. 

Bigger Decision-making Spaces

Most importantly, however, we need more spaces for substantive, open debate. This can and should happen at regularly scheduled meetings, for example at the Branch level, where members can discuss ideas and proposals, and have debate. There’s no shortage of opportunities for members to be involved in chapter work; in 2021 so far, there have been a whopping 209 meetings on the chapter’s public calendar, for an average of 2.4 events every day, 7 days a week. Logistical and planning work are critical to executing political projects, but how many of these meetings serve as places where members do analysis and make decisions together, versus acting as a place to get mobilized to do things decided elsewhere? Unlike other types of non-profit organizations where decisions are made in small groups and “sold” to members who are given “asks,” the organization we’re working to build is one where our priorities are deliberated and decided on democratically.

Rather than concentrating these decisions among small groups, we need to have ever bigger deliberative spaces. We recognize the fact that no general chapter meetings were held in 2020 was a serious mistake despite the pandemic. It’s no surprise that there are members who feel frustrated. In 2021, we should try to increase regular general chapter meetings and ensure that important political decisions that refocus our priorities are deliberated and decided by the full membership. However, for things that are time-sensitive but important, to provide vision and leadership, we should empower our members’ chosen leaders to lead, and such decisions will always be part of the consent agenda and subject to members’ review.

While much of the proposal focuses on EC votes that are held and debated by email, we would much prefer to reduce the prevalence of online votes to begin with. The role of online votes should be restored to its original intent, to be used for largely administrative tasks such as approving budgets or members for an ad hoc committee, not for false urgency. If a proposal truly can’t wait, it should be important enough that the EC can call an emergency meeting, as was done in the case of the censure of Ald. Andre Vasquez after the 2021 Chicago city budget vote. More proposals should be debated at meetings that are already open to members to observe, and not require our volunteer leaders to stay glued to their phones and computers.

No Shortcuts on Discussion and Debate

We would also like to see regular branch meetings that serve as spaces for meaningful discussion and debate. Whenever possible, proposals that commit our chapter to new work should be discussed at branch meetings before being voted on at a chapter meeting or taken up by the EC. This proposal includes many provisions for “member comment,” but we disagree that this serves as a substitute for deliberation among members. For these spaces to be truly democratic, we hold that we must make the political, rather than logistical, choice for these meetings to be regularly scheduled and set well in advance, prioritize substantive discussion topics, with the agenda and any proposals circulated with sufficient time to review. Anything less sets us up for reduced member engagement and availability, and stifled debate. 

Proposals like “Towards a Socialist Chicago” embody this goal, creating a member-up process for deliberation and decision-making using existing bodies in the chapter. If passed, a series of conversations and debates about how we can build a mass socialist movement would take place in branch meetings, chapterwide political education events, and in other full chapter communication forums. The resulting vision document will consist of organizing priorities submitted by members, hopefully informed by those discussions. Further, that document itself will be amended, debated, and critiqued, leading up to a final vote at the Chapter Convention in June. Though the proposal originated in the Executive Committee, it is a huge political project that will take the participation of all of us working together to determine what will bring us closer to a socialist Chicago. 

We hope that our analysis and this alternative vision makes clear the political question at stake: do you want a mass organization with strong, accountable elected leadership or one where smaller and smaller informal groups make decisions?