Nice People Doing Good Things: Notes On The DSA Convention

My guiding assumption going into the Democratic Socialists convention in Chicago this past weekend was to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Increasingly, I am inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt to anybody making a conscious attempt to organize outside the decrepit two-party system, so long as they’re not overtly awful/racist/scammy. My basic takeaway is that there is a lot to appreciate about what DSA is doing. Their exponential growth has to be close-to-unprecedented just in terms of the rate at which people are joining the organization. As I noted on Twitter, if an “alt-right” event of comparable size were held someplace, you could be sure that the entire national press corps would flood in breathlessly to give it wall-to-wall coverage.

But for a variety of complex reasons that I won’t discuss here in great depth, left-wing organizing has always been inherently less interesting to elite media, who are much more inclined to exoticize and amplify right-wing populism.

One interesting dynamic at the convention which perhaps went under-discussed is the subtle way that “coastal bias” manifests in the organization, and the steps taken to remedy that. New York City alone has more than 1,000 DSA members, and theoretically it could unilaterally dominate the organization if it were to vote as a bloc. Coupled with the California delegations, it’s obvious that more rural constituencies often feel as though they are an afterthought or at the very least, their interests are not prioritized.

What’s tricky about navigating this dynamic is, “coastal bias” seldom manifests as active malice. Far more often it’s observed in the form of subtle slights or lack of cognizance about the peculiarities of rural places, and how the culture of, say, North Texas differs from Brooklyn. Further, Brooklynites frequently evince a sincere desire to bridge these cultural gaps, so as to better foster unity or, in the socialist parlance, comradely solidarity. But it’s tricky. In such a vast country, reconciling geographic differences is never going to be easy.

In a deeper sense, it’s likely an unavoidable facet of American life and American national politics that there should be geographic divisions which complicate collective political action. This was a theme throughout the 2016 election and afterwards, when it was briefly considered by the national media that having their intelligentsia clustered almost entirely in a handful of select coastal enclaves may… bias their political coverage, or at least make their coverage insufficiently attentive to how life operates elsewhere in the massive country they’re supposed to be keeping abreast of. Cross-regional discord has always been a feature of American politics, and in a country so large it’s never going to not be an issue. But that it should also manifest even in a relatively small organization whose guiding ethos is attaining maximum nationwide solidarity shows how intractable the problem is. It’s not the fault of any one individual, but a systemic problem that at the very least people charged with holistically analyzing the U.S. polity ought to be cognizant of and take regular steps to address.

Again, DSA delegates were definitely mindful of this dynamic and did take some steps to mitigate it. But — and maybe this is a byproduct of my having traveled to outlying, under-served areas so frequently over the past year — I do think that it’s necessary for anyone interested in accurately representing the interests of the whole country to make incorporating rural and/or “conservative” America into their overall analytical paradigm a more urgent priority. Here’s an interview I did with Zac Echola, a DSA delegate from North Dakota who spoke to the nuances required to translate the DSA message into a Great Plains context:

Echola was later elected to the national DSA committee, which again tells me that the membership was cognizant of the imperative to more tangibly integrate “non-coastal” perspectives into the national agenda. Rural America is what delivered victory to Trump, and given the structural inequities of the American constitutional system, Rural America is why the GOP has been able to dominate Congress. That’s just a reality of life in the United States, and barring far-fetched constitutional amendments or some other institutional upheaval, Rural America is going to continue exerting outsized influence on the composition of the U.S. Government.

Interestingly, the (reasonable) desire among DSA delegates to placate their forlorn Southern and/or Rural comrades seems to have resulted in the inadvertent election of a Police Union organizer to the national committee, which has understandably resulted in some post-hoc consternation. (See this thread for details.) If I were someone who wanted DSA to continue its current promising trajectory, I’d hope that this strange event wouldn’t discourage members from affirming the principle that rural/Southern American constituents ought to be actively cultivated.

Something else that was amusing to observe was people who’d known one another solely from Twitter finally meeting IRL. This can be awkward at times, but also endearing. One rural delegate told me about how he could sometimes go a month plus without interacting physically with any DSA members, so was reliant on Twitter for “comradeship” and had spent much of the convention trying to place real-life faces with their Twitter personas. (I, for one, had the good fortune of accidentally meeting Trillburne, a longtime favorite Twitter persona.)

My takeaway from this is that there’s a tendency to deride Twitter-based social bonds, but the reason so many people are invested in the medium is that it really does have the potential to produce meaningful relationships that never otherwise would have come about. You’ll often see people hugely indebted to Twitter for professional or social reasons bashing the platform or downplaying its significance. And of course, there’s definite downside to Twitter; as most everyone knows, it can be exhaustingly negative. But it also has played a vital role in fostering true camaraderie and kinship, and I wish more people would openly recognize that rather than maintaining this air of self-deprecatory detachment about it. Without Twitter I really doubt the DSA convention would have been what it was.

On a personal note, I just wanted to add that it was very heartening to see how nice everybody was. I know at times I’ve probably irritated people within the organization for one reason or another, but everybody I met was absolutely amiable and friendly, and that was nice in a very basic way. Speaking of the downsides of Twitter: it can tend to amplify negativity to a disproportionate degree, but I encountered no such thing in Chicago. Everyone was very earnest, and that was a welcome counterweight to the irony-infused Twitter culture which DSA has come to be associated with. As Emmett Rensin mentioned in our discussion, it’s probably necessary for group cohesion to foster a distinctive internal culture; the meme-heavy jokey stuff is just one manifestation of that. For the most part, people are interested in doing serious political work. Leavening that with some lulz can’t hurt.

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