Editorial: The NPC Must Approve A Hybrid Option For 2023 National Convention
The National Political Committee of DSA is currently finalizing plans for next year’s national convention. DSA’s convention is traditionally held every two years, and is the highest decision-making body for the organization, through which DSA determines its political direction and elects its national leadership. On April 30, 2022, the full NPC voted unanimously to hold the 2023 DSA Convention in person, though a hybrid option was not ruled out. Then, on July 15th, the NPC Steering Committee voted to select Chicago as the location for the 2023 convention, but decided to delay the decision on an hybrid option until their next meeting.
On July 29, the NPC Steering Committee will address a proposal to add a hybrid option to the convention. According to staff’s rough estimates, this proposal would add up to $200,000 to the price tag of the convention, cited at costing $1 million. The DSA Disability Working Group has released a proposed plan for a hybrid convention, citing accessibility concerns associated with holding an in-person only convention.
The decision of whether to add a hybrid option to convention will be one that has financial, operational, and political considerations. The financial considerations are arguably the most consequential – one cannot discount the hardship that an additional $200,000 in costs would mean to a small organization like DSA at the precipice of a recession.
With that in mind, it is necessary to evaluate whether the benefit of the additional cost is worth it and to understand the value that adding a hybrid option would bring.
Let’s examine the purpose of the national convention. DSA’s Constitution (Art V.) provides that:
Sec. 1. The National Convention shall be the highest decision-making body of the organization. All decisions of other bodies may be appealed to the Convention according to guidelines defined in the Bylaws. The Convention shall accept a detailed financial report.
Section 2. National Conventions shall be held at least biennially…
Section 3. Representation shall be based upon dues-paying membership of the organization as of four months prior to the Convention. Apportionment of delegates shall reflect the one-member, one-vote principle, as shall be ordered by the NPC within the guidelines set forth in the Bylaws. However, all Locals shall be entitled to at least one delegate.
Beyond that, the National Convention has historically been where:
The National Political Committee is elected
Amendments to the Constitution & Bylaws are submitted and debated
Resolutions for internal and external priorities are submitted and debated
Prior to the pandemic, DSA Convention has been a place for members to meet in person, get to know each other, and have some fun. The importance of the camaraderie provided by gathering in person with comrades cannot be overstated, particularly in our current times.
The National Convention is particularly important in an organization like DSA that has very little in terms of intermediate structures. The National Political Committee (NPC), a body of sixteen elected leaders, decides the entire political direction of the organization in between conventions. Their only restriction is guided by resolutions passed every two years by the assembled delegates of the convention . While the national organization has working groups and committees that are focused on specific work, these bodies are at times siloed and lack the democratic buy-in of the organization writ large. Critical political decisions, such as DSA’s response to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court, ultimately fall to the NPC.
Understanding that the DSA Convention is vitally important to the direction and planning of the national organization, the decision about how best to plan and host the national convention is of utmost importance..
It cannot be overstated that DSA is in a precarious financial position. While the NPC has not yet released the 2022 budget or balance sheet, we can assume based on previous analysis that DSA operates under small margins and will, like every other organization, struggle in the coming recession.
Any consideration of the decision should take these financial considerations seriously, and we will weigh all other considerations against this. However, we also understand that DSA has immense, and often untapped, fundraising potential. The Recommitment Drive, which was carried out this summer, raised over $193,985 in dues of which $41,074 are monthly recommitments.
There is another consideration for the financial cost. Traditionally, DSA has offered scholarships to delegates to assist with the delegate fee and travel costs. These scholarships usually cover flights and hotel, but not in-city travel, non-Convention provided food, and other incidentals. This YDSA Convention offered partial scholarships for travel and hotel only. In a good year, this is not necessarily a huge problem. Many chapters can fundraise to make up the difference themselves among their membership. However, 2023 is predicted to be a recession year, and a bad one at that. The price of airfare has risen precipitously as well as food and consumer goods. The requests for scholarships, as well as people who cannot attend without food and incidentals being covered, could be much higher than in previous Conventions. There could be real financial hardship for members to attend, even with scholarships.
Pulling off a hybrid convention for over 1,000 delegates would be a significant project to take on. DSA staff has noted that with recent overturn in operational staff, it may require the hiring of an additional staff member and would take up a considerable amount of staff time. We do not underestimate the investment in time and money that this would take. However, there are several other operational issues to consider.
A fully in-person convention leaves DSA without a backup plan for if conditions in our communities deteriorate. While currently travel, conventions and in-person meetings are common within our chapters, that can change quickly. The current under-reported surge of COVID-19 does not seem to be dissuading organizations from meeting in person despite a concerning uptick in hospitalizations. However, we do not know what the situation will be a year from now. Monkeypox could very quickly change the calculus, as well as a more deadly surge of COVID-19, or another virus. Polio was reported in the US for the first time in nearly a decade. Beyond the ongoing threat of disease, political or economic conditions within the United States could make meeting in person untenable. We do not know if any of these conditions will come to pass, but a hybrid option creates a contingency for the worst case scenario. WIthout this contingency, the organization could have a delayed convention in 2023, or be faced with the need to scramble very quickly to make a virtual convention happen.
