Why a Special Convention is the Wrong Path for DSA

Many DSA comrades acting in good faith and with DSA’s best interests in mind have recently called on DSA to hold a special convention as quickly as possible to resolve continuing tensions around Danny Fetonte’s position on the National Political Committee (NPC). Since the NPC did not vote to remove Fetonte from his position, these comrades argue that the membership should take action to remove him. Because the DSA constitution does not currently contain a recall mechanism, they have proposed to convene an emergency convention of DSA’s membership that could recall Fetonte and thereby resolve the present tensions in DSA that are keeping so many of us from getting back to work on growing our movement and moving our many important campaigns forward. While I very much appreciate the thought and energy that has gone into this effort so far, and respect members’ desire to find a constitutional resolution to this issue, I do not believe that a special convention is the right path for our organization to take.

This is not because I am against democracy in DSA. Far from it. To me DSA’s commitment to radical democratic internal practice is one of, if not the most fundamental strength it has as an organization. For years I have been actively promoting more robust mechanisms of internal debate and decision-making, playing a lead role in developing a year-long organization-wide debate process around the strategy document we approved at the 2015 convention, developing mechanisms for member participation and broad discussion of DSA’s national priorities leading up to the 2017 and as a coauthor of several important democratizing reform proposals put out by the Spring Platform leading up to the 2017 convention, including the NPC petition amendment that we adopted. I strongly support additional mechanisms of accountability, transparency and democratic debate within DSA, including the revival of the National Advisory Committee, a recall mechanism for NPC members, and stronger mechanisms of regional representation within DSA, among other potential reforms. A special convention, however, would not serve these aims, and would be ill-advised for a number of practical reasons that I will lay out below.

This is my argument in short. First, such a convention would almost certainly have to be conducted in person, which would present massive logistical and financial obstacles to DSA and place a tremendous burden on our members’ time and energy in months of preparation. Second, even if a special convention could be conducted virtually, as many members have claimed, it would still be inadvisable to do so. A virtual convention would still require a massive investment of organizational resources that could be much better deployed in other areas. Finally, it would likely increase factionalism and divisiveness in DSA, and would require us to make rushed decisions on extremely important organizational questions that should be debated and discussed at length across the organization before being brought to a DSA convention.

Danny Fetonte has lost nearly all support in the organization and alienated the entire rest of the NPC. He will not be able to shape DSA’s agenda in any meaningful way, and at our 2019 convention he stands no chance at reelection. Rather than prolong a highly-destructive battle within the organization for another half year or more, I strongly suggest that DSA throw itself into the important work of building the movement for democratic socialism in the US.

Why Don’t We Just Hold a Virtual Special Convention?

Simply put, it would be unconstitutional for DSA to hold a virtual special convention. After consulting with experts in parliamentary procedure, it is clear that Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (RRONR), which is established in Article XII of DSA’s constitution as the governing rules of DSA, forbids the calling of a virtual convention unless such a procedure is expressly permitted in the constitution. And DSA’s constitution does not expressly permit this. Thus if a special convention is to be held, it must be an in-person convention. (In addition to the procedural reasons why this must be the case, there are also a number of important practical considerations, which I will explore below.)

Some may wonder why it is permissible for the NPC to convene virtually but not a nationwide special convention, since our constitution does not establish a mechanism for the NPC to convene virtually. As as 501c4 organization incorporated in the State of New York, DSA is governed by New York State corporate law. That law expressly permits the virtual convening of board meetings in extenuating circumstances, but forbids the convening of full membership meetings (such as a convention) by virtual means. Why? A meeting of 15–20 people can reasonably approximate the conditions of a live, in-person meeting, but a convention of 600–700 people held online cannot (more on this below). So a special convention would have to take place in person.

The costs of doing an in-person special convention would far outweigh the benefits for us. As much as I’d love to see all my comrades from around the country again, it would be so logistically and financially taxing that it would simply be irresponsible for DSA to do so. The August convention, for instance, cost over $230,000, which is over a quarter of DSA’s 2016 budget, and after accounting for registration fees we still ran a more than $50,000 deficit with the convention. But beyond the cost, we also have to factor in how much it also drained donor pools in chapters across the country (by funding travel expenses and contributions to travel subsidies) and what work was left undone because our staff, national leadership, as well as many chapter leaders were essentially unable to focus on anything other than convention planning for months leading up to the convention. Organizing a special convention would cost DSA the equivalent of two staff organizer positions over the next four to six months (say, roughly, $20,000 for each organizer for 6 months) or potentially more, given that fundraising for the special convention would be much more difficult than for the August National Convention. Generous donors have so recently given a lot of money to get delegates to the convention, and many will likely be tapped out. In turn, DSA would be on the hook to cover travel costs for the many delegates who likely wouldn’t be able to fundraise sufficiently for their travel to the special convention.

