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Conflict Could Upend DSA’s Big Tent—or Steady It

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Image of an erupting volcano, a black mountain against a dark background with a bright flow of pinky orange lava.

To preserve DSA’s unique political dynamism, its factions will need to retreat from scorched-earth competition and move towards generative conflict.

I believe in DSA. When Listen To Michigan’s “Vote Uncommitted” campaign was seeking organizational allies to donate infrastructure, volunteers, and staff time, every other major left-progressive organization in Michigan had to keep their involvement behind the scenes and off the record. DSA, on the other hand, was able to take the leap wholeheartedly. There really is a “DSA difference” when it comes to taking challenging and independent political positions.

I believe in the value of conflict within DSA. I used to think it was all a big dumpster fire, but I’ve come to understand it differently. Unlike a lot of staff-directed movement NGOs, DSA has a truly democratic governance structure that determines the direction of the organization.

When a member is frustrated with DSA, they have clear political channels through which to change it, or at least try. The organization belongs to its members. That’s why DSA survived the challenging period of 2020-2023—Bernie’s defeat, the pandemic, a new terrain under Biden and ensuing re-evaluation on the Left—with only a 30% membership melt, lower than many progressive movement groups which sharply peaked in the Trump era.

Instead of a dumpster fire, I started to think of DSA as a shield volcano, always oozing with lava and billowing with the smoke of each new conflict, but all the while: growing, developing.

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In this metaphor, distributed movement groups and “digital parties” of the 2010s turned out to be like cone volcanoes—proud, tall, impressive, but quick to blow their top like Mt St Helens. Political conflict was suppressed, and when it finally arrived, it was destructive to organizations.

While DSA is not the only US left organization possessing a robust member democracy, it is the only one that openly contains a big tent of political ideologies spanning from social democratic reformers to revolutionary communists. Political caucuses give coherence and voice to different ideological positions within the organization; they make up the poles of the big tent. DSA’s big tent and democratic process results in a dynamic and engaging political culture which, at its best, is uncommonly capable of surfacing and digesting the biggest strategic debates of the day.

However, there are signs that the pattern of conflict could be turning toxic and negative-sum. The lava flow of conflict is widening, and the big tent is wobbling. If conflict is not channeled and directed more effectively, it will consume us all, and an important institution of the US Left will be lost.

Who shares DSA’s big tent?

Is DSA the left pole of the Democratic Party, or a new independent party in waiting? Is it an electoral-legislative force whose power base is strongest in statehouses, or a mass movement organization whose power base is strongest in the streets and the shop floor? Is its horizon to win a better deal for the US working class, or to pull up the US Constitution and global class structure from the roots? Yes! Maybe! We’re not sure! You can find members of DSA who would answer yes to any of the above options, and who would vehemently object to others.

Broadly speaking (and to use some highly imperfect labels), there is a “DSA left” which angles towards dreams of revolution, extra-parliamentary power, and a break from the Democrats, and a “DSA right” which angles towards ambitious but plausibly achievable reforms, electoral power, and tactical coalition with the Democrats. The right held a narrow governing majority in the last two-year term of the National Political Committee (NPC); since August 2023’s convention, the left has held a narrow majority.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, I contend that the tension between these positions, and the ambiguity about DSA’s ultimate strategy and shape, is a highly positive thing for the organization. Two poles, leaning in opposite directions, pull tension on the canvas and create a big tent under which many can coexist. While some in the big tent are unambiguous partisans of the idealized right or left position, many others hold sympathies to both, and healthy uncertainty about how things will and should develop.

Personally, my daily political practice is more aligned with that of the DSA right, but I find some ideological affinities with the DSA left. I think the right is usually correct in its conjunctural analysis, while the left often raises good points about structural analysis. I think the right is more advanced in its current practice of mass politics, while the left is asking more interesting questions about what may be required in the future (even if I often find their answers lacking).

In short, my political practice is reformist and social democratic, but only for the lack of an actionable revolutionary pathway in the present conjuncture. Were we to enter more revolutionary times, I would hope to find myself among the revolutionaries. In the language of options theory, one might say that I hold an active option on reform, and a presently non-exercisable option on revolution.

