2023 National DSA Convention - A Debrief
Aug 18, 2023
By: James J. Jackson
In early August of 2023, I had the privilege of attending the DSA National Convention as a delegate for our chapter. Although I originally planned to attend as our chapter’s alternate, circumstances arose where I was obliged to replace one of our elected delegates.
This was my 3rd convention as a delegate and my 4th convention overall since joining DSA in 2017. While I am sad that I had to replace one of our elected delegates, I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to participate. I say I am “beyond grateful” because no words can do justice to how proud I am of my fellow delegates. Nor can they properly describe how far our organization has come in the last six years.
For those who might not know, the DSA National Convention is the highest democratic body in our organization. Delegates use the space to set our priorities and rework the structure of our organization for the next two years. It is also the space where our national leadership, the National Political Committee, is elected.
At this convention, I saw where DSA stands, where we are going, and what it means for our chapter.
Like any other organization, SacDSA is not perfect. We still have much work to do to improve communication between our committees and campaigns. Also, we need to have a serious talk about the grossly unfair distribution of labor in this volunteer-run organization (and why that labor tends to fall on the shoulders of people who aren’t cis het white guys like me despite the fact our membership is mostly cis and white).
That being said, thanks to what I saw during this awe-inspiring weekend in Chicago, I am thrilled to report that DSA is lightyears ahead of where we were at the 2017, 2019, and 2021 conventions.
2017: Socialism Is Cool Again!
In 2017, DSA had just exploded to somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 members after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. At the time, we were in a state of chaotic reorganization thanks to the expansion. We were a bunch of eager young leftists taking over an organization that was once notorious for having an average membership age of 60-65 and was scoffed at by many leftists for being “zionist” and Pro-Israel.
At this convention, there was a massive new radical energy entering the organization that shifted us harder to the left than ever before. But in that energy, there was little guidance because it was here we saw in real-time what being multi-tendency means in a democratic organization that exploded in membership so quickly. Still, it was a beautiful sight and an honor to be a part of that convention too. The 2017 Con reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Hunter S. Thompson, “We had all the momentum… We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”
Regarding that multi-tendency tendency, it was there that the factionalization of DSA began to rise. Much can be said here about the different caucuses, but as a biased member of a caucus myself (the Socialist Majority Caucus), I will instead focus on the direction DSA took, and do my best to set my sectarian hot takes aside.
From this convention going into 2018 and 2019, debates about our internal structuring and the direction of DSA became more intense and divisive. There were many reasons for this, some incidental and some with gross consequences for the organization. For example, there was the snafu where a single member began fundraising for Charlottesville DSA members and comrades who were victims of the Unite the Right Rally violence that ultimately killed Heather Hayer. Said member raised hundreds of thousands of dollars with no plan for distributing the money and had no contact with the NPC or any NC DSA chapter members prior to starting the fundraiser.
There was also the incident where one of our newly elected NPC members from 2017 was outed for repeated acts of sexual assault, and the drama that unfolded when another newly elected NPC member was called out for organizing a union of correctional officers.
The point is, we were excited, but we had no fucking idea what we were doing, and because of that, drama ensued.
2019: “Guys, Can We Keep The Chatter To A Minimum!?” By the 2019 con, it was all about the Bernie momentum. Bernie was not only poised to run in 2020 but it seemed like he was on track to win the Democratic nomination. This was why the major tier of the 2019 electoral plan oriented itself around our Democratic Socialists for Bernie campaign. The peak of this at that convention was the passing of a resolution that prohibited DSA national from endorsing any other Democrat if Bernie lost the nomination, which he did.
But the tone of 2019 was much different and much more divisive than in 2017. This convention was also much less democratic than in 2017. Delegates were bombarded with bad-faith attacks by sectarians who smeared our convention chairs and used procedural nonsense to bog down progress whenever they did not get their way.
