Taylor Clark and Jake Colosa argue that YDSA must strengthen our internal democracy to help build the organization for the future.
This article was written prior to the 2022 Summer Convention, where several resolutions related to the article passed. It was also featured in the Summer 2022 Print Issue of The Activist.
It is a bitter irony that the Democratic Socialists of America – an organization so committed to democracy we put it in the name – has a democracy problem, but it’s a reality that we can not ignore. It’s a difficult issue to discuss, much less solve, and yet it’s a fundamental problem that has as much to do with our movement’s recent stagnation as anything we might try to blame on Jeff Bezos, Joe Biden, or even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s a problem that pretty much every DSA member is eventually confronted with, but its effects are so widespread and diverse that we often don’t recognize the problem for what it is. The problem, frankly, is that DSA by and large has fallen into a democracy of procedure, not a democracy of people. In Democracy is Power, Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle remind us where the word for democracy comes from.
“In Greek, it’s demos-the people, kratein-to rule. The people rule. All the procedures and protections that we usually associate with democracy – elections, right to debate, a free press, for example – are simply means to achieve the power of the people.” This is a crucial lesson for us as democratic socialists, as it is our movement’s obligation more than any other to always resist the temptation to accept a hollow version of democracy, where political projects that we vote to take on fail to ever materialize. Democracy is not simply having an election or voting on a resolution, as most YDSA members should know. Democracy means, literally, that “the people rule.” And when the people want something, it happens. Yet despite our high ideals and lofty ambitions in DSA, just because we vote to do something, doesn’t mean it actually happens.
In any democratic organization with limited resources, the way those resources are deployed is of critical importance because we cannot take on every project. Members and leaders can vote to prioritize projects, but without organizers, funding, or access to lists they are doomed to fail. And while the latter two are certainly important parts of any successful campaign, organizers dedicating their time and energy is the most significant factor in the success of our projects. After all, people power is the only way we will be able to overcome the capitalist class’s seemingly infinite pool of blood-stained dollars. Most of this organizing time and energy in DSA comes from volunteers. This is an essential aspect of our organization, not only because DSA has a relatively small budget compared to other organizations of a similar size, but because it shows that working people have the power and skills to organize for change.
Despite the importance of volunteer hours, staff time is (increasingly) necessary for DSA projects. Few people outside of staff can commit 40 hours per week to organizing, which means that which projects staff members work on is an important consideration, and can decide if a project succeeds or fails. Take the hiring of a national labor staffer for example. Despite DSA Conventions in 2017, 2019 and 2021 passing resolutions to hire a labor staffer, the application for the position has only just been posted by DSA’s national office earlier this year. A full-time labor staffer hired in a timely manner after DSA’s highest decision making body first voted to hire one would have worked more than 10,000 hours by now. That’s 10,000 hours of work that our organization voted to fund but never benefited from for the last 5 years. These frustrations are not only felt in DSA, but also in YDSA where our elected leaders have little control over which committees receive staff support.
Highlighting the importance of staff time is not an attempt to vilify our staff members; these are the people committing most of their waking hours to building DSA. Instead, acknowledging the power of staff support allows us to better coordinate the limited resources available to us, and ensure those resources are being primarily dedicated to the priorities we as an organization have decided on democratically.
As it stands, many DSA staffers operate largely outside of the democratic structures of our organization. Many staffers do not attend NPC meetings or regularly interact with our elected leaders. Staff work plans are not made by the elected leadership and are not necessarily in line with priorities democratically decided upon at convention. Strengthening the connection between elected leaders, members, and staffers is an indispensable part of strengthening democracy within DSA and YDSA by ensuring that we the people rule. By democratizing the work staff does, our leaders and members will better understand the work staffers are already doing and listen to their concerns and our staffers will better understand what work elected leaders and more importantly our membership want them to prioritize.
Which brings us to another key aspect of organized democracy: the role and capacity of an organization’s elected leadership. In a democratic organization like YDSA, where power ought to ultimately lie with our membership, it is imperative that there is a formalized process through which we can choose who is best suited to be our movement’s spokespeople and to implement the democratically-decided course of action for the year. The responsibility of these leaders is to implement the political program decided upon at our national conventions and to make pressing political decisions between conventions when a meeting of the membership is impractical.
