For Direct Democracy Without Caveats: LSC Opposes the “Deliberative Member Engagement” Proposal

- Caucus Statement

Groundwork comrades have come out in public support for the idea of member-driven democracy in DSA. Groundwork has referenced our caucus’ direct democracy efforts in their motivation for their proposed resolution to the NPC. We in LSC want to discuss how we see this resolution engaging with these efforts.

We begin by welcoming and thanking Groundwork for their recognition of our previous efforts to bring direct democracy to DSA. We largely agree with these issues that they have identified in their motivation for bringing this resolution forward:

The national internal crises that DSA has faced over the years can be defined along many lines. But core among them is that they have involved a significant percentage of our members feeling locked out of decision making that directly affects them. A lack of democracy. And with no direct venue for input, members feel like the only way to influence these decisions in the two years between conventions is via social media pressure campaigns that treat our own leadership more like how we would treat capitalist legislators than our own comrades.

Unfortunately, we do not believe that the content of this resolution acts in any way to lay the foundations of direct democracy. Instead, the proposal reduces democracy to an up-or-down vote, abstracting a radical idea to the limits of a liberal imagination for short-term political gain. Groundwork claims: “In a transformative political moment, DSA members have the right to determine our political direction as democratically as possible.” We believe Groundwork’s analysis falls short of this admirable goal, for four key reasons:

1. AOC and Tlaib are Very Different People

Groundwork frames their resolution as a shared question of two outstanding endorsements of our congressional representatives – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Rashida Tlaib. This conflation of two markedly different candidates obscures both the relevant procedural and political questions associated with the decision on whether to endorse. Procedurally, our caucus is wary of single-instance changes to processes. Our proposals have always advocated establishing general process changes, so that our organization can practice direct democracy consistently. That said, there are moments when such changes may be necessary, but they usually emerge out of exceptional circumstances. Pushing a special process for both the AOC and Tlaib endorsement votes undermines any semblance that exceptional circumstances motivate this special process. Any relevant exceptional circumstances lay with AOC’s increasing deviation from our organization’s political principles, and hitching Tlaib’s endorsement to that baggage is an unnecessary burden.

Much of the debate around the NPC’s endorsement vote has centered around AOC's inside/outside approach toward the Biden administration and her equivocation on Palestine solidarity, neither of which are questions that affect Tlaib’s endorsement. Since the 2018 election, AOC has transitioned away from making statements like “Joe Biden and I don’t belong in the same party” in favor of publicly cutting checks to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and posing for photo-ops with the very politician she once derided. By contrast, Tlaib has used her position to endorse and promote the successful Uncommitted campaign which directly confronts the Democratic war machine. Furthermore, DSA’s involvement in the Uncommitted campaign has drawn new people into our organization, at a time when their aid to DSA’s work is sorely needed. Rashida Tlaib’s actions as a DSA representative exemplify what it means to meet our current moment; AOC’s do not.

2. No Substantial Improvements to the Endorsement Process

Groundwork’s resolution lacks clarity on whether they are interested in codifying non-binding member polls as standard practice or if they are only advocating this change in this one instance. Given the lack of any prior advocacy on Groundwork’s part for expanding direct democracy in general, we are skeptical. Groundwork's sudden alignment with LSC and establishment of a new standard for member oversight, precisely when politically opportune, diverges from LSC's core reasoning for member oversight, which must be practiced with consistency for it to actually increase the membership’s direct democratic power.

While we find the national endorsement process insufficient in general in meeting the needs of DSA’s membership, Groundwork’s resolution fails to resolve those insufficiencies. The NEC declined to pursue a questionnaire for either endorsement, instead taking the position that everyone should be familiar with their political work. Familiarity and popularity are not acceptable substitutes for material analysis. Groundwork’s resolution attempts to solve this through a mass call and the publication of position papers, potentially as a remedy to this absence of information. However, there is no guarantee of candidate involvement, only the possibility of candidate participation in the mass call “if that is possible.”