Concerns have been raised with properly staffing a hybrid convention. The idea that our current staff cannot pull off of a hybrid convention is in of itself an issue. We have seen quite a bit of turnover in DSA staff, specifically among the operational and tech staff. DSA’s current lack of tech staff is not an issue for convention, it is an issue for the organization generally. If DSA is not able to execute an ideal convention, the most important decision-making event of the organization, we should be having a greater discussion about staff retention, and why we are losing staff members.
Finally, the idea that staff alone would be left to figure out a hybrid convention is short-sighted. Since the start of the pandemic, many DSA chapters have moved to hybrid or fully-virtual meetings and have successfully navigated the associated technical hurdles. DSA has a number of members, both in and outside of the National Technology Committee, who can be called on to advise, help and volunteer to help, and potentially drive down the cost of a hybrid convention. DSA already uses its volunteer membership to plan significant aspects of the convention. Not utilizing these resources would be a failure to use all of the tools at our disposal.
The ramifications of this decision for our organizational health and democracy are perhaps the most important. The prospect of meeting and deliberating in person is exciting, because debate in person is unquestionably better and leads to more cooperative outcomes. However, this cannot be the only consideration. As the national convention is the highest decision making body of the organization, DSA should at all times be doing everything it can to allow for participation by all members. In their proposal to the NPC, the Disability Working Group outlined who will likely be excluded definitionally from an in-person only convention:
LGBTQ comrades, especially those who are queer and trans thereby experiencing greater barriers to safe travel
Those who are pregnant or may become pregnant, and are struggling in oppressive anti-abortion states
Parents and other individuals with generational caregiving obligations to children and elderly relatives or community members, and can not take time away from these duties
Individuals attending or teaching in educational institutions or trade schools with non-normative semester schedules
Those living abroad, who can not reasonably travel
Those who are surviving poverty, including those who do not get vacation time off from work, and those who do receive vacation time but can not take time off from employment to travel, and/or are shift workers that benefit from the high differential for working overnight and weekends, and would thereby lose money by using vacation time
Those who are unionizing, and face scheduling discrimination and retaliation for requesting time off related to travel
Those who are institutionalized
There is no question that some people who are in the categories above who would like to participate in the convention will not be able to if it is in-person only. For a democratic socialist organization, it is, at the very least, problematic for it to exclude some of its most vulnerable members. Additionally, there will be some people who are simply not comfortable traveling and meeting with large groups of people in a contained space during a pandemic, for fear of getting sick. While the Convention will presumably be testing in person, or requiring a negative test, home tests are known to be unreliable and professional tests are not freely available to all.
Additionally, there will be people who test positive for COVID, have an unexpected exposure, or need to take care of someone who gets sick. There will be people who would like to run for delegate, or would be well-positioned to win a delegate position, but will choose not to run because they will not be able to attend.
The 2019 Convention, which was prior to the pandemic and therefore held fully in-person, allowed for both alternates and proxies. If a person could not make it to convention, they were able to register, pay and give their proxy vote to another person in their chapter to vote on their behalf. Because the 2021 Convention was held virtually, it only allowed for alternates and did not have proxy voting. Alternate delegates were standby elected people who stepped in if a delegate was not able to attend a day or make a vote.
The 2022 YDSA convention, which was held in person and took place the weekend of July 22, utilized the proxy system, and did not have alternates. This makes sense from a logistical point of view – if a person is an alternate, they are less likely to plan to actually come to convention. If a delegate drops out the week or day before the Convention, it is unlikely that an alternate will be able to make accommodations to attend the event.
The decision to hold the convention in person had a clear impact on participation. The YDSA Convention had participation from 58 chapters, a great feat during a global pandemic. However, according to the YDSA website, there are 132 YDSA chapters. Even with proxy votes, more than half of YDSA chapters did not participate in the National Convention.
A 2023 DSA Convention that is in-person only would need to utilize proxy voting. This means that people will run for delegate, pay the fee, and hand their vote over to another member of their chapter who, it is assumed, has similar political leanings and planned votes. For a 2023 convention this would in practice mean that we will be seeing two different races within chapters and nationally – delegate elections and then the battle of the proxies. For an organization that is already mired in factional-based conflict, this would likely play out with large local and national caucuses making aggressive plays for blocks of proxy votes to push forward their NPC candidates and resolutions. Individuals will run to be delegates who have no intention of attending in person, for the purpose of providing their proxy to their chosen faction.
This is not a criticism of future factions for potentially making this play – it would be smart politics under the structure of an in-person convention utilizing proxy votes. But, the organization can create a structure that does not have these bad incentives. This kind of dynamic could get toxic very quickly, and would be less democratic than a convention that does not utilize proxy voting. Debate is better in person than it is online. But, proxies obliterate the ability to have a full debate, putting power in the hands of the best organized who can accumulate proxy votes.
The decision of whether to provide a hybrid option for the 2023 Convention is a difficult one. Pulling it off will take money and expanding our capacity. However, with our commitment to being an inclusive, democratic organization, we believe that making accommodations for a hybrid convention is required. Convention is simply too important for the organization to not utilize the most accessible option possible. The NPC must vote to approve a hybrid convention or risk the democratic future of the organization.
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