I am not joking when I say we delegates lost a full day of debate and voting thanks to constant, idiotic procedural motions. Debates about the convention rules and needless credential challenges against delegates stole hours of work from us. There were similar challenges in 2017, but 2019 was atrocious, vicious, and disillusioning for many. Several members, including some SacDSA delegates, came home lethargic and despondent about our organization. On a personal note my comrades, this was heartbreaking for me. Despite any issues in 2017, I came back to our chapter inspired and energized to get involved with my organization. I was hoping 2019 would do the same thing for the comrades coming to convention with me.
Not only did the complete opposite happen, but the convention was so chaotic and so full of members attacking each other in bad faith that I ended up, in a moment of poor judgment, grabbing the mic and having a full-on anxiety attack on the convention floor. I also made the mistake of forgetting I was no longer in California and therefore forgot that regional dialects don’t always carry over. Long story short, after my anxiety attack a trans/nonbinary comrade took the mic and took furious exception to the fact I referred to the delegation as “guys’’ and not as “comrades.”
The moment has since become a right-wing meme still making rounds on Twitter and Tik Tok to this day. When it first went viral, I was promptly doxed by Fox News and several right-wingers. Fun fact, the now out-of-work Tucker Carlson said my name at least 8 times in one 10-minute segment, but probably because “James Jackson” is such a fun name to say. Who doesn’t love alliteration, right?
My point is that after such a hellish convention and that nightmarish experience with the far-right, I was a little apprehensive about ever going back to being a delegate.
Fortunately, weed is legal in Chicago now, so for the 2023 convention, my anxiety was properly under control. Attending this convention and seeing that I could keep my cool in the face of bad-faith sectarianism was just one of the things that made the 2023 convention so healing for me.
2021: F*ck You Covid
The 2021 convention was our first, and likely our only, all-virtual convention due to COVID. I can only say so much about this convention because 1. I was not a delegate and 2. The shift to an all-virtual meeting was a challenge for everyone involved, especially in the wake of where socialists stood in 2021.
Bernie lost, Biden was already president, the pandemic was taking everything from us, and the overall tone of that convention was a collective head scratch. It didn’t matter what your faction was in 2021 because we were all asking the same question, “Where is this organization going now!?”
But by 2023, we figured it out.
2023: A New Hope
There are some sobering realities to take away from the 2023 convention. DSA has seen a decline in membership which means a decline in dues, which means a decline in resources for both future and existing campaigns. However, despite such a decline, one saw comrades with more hope in their organization than ever before. I lost count of all the comrades I met who were attending a DSA con for the first time, and this was the one to have as their first. (Thank god they missed 2019!)
As a 4-time con veteran, I knew just how far we had come after only the first day of voting.
As already mentioned, both the 2017 and 2019 conventions were slowed down by tedious bad faith procedural motions that included things like challenging the credentials of delegations (NYC DSA in 2017 and East Bay in 2019), and in 2019 there was the infamous day-long rules debate. But comrades, when this convention’s opening day saw zero, and I mean zero, challenges to the rules and not a single credentials challenge, it was clear that this con had one and only one vibe. “Fuck the bullshit, let’s get to work!”
The 2023 convention chairs handled any bad faith that came their way beautifully. Shout out to two of them, Beth H. and Sandy B. who oversaw some of the most intense debates. It was also beneficial that this convention utilized something called Openslides, an online tool that allowed members to voice their procedural motions in a more constructive way than screaming into the microphones. It also eased the chairs’ ability to spot, and squash, bad-faith actors who were obviously abusing procedural motions.
But the real achievement belongs to the maturity of delegates who handled both their losses and victories with poise and dignity. Even after votes riddled with intense debate, comrades moved forward in a fashion that sent a clear message that we just wanted to vote and take our work back home to our chapters.
Some of the most intense votes included a vote where the BDS working group was to be absorbed under the banner of the International Committee, which passed, and a vote to expand the NPC in hopes that more members would create a fairer distribution of labor for our national leadership. That motion failed narrowly despite having a near supermajority.
Full disclosure, I was strongly in favor of both of these above-mentioned resolutions. Of all the resolutions in 2023, the NPC expansion was the issue I was most strongly in favor of (and still am). So it did hurt me when that failed. That said, I still went through the convention with the collective dignity and eagerness my comrades shared to build DSA.
