On Organized Democratic Conflict

DSA is for many members a space of enormous joy, of social connection and community, of collective self care. Our work is often deeply engrossing, even exhilarating. The tedious aspects are made so much less tedious when we do them with and for our comrades. You make new friendships, some of us fall in love. In short you experience a true community in a country where organized communal spaces have been systematically eliminated from public life. It is understandable that for many of us these social joys gain elevated importance, but there is work that is not always joyful, that often, superficially, appears to threaten our social bonds. This is the work of organized democratic conflict.

For this article’s purposes, “organized democratic conflict” is when issues are not just brought to a vote of the general membership, but when supporters and opponents of a resolution or candidate are speaking to membership ahead of the vote, building lists, testing commitments, writing statements, and so on. Not all debates call for this organizing work, in many debates it is normal to have each member come as an individual, but we are not an individualist organization and should not treat this as the only legitimate form of democratic expression.

The fact is that if we want this community to survive and to win power this work simply must be done. For some in DSA this work is called conspiracy or an abuse of power against a minority, and even for its practitioners it is rarely pleasant. Yet while individuals can amass power inside DSA without engaging in this form of organizing work, DSA as a whole cannot win power without it. If we do not win power our community will perish, if nowhere else then under might of the state, which will crush the life out of us as individuals and as an organization.

Most DSA chapters have not reached this stage of maturity. Ask yourself whether your chapter holds contested votes, I’m sorry to say at this stage at least half of our chapters fall off. Examine those votes, did people speak for and against them? Do people make endorsements or run slates in your elections? Do people argue for one candidate as the better of those running, and were all candidates mature enough as aspiring leaders to listen to these debates? How frank do you think those conversations were, when they got frank was this frankness (or the reaction to it) comradely? Did this frank conversation encourage members to speak their mind and trust their comrades to not attack them personally and socially? Or did the organic leadership of the chapter, with their actions, demonstrate that a critical voice is an unwelcome attack on the community?

When we speak about “building a democratic culture,” the use of endorsements and all the rest described above are critical. However, when groupings organize around an internal conflict this expresses power in the chapter, and our chapters harbor (recovering) liberal¹ elements who view this type of power as deeply illegitimate and unfair. The project of rehabilitating this form of liberalism among DSA members is a long one, for the most part it is a problem of growth and something to celebrate. However, without their recognizing the legitimacy of organized democratic conflict, liberal elements of DSA chapters can form a toxic minority bloc² that hampers and confuses the political development of our membership as a whole. I expect many chapters struggle with this given the rapid surge in membership, but we should not be complacent about old members either. DSA doesn’t get its membership from revolutionary heaven, it gets them from our atomized/individualist, traumatized, late-Neoliberal excuse for a society. None of us are above reproach or beyond the need for re-education. To carry out this re-education we need more than words, we need our organic leadership to take responsibility for carrying it out in deed, even when it is intensely uncomfortable to do so.

In a plurality of chapters groupings which engage in organized democratic behavior will receive intense flak, sometimes in the form of public denunciations. Given their distaste for internal organizing work, anti-democratic groupings will tend towards minority status, but in some chapters there is a more widespread reflex to circle the wagons to defend the community, something we naturally have come to prize. So long as this holds true, that community is weak, it is vulnerable to collapse at any moment. Those who defend this superficial community against democratic process ultimately sacrifice both on the altar of weak informal social groups which will themselves come apart when the pretense of togetherness is broken.

Far from a threat to community, democratic conflict, and especially organized democratic conflict, is our route to a more stable and survivable community, to a powerful community. Democratic conflicts are what DSA members (and the labor movement) would call a “structure test.” As an abuse survivor often arguments and conflict of any sort are quite difficult for me to process, and this part of my brain does not shut off at DSA meetings. Even a hint of conflict can consume my mental life very quickly, and the fear that comes with it doesn’t leave me for weeks. But DSA has shown me that political conflicts can occur in a comradely manner, where so few of us leave our common project behind, where friendship (and comradeship) persists despite hard political division, and through this survival grows stronger. Such conflicts are transformative in their reassurance. It is our work to build a culture that gives our members this reassurance: your opposition to a measure will not lead to your being shunned, instead your comrades will rejoice in your political maturity and courage, in your concern for even mundane details of the organization’s life and work. Experienced DSA members need to take this to heart, and set about modeling it for new members in word and deed. It is in fact one of our highest responsibilities to the organization. We do our comrades no favors by trying to shield them from these conflicts, in doing so we fail to prepare them for far worse in the years to come. The fact is that without this democratic conflict there is no decent survival for us as an organization, and organizing space for it needs to be the priority of all DSA members.

1: This “liberalism” exists among every ideological tendency. It is not an ideological liberalism but rather a set of behaviors and assumptions that we all at some stage inherited from our upbringing and radicalization inside a liberal society.
2: Older Columbus DSA members can confirm that I myself led one of these minority blocs in the chapter for some time, in practice working against the establishment of functioning democratic procedures, so I am not speaking as someone who is above or outside this tendency!