The Big Tent and the Tensions within DSA

The Big Tent and the Tensions within DSA

Over the course of the last year, there have been growing tensions within DSA. Some comrades theorize that these conflicts are mainly the product of online-only organizing. While I agree that this probably sharpened the friction, my sense is that the tensions themselves are the products of changing material conditions inside and outside DSA.

There are two main sources of this tension:

  1. The pandemic and uprising polarized society and this polarization has extended into DSA. For the left, the pandemic organically mobilized both organized and unorganized sectors of society into mutual aid work and workplace actions.
  2. The uprising also created the largest movement in US history, culminating in the mainstreaming of abolitionism (i.e. the birth of a revolutionary movement). This caused a layer of DSA members to become abolitionists, while also recruiting new abolitionists into the organization.

There is a third source that I’d like to explore: the political development of DSA members over the period of 2016-2021.

In the Beginning

While DSA was originally formed in 1982, the organization was overwhelmed by a new wave of members in 2016 that essentially transformed it into a new organization. As comrades have mentioned before, no one is born a socialist. We all develop our politics through a combination of on-the-ground experience and study groups. The vast majority of the people who joined DSA starting in 2016 were new to socialist organizing and therefore mainly felt united around a love of Bernie Sanders and his political vision, while having few solid opinions to disagree about.

In other words, among the majority of the membership, there was a high degree of unity. But that unity was based on a lack of political development. This means that the “big tent” was actually a “Bernie tent”. With Bernie out of the picture, the organization faces the challenge of actively building unity rather than assuming it exists.

Emerging Divisions within The Big Tent

There have been five years for members to develop their politics. The unity that existed out of political under-development has begun to give way to divisions emerging from heightened political development. Many members are beginning to draw lines that simultaneously divide them from some comrades and bind them to others.

The clearest example of these divided perspectives is the Towards a Socialist Chicago document. TaSC has become a beautiful example of an actual big tent. A big tent contains a diversity of perspectives campaigning to lead the organization, and the masses, in a particular direction. Big tents need processes of debate that result in either a synthesis of ideas, or one of the ideas winning out over the others. This is how an organization arrives at an organic unity through clarity. This organic unity lays the basis for concrete organizing around that given topic.

I expect that these emergent divisions will lead to the gradual formation of new caucuses that represent distinct ideologies and/or distinct analysis of a given political moment. Regarding ideological caucuses, I can imagine a caucus focused around supporting governments like those in China and Nicaragua. Regarding caucuses that represent the analysis of a given moment, the Garden Collective comes to mind.

This raises a fundamental question. DSA prides itself on being a “big tent”: but does DSA want to remain a big tent? How we answer this question depends on how we assess the current situation.

The pandemic is ongoing. None of the conditions that caused the mobilization of the masses on both the left and the right have been resolved. This means that there are still millions of people looking for organizations that can provide a long term political vision, short term solutions, and concrete actions. From that perspective, we should keep the tent as big as possible to take in the folks that are polarized and looking for a fighting organization.

Navigating a Big Tent

Assuming we do remain a big tent, and we continue to follow the trajectory of a politically divided membership: we’ll need to figure out how to best represent the various tendencies while actively building unity. The formation of caucuses does not automatically have to lead to sectarianism, but it will if the caucuses feel that their positions are being silenced.

Voting Systems

In my opinion, this debate is starting in discussions around voting systems: Single Transferable Vote (STV) vs Borda. While the mathematical equations may be too dry for some comrades, these systems have political implications which determine whether the tent is narrowed or widened. In the interest of keeping it wide, I hope DSA continues to use STV for delegate elections, and considers extending it to officer elections and branch steering committees.

Public Debates

A diverse and diversifying political community needs to publicly hash out their differences. In some cases this may involve winning over people from the other side, but that is not the only goal. Public, moderated debates, as well as point/counterpoint articles, provide three benefits: 

  • Space for people to feel that their positions have been given a fair hearing
  • Political education for folks who feel neutral or uninformed about a given topic (ex: the question of solidarity with the Chinese government vs the people of Hong Kong)
  • Space for people to practice their debate skills

Transparency and Self-criticism

Membership needs to know what decisions elected leaders are making and the political reasoning for those decisions. This can help members understand and evaluate which ideas, leaders, and caucuses are best responding to changing circumstances. Without transparency from its elected bodies, it becomes easy for an organization to get stuck repeating the same mistakes instead of switching gears and trying the ideas of others.

For this reason, I hope people vote “yes” at the next General Chapter Meeting for the Transparency & Accountability Recommendations.


I think the term “sectarianism” is heavily used and heavily misunderstood. In short, sectarianism simply means that a person or organization is willing to block/ignore important organizing simply because another person or organization that they dislike/disagree with is connected with that work. This is the political equivalent of a high school lunchroom.

Some people see the very formation of a caucus as an act of sectarianism. I disagree. Joining a caucus just means you’re publicly stating where you stand on certain issues. Caucuses and unaffiliated individuals are capable of making the choice to reject or embrace organizing opportunities, regardless of who else is involved. We need to instill an anti-sectarianism within DSA.

For Clarity, then Unity

I want to summarize the three sources of tension I’ve identified within DSA:

  • The polarization from the pandemic
  • The uprising’s transformation and recruitment of abolitionists
  • The political development of membership, which has led to the development of dividing lines

DSA is becoming a true big tent. This is creating dissonance because a group that was accustomed to a passive unity is now trying to figure out why there are more political confrontations. This means that DSA now has to try and actively build unity. But unity can’t be forced, otherwise it is just a fake, fragile unity that falls apart at the first controversy.

What we need now are mechanisms to embrace the different voices and tendencies emerging out of DSA and provide practical, public opportunities for members to engage these ideas and figure out who/what they align with and what steps to take based on those alignments. Mechanisms like STV, public debates, and transparency can start us down that path. The politics of anti-sectarianism can keep us working together, regardless of how we align today or tomorrow.

Through these mechanisms and political approach (though not limited to them), we can take the first important step: finding clarity. Clarity on where everyone stands, where everyone differs, and where everyone agrees. By going through this honest and difficult process, we can create actual united fronts around concrete political goals and concrete work.