The special thing about DSA is that it doesn’t make me choose among the uncertain points in my political views now, or between my current practice and my future practice. It contains all of the above.

Making space for growth as well as debate

In addition to creating a forum for constructive debate among various political tendencies, the big tent benefits membership retention for the simple reason that few of us arrive to any organization as fully developed political subjects. Our views change—from revolutionary, to reformist, and many gradations in between. An organization that is exclusively revolutionary, or exclusively reformist, will lose members along the process of their political education. DSA at its best has the capacity to hold people along the journey.

While each wing of DSA claims to possess the silent majority of organizational members, the recent track record suggests that most members hold sympathies to both positions, like I do. This doesn’t reflect a lack of political development by the membership—it reflects the fact that the matrix of left and right positions provides a variety of strategic options for the future course of DSA. In an uncertain and highly volatile political environment, it’s rational to maintain multiple options for the future course of a political organization. In fact, to prematurely close out those options would be the unstrategic move.

Unfortunately, closing out either the reformist, or the revolutionary option, is what the emerging pattern of conflict in DSA threatens to do. It appears that the most zealous partisans of the “DSA left” and “DSA right” are each aiming to discredit and vanquish each other, prioritizing victory for their political line over the value of the big tent. If each pole holding up the big tent cannot refrain from undermining the other, the tent will topple and the organization as a whole will lose out.

Budget debate turns ugly

The present budget negotiation on the DSA National Political Committee (NPC) is the latest example of how factional conflict is turning corrosive and creating a negative-sum spiral for the organization.

Since the present NPC was elected in August, there has been a known disagreement between the narrow NPC majority and minority: What to do about a structural budget deficit of over a million dollars. Members of the “left” majority (led by Red Star Caucus, Marxist Unity Group, and Bread & Roses) had a known preference for paid elected officers over hired staff, and a wariness about the potential of becoming top-heavy through overstaffing at the expense of program costs. The “right” minority (Socialist Majority Caucus and Groundwork), vehemently disagreed and sought to defend staffing levels by cutting everywhere else, plus taking a bullish stance on new funding prospects.

With the stage set thus, the majority proceeded to act imperiously, while the minority acted moralistically.

The majority engaged in procedural maneuvering to limit an open discussion of staff cuts from a month-long consensus budgeting process among the full NPC. Instead, they held their cards close before dropping a proposal for up to 12 layoffs–over one-third of the staff–and voting it through several days later. This seems to have been their idea of taking decisive action to right-size the staff; upon questioning they could not credibly answer why this was the correct number of layoffs, and in fact it turned out to be based on outdated financial data. The majority also seems to be blundering its way through dealing with the staff union, first failing to set up a meeting, then doing so, then claiming to need to approve maximal layoffs in order to negotiate. They give the appearance of wishing the staff union away, which is no way to win the collaboration of staff through an inevitably difficult transition.

The minority, meanwhile, began the process by staking out an unreachable position for absolutely zero staff cuts, and vowed to cut every other item before touching personnel. Having set themselves up to be aghast at any layoffs whatsoever, the proposed cut of 12 ignited a furor. They took up these proposed layoffs as a cudgel against the majority and mounted an internal campaign against the layoff authorization vote. One of the primary arguments used was the moralistic and patently absurd claim that to conduct any layoffs in a budget crunch would make DSA indistinguishable from a capitalist firm.

Seven months into the new NPC term, what began as an unenviable challenge became an acute crisis, through the failure of the competing factions to find a pragmatic middle ground in a timely manner. Months ago, a united NPC commitment to fewer (but nonzero) layoffs plus a united fundraising push could have made the difference. This could have been achieved had the right caucuses been willing to entertain some layoffs, the left caucuses been more willing to participate in the consensus budget process, and each side more invested in finding middle ground. Instead each side acted to polarize the situation.