There are real tradeoffs involved here. Going through such a process again so shortly after the last convention would mean that in the span of 12 months (spring 2017 through spring 2018) DSA’s staff and leadership would have spent much more time doing the work of planning conventions than they would have spent building DSA’s infrastructure, developing national campaigns, conducting trainings and educational events, etc. We are in too critical of a moment in the development of the US socialist movement to allow this to happen. As many of our limited resources as possible need to be going towards carrying out the priorities we adopted together at the August convention. There is a ton of exciting work to be done in the fight for Medicare for All, labor work, electoral politics, anti-police brutality work, immigrant rights work, environmental justice organizing, etc. We must keep building the organizing capacity of our chapters (ideally by hiring new regional organizers and taking other critical steps to increase transparency and democratic debate in DSA, such as reviving the National Advisory Committee), and continue to build on the success we’ve had over the past year to make DSA a real force in US politics.

Maybe a virtual special convention is unconstitutional, but these are unusual circumstances. Why don’t we just hold it anyway?

Even if a virtual convention were permissible, or if the NPC decided it were permissible to violate the DSA Constitution and move forward with one, it would still be ill-advised. Even though it would be less onerous than an in-person convention, a virtual convention would also place a massive burden on the staff and national leadership, as well as chapter leaders who would be responsible for organizing chapter meetups, finding housing for members, etc. Those who think a virtual conference would be quick and easy haven’t yet thought through all of the steps it would involve and how much work would have to be put into it. As the only person who has actually planned an organization-wide virtual conference for DSA (two, in fact: a strategy discussion leading up to the 2015 convention and the priorities resolution debate this July), I know very intimately the kind of commitment they entail. The amount of time and energy that went into organizing these virtual conferences was huge. In the case of a virtual special convention, however, the logistical requirements placed on all levels of DSA leadership would greatly exceed those we faced in the planning of past virtual conferences.

Unlike previous virtual conferences, for a convention the NPC would have to coordinate delegate elections across the organization and, if necessary, run At-Large delegate elections. We have never had to conduct this process for a national conference before because the number of At-Large members who self-nominate have been fewer than the number of At-Large delegates assigned. We can expect this to no longer be the case with a virtual convention since there would be no travel and fundraising burden for at-large delegates. Every chapter would also have to go through nominating and voting processes for convention delegates. We would also have to go through an extended process of submitting resolutions and constitutional amendments to the convention, which would require DSA to set up a range of venues for pre-convention debate and discussion, as well as chapters to set up various pre-convention debate and discussion meetings.

In the lead up to the recent national convention we began the process of discussing resolutions and amendments as early as three months in advance. In retrospect nearly all of us agree that the calendar leading up to the August convention in Chicago did not allow sufficient time for discussion, debate, and consideration. Many chapters could not properly discuss the proposals because they were so busy with the already high burdens of carrying out our organizing work and other important chapter business. Further, chapter delegate elections occurred before proposals and NPC candidates were announced, so delegates could not run on platforms related to the items that would actually be taken up at the convention. I personally heard from many chapter leaders that in the future we need to allow for considerably more time before the convention in order to have genuinely democratic organization-wide pre-convention discussions. This means a lot more time and a lot more organizational resources than we’ve used in the past, and asking this of DSA mere months after the last convention would be asking too much of an organization that has already put so much of its pressing organizing work on hold for months leading up to the August convention.

To complicate matters further, a special convention cannot simply remove a single NPC member. This is the case because RRONR (570–573) stipulates that in the interpretation of bylaws and constitutions, when a specific manner of carrying out a given act is expressly stipulated in the text all other ways in which the act could be carried out that are not expressly provided for in the constitution/bylaws are prohibited. The DSA constitution stipulates that only the NPC has the authority to remove single NPC members, and therefore a special convention cannot. So, in order to remove Danny Fetonte at the convention, an entirely new NPC election would have to be held. Needless to say, this would entail major time investments in campaigning, candidate debates, and the like, requiring a much higher time commitment by everyone in the preceding months. We should also bear in mind that the lack of sufficient time to vet candidates leading up to the convention is one of the central reasons why we find ourselves in this situation right now. We certainly wouldn’t want to run the risk of committing the same error again. Simply put, a special convention, whether virtual or not, would require truly massive organizational resources that would be much better allocated elsewhere.

