Defend Convention: Against an Imperative Mandate for Convention Delegations

In recent years, YDSA chapters have adopted imperative mandates for their convention delegations, mandating that they vote for resolutions and national leaders in ways that reflect their chapter’s stance. While this process aims to engage more members in our internal decision making, imperative mandates weaken national conventions and undermine our organization’s democracy.


What is it? Why do people support it?

YDSA chapters enjoy significant autonomy in determining the selection process for their convention delegation. Chapters can choose the voting or appointment system, voting eligibility, and nomination process. The only fixed parameter is the allocation of delegates and alternates to each chapter; everything else is within the purview of the individual chapters.This autonomy provides flexibility for chapters to adapt their process to factors like the size of their membership or the number of candidates running. Chapters are increasingly leveraging this autonomy to tackle various problems, such as enhancing local engagement with the national organization or improving accessibility to in-person national conventions.

One way that chapters have attempted to engage their members and make convention more accessible is by deliberating and voting on convention resolutions and NCC candidates internally. In some cases, the chapter’s delegates are bound to vote according to the chapter’s endorsements, a system which is known as an imperative mandate. This process engages members of a chapter, including those who cannot or would not attend a convention, in the national politics and debates within YDSA. It also gives them experience engaging in a political debate that has meaningful stakes if the chapter’s convention delegates are bound to follow the will of the chapter. In spite of these benefits, imperative mandates threaten the integrity of our national organization and internal democracy. 

Undermines Democracy

The YDSA Convention is the highest decision-making body in YDSA. It is where elected delegates debate the most pressing questions facing the youth socialist movement in the United States and chart our collective course for the next year. In many ways, the actual votes and decisions made at convention are less important than the discussion on the floor and between members. The integrity of our internal democracy rests on the ability for delegates to present their differing visions for YDSA and to collectively decide on the trajectory of our organization informed by that debate. 

When chapters send their delegates to conventions with predetermined voting positions, they reject the notion that this nationwide political debate is meaningful. While more members of the chapter may be engaged in debating the key political questions in YDSA, these discussions are insular and only informed by the perspective of members of that chapter and a handful of invited candidates or resolution authors. Convention, on the other hand, is a nationwide discussion, and delegates should be able to shift their positions based on new information and perspectives shared on the floor. Imperative mandates make our conventions look less like a space to synthesize the politics and experiences of comrades from across the country and reach consensus, and more like a nationwide poll in which members make decisions about the direction of YDSA based only on their local organizing context and experiences.

This threat to our internal democracy is not new on the Left. In 1939, Leon Trotsky wrote that “Whoever recognizes imperative mandates automatically denies the significance of conventions as the highest organ of the party,” going so far as to say that imperative mandates “completely kill the party as a whole.” In essence, when decisions about the national organization are made through isolated local discussions instead of through a collective conversation that synthesizes perspectives from across the country, the organization loses its national character entirely. 

You might be asking why caucuses should have voting lines if imperative mandates are harmful to chapters. The explanation lies in the role these formations play within our organization. A caucus, by nature, has a certain political line which its members agree to when joining the caucus. Therefore, regardless of whether a caucus binds its members to vote a certain way, they can be expected to vote the same way based on their shared political perspective. Caucuses also play an important role in clarifying the political and strategic divisions of the organization and helping to frame political debates by providing competing visions for YDSA. 

A chapter, on the other hand, as a local microcosm of YDSA, is a big tent organization. Its members subscribe to a range of political beliefs, which helps YDSA grow into a mass socialist organization instead of an insignificant sect. When a chapter binds their delegates to vote a certain way, they effectively flatten the tent. Instead of the chapter’s delegation representing the range of perspectives that exist within the chapter, only the majority’s perspective is represented at conventions. Even if a delegate is not officially bound to vote based on the chapter endorsement, they undoubtedly experience political and social pressure to follow the will of the chapter, reducing their ability or confidence in representing their politics at convention.

Better Practice

Chapter leaders have correctly assessed that the vast majority of YDSA members are not plugged into political debates in the national organization, and should be commended for experimenting with different strategies to bring those debates to their members. Chapter endorsements and imperative mandates, however, do not offer a solution to this issue; they introduce new problems of their own. Instead, chapter members should be open about their politics when seeking their chapters’ nomination, and members should vote for delegates based on their political beliefs. 

When delegates are clear about their politics, chapter members can make their voice heard by choosing delegates that align with their politics. Without an imperative mandate at convention, these delegates can then make their own decisions about how to vote based on their own politics and the debate on the convention floor. Thus, chapter members are still able to influence the politics of their delegation and the integrity of the convention is preserved. 

If, for example, 51% of a chapter is politically aligned under an imperative mandate, the remaining 49% of the chapter would have no representation at convention. By electing delegates without a mandate, every tendency in the chapter can be represented proportionally to its popularity in the chapter. In this case, each side would be represented by roughly half of the delegation, allowing them to both be represented at convention. While it may be hard to get perfect proportional representation based on how many chapter members are willing and able to be delegates, this approach still respects the integrity of our democracy and big tent at the local and national level. 

Conclusion

To truly realize the strength of our internal democracy, we must orient ourselves beyond conventions and towards building an organizational culture that cultivates and respects robust comradely political debate. YDSA leaders nationally and locally must give their members the tools to think critically about their politics and experiences through political education, mentorship, and leader development, and create spaces for meaningful political debate throughout their organizing work. Alongside explicitly political delegate elections, this approach will reinforce our internal democracy and safeguard the integrity and significance of our highest decision-making body.