But in order for any leader to be effective, they must have the resources and capacity needed to carry out their mandate. In YDSA, however, we hang our leaders out to dry at every level, making leadership systematically unavailable to those most qualified to lead our organization: working-class students.
Frankly, taking on a leadership position in YDSA is no cakewalk. But the very nature of our organization means that the vast majority of both national and chapter leaders are forced to balance their organizing responsibilities with being full-time students and, especially for working-class students, with being part-time workers as well. Speaking from both of our experiences, attempting to balance going to school full time while working one or more part-time jobs, while being an elected leader in YDSA is a herculean task that is unnecessarily draining.
On the national level, it is pretty astonishing that candidates for the National Coordinating Committee (NCC) are currently expected to take on their roles without compensation, despite the significant workload of being on the leadership body of an organization with thousands of members. This prevents many working-class students from taking on leadership roles at the national level in the first place, as their primary focus will of course always be on covering next month’s rent and making ends meet. Without stipends, the only people who can effectively run for NCC are those who either can afford not to work for the duration of their term, are willing to put their academic career on hold for a year, or are forced to neglect their responsibilities on the NCC because they’re too busy not failing classes and paying the bills. This forces many who are interested in running for a position on the NCC to make impossible decisions between their own livelihoods and effectively executing the responsibilities of their role. Further, it has the effect of passing more of YDSA’s organizing responsibilities onto under-resourced staff who are already stretched far too thin.
Graduate Retention and Sharing Funds
Issues of democracy and capacity are even more dramatic at the local level, where YDSA chapters typically lack any source of funding and are often isolated from local DSA chapter leadership and projects. Even YDSA chapters in areas with large DSA chapters can have difficulty accessing those chapters’ resources and organizing capacity, simply because YDSA is not prioritized by DSA leaders in the area. This is despite the fact that YDSA has proven itself time and time again to be an effective organizing body that has continued to grow its membership, even as DSA at large has stagnated, and has produced potent student organizers that have helped organize student-worker unions from Dartmouth to the University of California system.
Without resources or a seat at the table in ‘adult’ DSA leadership, it’s understandable that many YDSA members simply stop being involved in socialist organizing post-graduation. This problem is magnified by the fact that currently DSA and YDSA have little to no infrastructure in place to help YDSAers in making that transition. After graduating most YDSA members are left to fend for themselves, rather than connected to organizing efforts in their local DSA chapters or to resources to start new chapters in their area.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that YDSA members and chapter leaders are abandoned prior to graduating as well. With a tiny staff and a nascent mentorship committee, YDSA members have access to only a few resources outside of a handful of recorded Zoom calls to both learn the art of organizing, and to give their chapter’s work political direction. Lacking a strong vision for their chapter, it’s very easy for YDSA organizers to feel their work does little to materially advance the cause of democratic socialism and become disillusioned and disengaged from socialist organizing as a result. It’s very difficult for ‘the people’ to rule our organization when we see no reason to care about it in the first place.
YDSA has a unique role to play in the socialist movement. As the student section of the largest socialist organization in the heart of global capitalism, it is incumbent upon us to take our world-historic mission seriously. The road ahead of us is long and uncertain. We will need thousands, if not millions, of organizers with the skills, confidence, and knowledge to take on the capitalist class. Therefore, YDSA must orient itself around recruiting, developing, and training as many new socialist organizers as possible. How? By strengthening our democracy.
Placing meaningful stakes on the decisions made by everyday people creates buy-in to the organization. Members, both new and old, will want to get more involved in Y/DSA if they feel the decisions they make matter. Leaders will similarly gain more experience and feel more responsible for the direction of the organization if they have enough resources to direct towards the priorities set by members. Strengthening democracy within YDSA is thus imperative to growing a strong and sustainable YDSA: a necessary part of the socialist movement.
YDSA members are the socialist organizers of the future. The organizers who will build and lead a mass movement of millions of working people. The organizers who will undoubtedly face attacks on our rights and brutal repression from our political opponents. The organizers who will do all of this while navigating climate-related floods, fires, and famines. When the YDSA members of today are the ones at the forefront of our world-historic mission, we will be grateful they were able to develop their organizational and political skills and are well-versed in building and maintaining democratic organizations.