Dangers of Factionalism

A special convention under current circumstances would likely prolong and intensify the already high level of factionalism and divisiveness in DSA around the Danny Fetonte situation. This would be a grave risk even if an in-person special convention took place. With tensions so high and levels of trust across the organization so low right now, our collective capacity for comradely debate and good faith discussion will be very limited. It is likely that substantial minorities in the organization will view the outcome of convention decisions as illegitimate and/or unacceptable, which means that there’s a real possibility of mass walkouts, resignations, and even organizational splits. These are not the conditions under which a DSA convention should be held.

If the special convention were held virtually, it would do nothing but exacerbate these risks. When we meet in person, there is at least the potential to address disagreements face-to-face, talk things through, and remind each other that we’re all comrades working together to build a new society. But when we meet virtually there are far fewer opportunities for cooling tensions and humanizing political opponents.

While virtual conferences are preferable to social media debates, they are still vulnerable to many of the same negative dynamics. The lack of any real opportunity to interact with each other at all outside the debate space itself means participants are more apt to engage aggressively and disrespectfully with each other. Participants feel less of a general sense of camaraderie since they’re not in the same room together (this was critical in ensuring that numerous debates at the August convention didn’t drag on indefinitely), and are highly vulnerable to miscommunication and unfounded rumors. Under these conditions, it is very possible that special convention would devolve into vitriolic and counterproductive infighting. In fact, these are conditions that are likely to increase the possibility that we come out of a special convention with even less trust, more rigidly-defined factions, and potentially fewer members than we went in with. If that happens the convention certainly would not have been worth it for us. The risks are too high to justify holding a virtual special convention.

Finally, it is likely that numerous proposals for organizational reforms such as an NPC recall mechanism would be introduced during a virtual special convention. Questions that mean structural changes to DSA are too important to be pushed through an extremely rushed process in which tensions are running high. For such changes to be successful, it is critical that we ensure extensive and intensive organization-wide discussions and debates have taken place around key proposals ahead of time. As I discussed above, failure to ensure sufficient discussion of important proposals prior to the August convention was a major issue that our chapter leaders and membership implored us not to repeat. A hastily-organized special convention would likely do just that. On the other hand, a very carefully planned special convention would take at least six months (if not more) to organize and would keep our staff, national leadership and chapter leaders away from the work of building DSA for most of that time, not to mention further alienate new members who certainly did not sign up with DSA because of the allure of protracted internal political conflict. And by the time it was actually held, much of the current NPC’s term will have already expired! So why go through all the trouble of trying to recall NPC members when their terms will end in the relatively near future anyway? Whether DSA rushes a special convention or takes time to thoroughly prepare one, we lose either way.

Is Danny Fetonte Really Worth It?

Given all the problems and risks associated with convening an in-person or virtual special convention, I hope it is clear that the costs of such a convention would, at best, significantly outweigh the benefits. The only potential benefit of such a convention would be allowing DSA to get on with the much delayed work of fulfilling August convention mandates by removing Danny Fetonte from the NPC. But doing so in this manner would come at great cost to the organization, and could just as easily produce even deeper tensions and factionalism than we see today.

It is quite clear that Danny Fetonte’s behavior over the past month has lost him most of his influence and base of support. He has alienated nearly everyone in DSA, including many in his own chapter. Frankly, I can’t imagine any possibility at all of him being re-elected at the next convention. Given the costs to the organization’s time, energy, staff, money, community and comradeship associated with calling a special convention, I think it is in DSA’s best interest to be content to remove him at our next national convention in 2019 rather than at a specially-called one in 2018. As I hope to have shown in this post, a special convention would be an enormously costly and potentially damaging undertaking for DSA, and, in my view, Danny Fetonte is simply not worth our trouble.

There is no silver bullet for resolving the current crisis in DSA, and all options involve considerable risk. I believe our best way forward is to refocus our organizational efforts around building chapter capacity, getting our new Medicare for All campaign off the ground, electing democratic socialists to office, strengthening our labor work through the newly-formed Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, expanding and deepening our work around police brutality and decarceration, and fighting the racist, sexist, xenophobic, Wall-Street backed, and white nationalist agenda of the Trump administration.

Danny Fetonte has stalled DSA’s activity long enough already. Let’s move on and get to work.

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