LSC believes that endorsements should be earned, not given. Candidates at every level should have to fill out questionnaires with the expectation that those answers are made available to everyone, not just DSA members. This process should be followed consistently whenever a candidate seeks endorsement. For these reasons, we are not confident Groundwork’s resolution will contribute to building democratic endorsement processes by DSA’s membership in the long term.

3. The Logistics are Unworkable

Leaving the above aside, the time frame presented in the resolution is an unreasonable timetable. At the time of writing, it is April 26th, 2024. The resolution’s text states that a mass call will be held “be held no later than the week of May 6th, with NPC representatives, chapter leadership from the candidate’s home chapters, and ideally, the candidates themselves…” If we are generous, and give Groundwork until May 12th, that leaves only 16 days to coordinate schedules for 2 congresswomen, 16 NPC members, and 200+ DSA chapters; hardly enough time to start a consequential, fully deliberative process.

The resolution further states that “the poll will be done by sending every constitutional Member In Good Standing (MIGS) an OpaVote ballot with yes or no question on national endorsement.” In 2019, when such a membership-wide vote was last held for the Bernie Independent Expenditure, the resolution specified a specific date for when members had to be in good standing. The lack of such a date in Groundwork’s resolution leaves a potential door open to exploitation. The entry barrier for joining DSA is low; it wouldn’t take much for members on either side of the issue to start signing up everyone they know for an extra vote.

4. True Member-Driven Democracy is Deliberative, Participatory, and Consistent

Direct democracy doesn’t mean straw polls and voting up or down on certain decisions. It requires structures and procedures that facilitate members’ meaningful discussion, ongoing deliberation, and fair and equal engagement of other members on our respective visions for the future of our organization. In the absence of those conditions, an online ballot can be a poor substitute for regular parliamentary order and voting. If we want DSA’s democratic processes to be truly representative of the will of our organization, we need to ensure that members are given the opportunity to not only adequately discuss and debate the given question at hand, but also the ability to decide the organization’s questions.

Noëlle McAfee, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Emory University, whose arrest on video after supporting her students’ call to support Palestine has garnered wider attention to her work, underscores this distinction in her book Fear of Breakdown:

The qualitative difference between public opinion formation and public will formation is that the former only calls on us to opine, to mouth our preferences. The latter calls on us to decide. If the public is considered merely as generators of public opinion, then we have the problem of our travel plans. Everyone wants everything, and no one need decide what the right ends are or how to achieve them. We will get a cacophony of competing claims, disagreement without deliberation or choice. The bar needs to be raised for public discourse: don’t tell me what you like; tell me what you want to do – and what you are willing to give up. And tell me you are ready to do this.

Regardless of the outcome favored by membership in the end, a truly democratic deliberative process can’t simply be facilitated via email, OpaVote, or Google form. Used alone, those mediums turn direct democracy into a farce, making decisions less about who can put an effective argument to membership and more about who has the deepest contact lists or best whipping methods. No ideas are exchanged, no agreements about program and strategy are reached; all that matters for the end result is that one score is higher than the other. A mass call with undefined structure only supported through position papers more closely resembles the shallow, so-called democracy and top-down hierarchy of NGOs than true member-driven democracy.

LSC welcomes our Groundwork comrades engaging our caucus’ direct democracy efforts in their statement. We are in agreement that there is a need to ensure better member oversight for the decisions made by our national political leadership. Where we differ is that we in LSC expect this oversight to be truly deliberative, and apply to all NPC decisions, not just those that conflict with our present organizing goals. If this attitude toward oversight is applied only toward certain decisions, and not others, then it serves no purpose other than to further the immediate political goals of a faction, and not the long-term ability of members to decide for themselves the direction of their organization.

Our caucus is unafraid to stand in support of a truly direct democratic process for DSA, even if that process results in decisions LSC disagrees with. We believe it is far more important for DSA’s direction to reflect what members actually want, regardless of what particular direction that might be. On this, we believe our caucus draws firm contrast with Groundwork’s piecemeal vision for member democracy.

We are more than happy to collaborate with Groundwork if their eventual goals do align with our vision for member-driven democracy, across a wider breadth of topics and organizational decisions than just the question of whether to rescind a political endorsement.

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