New issue, same pattern of negative-sum conflict

This crisis is concerning on its own, but it’s even more concerning for its resemblance, with the majority and minority positions reversed, to the largest crisis from the last NPC term, the “Bowman affair.” This suggests a pattern. We have, again, imperiousness by the majority and moralism by the minority, and an apparent preference by caucuses in both major camps to prolong and weaponize challenging issues for internal factional gain, rather than find a workable compromise and move forward with building DSA.

All in all, the appearance is increasingly of factions who genuinely hate each other, who can’t resist the ability to call each other nasty names, who are uninterested or incapable of finding mutually agreeable positions and would rather quit or expel the others. There is some evidence of good faith across factions by people banding together to support the major fundraising drive, and surely there are some problem-solvers trying their best behind the scenes, but this is not the major signal.

When I raised the possibility to friends in the NPC minority caucuses that they may have misplayed their hands by staking out an absolute opposition to all layoffs and seeking a middle ground earlier could have been more constructive, I was told the following, in so many words: “There’s no chance of compromise with the majority and there never has been. All we can do is polarize the issue, raise hell and make sure that people remember this at the convention in August 2025.” Not everyone in the minority holds this view, of course, but the point remains that the actions of the major caucuses appear more aimed at advantage for their faction than at solving the dilemma at hand.

If it’s true that there is no chance of compromise between the left and right, then the big tent is well on its way to collapse. If scorched earth is the only path forward in DSA, the best-case outcome for any party is five years immersed in internal conflict, for the sake of controlling a smoldering and diminished pile of rubble in 2030.

But if dialogue and compromise are possible, behaving as if they aren’t is highly destructive and exactly the opposite of what everybody ought to be doing. The big tent is a tremendous benefit to DSA. Maintaining its dynamic tension over the long run requires compromises in the short run—and practicing generative rather than negative-sum conflict.

Towards generative conflict

In generative conflict, parties start from common values and interests, affirm as legitimate the interests of their counterparts, and consider “non-negotiables” in that light. It is not easy, and requires political commitment to execute. It also requires that elected leaders have the range and freedom to actually negotiate creatively with their counterparts, rather than being bound to positions established by their respective caucuses.

Generative conflict, at its best, achieves a synthesis from existing positions, transforms the participants, and replaces stale old debates with vital new ones. When dealing with the most divisive issues, the aim of the majority should not be to divide further by seeking a narrow and total victory, nor should the aim of the minority be to merely weaponize defeat for future political gain. The aim of all should be to find a workable accommodation for now, while raising the level of mutual understanding that will help us all later. Parties aim to persuade, not conquer, their internal adversaries, and are willing to be persuaded as well. This only works if they resist the temptation to dunk, bully, or purge their opponents from the arena.

In 2022 amidst the Bowman affair, Jack Suria Linares wrote a thoughtful piece in Convergence, arguing as do I in defense of the big tent, while pointing towards the need for more “programmatic unity,” which would require minority factions to exercise collective discipline to to follow the democratically established will of the majority. I agree that programmatic unity is a worthy goal, and that it requires more disciplined restraint on behalf of minority factions—an assignment that has now been failed by the DSA left and right in the last two NPC terms, respectively. I would build on Suria Linares by pointing out that reaching programmatic unity also requires more give from the elected majorities than we have seen over the last four years.

Can we really expect the full membership and their chapters to follow with complete discipline if every two years new NPC leadership attempts to enact an utter sea change of direction, despite pitched internal opposition? This would only be appropriate if a given faction has an overwhelming mandate for leadership, not the narrow majorities we have recently seen. My assessment is that the DSA membership is asking for steady leadership that draws on the best insights of left and right. Majorities should aim to do more than merely imposing their own political line. They should be trying to find the line that is best suited at any given time for the organization as a whole.

To adopt this posture in DSA is not “all ideas are valid” liberalism, nor is it a retreat from political-ideological struggle. Rather, it’s about balancing struggle and unity, internal deliberation and external action, in due proportion. It’s about recognizing the strategic value of DSA’s big tent, and learning how to preserve it today, in order to struggle and build together tomorrow.