Building healthier democracy in Philly DSA

At the most recent general meeting of the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (DSA; held July 28, 2018), a contentious resolution failed when the meeting chair cast their vote, creating a seventy-vote tie. This is an extreme example of a close decision, but it’s not entirely out of the ordinary for our chapter. Our meeting required a division of the house (i.e., a recount of votes) four times. In the four general meetings since December 2017, several resolutions have passed or failed after vigorous debate by similarly tight margins.

Many people accept this as a natural part of democracy; some go as far as to celebrate it. I do not. As socialists, we’re organizing to create a society free of domination and hierarchy. When we perpetuate a system where one half of the membership can get everything they want — leaving the remaining half feeling defeated — we create an environment where domination settles disagreements. We must do better.

Alternatives to majority rule aren’t often discussed outside leftist discourse. Consensus-based decision making is one alternative, well-known for its association with Quakers and Occupy Wall Street. This process can take many forms, but arriving at consensus typically requires that all participants (or at least a large majority) come to the same opinion. This always entails modifying the original proposal and making compromises. The system is not without critiques; most notably, some implementations devolve into “minority rule”.

Though we may disagree over details, the ultimate goals of DSA members should be reasonably aligned. Therefore, any approach to decision-making (regardless of whether it’s based on voting) should involve a good-faith attempt to reach consensus before proceeding. This will build solidarity between members and usually result in better decisions.

Unfortunately, several obstacles to building consensus exist in the culture and structure of Philly DSA. Here are changes we should make to overcome these barriers, ordered by how much work we need to do to realize them.

1. Create a forum for discussing resolutions prior to general meetings

Currently, the rank-and-file membership of Philly DSA have no way to directly communicate with their fellow members outside of general meetings. Posting privileges to the chapter’s mailing list are controlled by committee. An online forum designed to facilitate communication between members would help resolution authors satisfy critics’ objections before debate at the next general meeting.

Philly DSA is home to a Local Initiatives Local Action Committee (LILAC). LILAC provides a “resolution incubator”, a place where any Philly DSA member can solicit feedback on an idea for a resolution. While LILAC meetings have produced several successful resolutions, not every member can commit to monthly in-person meetings. An online forum will be most accessible to most members.

2. Allow amendments from the floor

Although Philly DSA follows Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RRONR) for meetings, our Standing Rules prevent members from proposing amendments to resolutions during debate. Sometimes disagreements can arise from an underspecified provision or ambiguous wording, and a simple friendly amendment from the floor would satisfy people’s concerns. The prohibition on floor amendments prevents this from happening without a suspension of the rules and a ⅔ majority.

For example, the contentious vote at our recent meeting happened over a resolution to support the candidacy of DSA member Mike Doyle for Pennsylvania House District 170. Many members were concerned by the fact that Doyle’s campaign materials did not discuss wealth inequality or support for redistributive policies. What would have happened if the resolution was amended to make the local’s support conditional on Doyle’s open advocacy of such policies? We’ll never know.

3. Hold more frequent general meetings

Most DSA chapters hold monthly general meetings, but Philly DSA currently has five per year. A member of the Steering Committee recently acknowledged that our organization is not “nimble”, but increasing meeting frequency to once per month will ameliorate this issue. Tabling a piece of business for one month is less likely to cause problems than tabling it for three.

This change also addresses the primary argument against floor amendments. The time required to deliberate one month’s worth of resolutions is shorter than that for three months, giving us more time to reach consensus on the floor.

4. Ditch Robert’s Rules altogether

Philly DSA’s bylaws state, “consensus decision-making is desirable where feasible, but meetings must submit to Robert’s Rules of Order upon the request of a member”. This wording acknowledges the fact that RRONR is not a system designed to facilitate consensus. Robert’s Rules describe a particular parliamentary procedure, and have been used by a diverse range of deliberative assemblies for over 140 years. The flavor of “democracy” supported by this procedure must be recognized as a product of its time and place, and is not the only way to make decisions democratically.

The ultimate project of socialists is to create a new world. This will necessarily rely on some tools from the current one, but we must guard against replicating the same structures that we’re trying to overcome. The use of a complicated parliamentary procedure is frustrating and alienating for new members, which is unacceptable for a rapidly growing democratic organization.

Philly DSA recently voted to form a committee to research and propose a new set of bylaws, but participation in this committee is not open to the general membership. Decisions about bylaws should be subordinate to decisions about the culture that we hope to create in our organization. We should commit to a vision for our chapter — hopefully one that is welcoming, transparent, participatory, and democratic — and then write rules that facilitate this environment. Since members of the DSA believe that democracy is a fundamental part of socialism, this conversation needs all of our voices.