Regarding the NPC election, going forward it will be interesting to see how our stance as a multi-tenancy organization will manifest in our work. Thanks to the use of a Single Transferable Vote counting system for the NPC election, our NPC is once again reflective of our big-tent posture. We have some pro-electoral NPC members, some anti-electoral, and a sprinkling of other ideological tendencies. It will be interesting to see where that takes us, especially because this NPC saw more of the anti-electoral block elected than ever before.
One think piece is not enough to sum up the concise and healing effect this convention had on me and so many others. Nor is it enough to go into detail about the debates around still important issues in DSA like BDS, Anti Zionism, Trans rights, our electoral strategy, and more. However, what can be stressed is the newfound pride I have in this organization, especially in this chapter.
It has been years since I have seen our chapter handle themselves the way they did at this convention, and I include myself in that little hint of complimentary criticism. I came into this organization in 2017 as loud and angry as the most annoying Twitter sectarian. I came home from the 2023 Chicago con with hope and understanding about my comrades. And I thank my fellow delegates for that. Sac DSA delegates showed pragmatism, patience, poise, research skills, dignity, and good faith in ways I haven’t seen in years. Our whole delegation deserves our thanks, especially our delegation chair, Sara C.
On yet another personal note, I cannot praise Sara enough because when I first joined DSA in 2017, the first major task I had for the organization was serving as delegation chair. It was incredibly stressful. I lost hours of sleep and was riddled with panic attacks about voting cards and Robert’s Rules. Once Sara was delivered to us in Chicago, I saw nothing from her except all of the perfect qualities of a delegate that I mentioned above. This convention was a smashing success, and it is thanks to comrades like Sara who made it such a success. Stepping up as a delegation chair for the first time is like learning to swim by getting thrown into the deep end head first. Some sink and some swim, but Sara soared.
I am not mincing words when I say that every single person who dares to call themselves a Sac DSA member should be very proud of their delegation.
The World To Win
There is only one thing about this convention that makes me sad, and that is the fact that not everyone from SacDSA could be there. If we had all been there, so many in this organization would have had their faith restored, not just in DSA but in the concept of organizing. My only hope now is that the rest of the delegates and I can bring this energy to every meeting, every event, every campaign, and every Mutual Aid Monday!
We do have to take things like our lower membership numbers and our ongoing internal debates seriously, but not to the point where we forget, as I did in 2019, that we are all comrades. Despite so many ups and downs, so many democratic socialists are still here, still fighting, and still ready to do the work.
And I think we’re more ready than ever before! We are fighting to re-elect our comrade Katie Valenzuela to the city council and we are ready to send two more friends of our chapter (Amreet Sandhu in District 6 and Dr. Flo Cofer for Mayor) to join her. Another thing I learned at the convention when talking to delegates from other chapters was that our decision to focus on these races and not overextend our capacity further marked our maturity. Our chapter got just as many compliments about our city council campaigns as we did on our decision to focus our limited resources on them. The decision to not only endorse but also to prioritize is a true mark of political maturity. It shows we are taking this work seriously, and that was the entire vibe of this convention. We have matured as an organization.
DSA is not what it was when it was founded in 1982. It is not what it was when socialism fell out of favor in the 1990s. It is not even the organization it was in 2017 or 2019. We are now a real socialist organization. An established and mature collective of eager organizers who take this work seriously. We’re in this to win, not just to flex how radical or progressive we are, and I’m here for it!
So long as we stay this course and keep our heads held high and maintain a sense of dignity through our internal debates, that “world to win” we keep talking about is ours!
I have never been happier and more eager to tell everyone I know, “Why yes, I am a member of Sacramento DSA. Allow me to introduce you to my comrades.”
James J. Jackson is a member of the SacDSA steering committee and served as its co-chair in the 2019-2020 term. He has written for Sac News and Review, the Sac DSA blog, Democratic Left, and Socialist Forum. He also writes fiction, poetry, and journalism under the pen name Jimbo Jax.