Since this newsletter is going to drop on May Day, I thought I’d use this space to talk a little about the Democratic Socialists of America. I was late to DSA. I only joined in 2018, inspired mostly by the election of DSA members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar to the House of Representatives. Before then, I had been too wary of left factionalism and of third parties as splitters.
These concerns disappeared at my first meeting. As I should have known from the careers of AOC, Ilhan Omar, and Bernie Sanders, DSA’s electoral strategy is to work within the Democratic Party. They’ve learned from the relative failures of the Green and Peace and Freedom Parties that, without reforms such as ranked-choice voting, electoral fusion, and proportional representation, third parties can only be spoilers, and they host a very big tent, from European-style social democrats to anarchists.
DSA also felt familiar because its roots are in the pre-1960s left of Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington. My grandparents were “Yipsels:” members of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), like Bernie Sanders.
However, I’m not here to recruit for DSA (although if you are interested: https://dsa-la.org). Rather, I want to describe a few techniques DSA uses to run meetings which I have found very impressive. These are not unique to DSA; I have even encountered some of them in my day job at a public library as guidelines for leading a book club, among other places, but I have never seen them used as well or with as large and contentious a group as in DSA. I am not arguing that the CCDC should adopt these, at least not yet, but I think that being aware of them has made me a better collaborator.
1) Progressive Stack. The CCDC already uses this in some discussions. “Stack” just means queuing up the people who want to speak on an item. Often speakers will be asked to declare if they are pro or con, so the stack can alternate sides. What makes it progressive is that the person running the stack can move people who speak often down the list and people from underrepresented groups up the list in a kind of affirmative action.
2)One Meeting aka One Diva, One Mic. All attention should be on the person speaking. No whispering, no heckling, no DMing, no side discussion in the chat, etc.
3)Why am I Talking? A discussion can be about putting ideas forward rather than forming a majority. If someone else has made your point, let it go. You don’t need to cosign it with your own comment, just cheer after the first speaker makes it. City meetings are the opposite of this: it seems important to show up with an overwhelming number of people to present a set of talking points, but the CCDC is a membership organization, not an elected public body.
4)Assume Good Intentions, but Challenge/Oops, Ouch. There is a lot of reactionary culture war propaganda making people worried that they’re going to get “canceled” for using the wrong pronoun or some other linguistic transgression. Let’s assume that everyone who has come to our meeting is a friend and ally, and that if they say something that isn’t cool, it’s an honest mistake. On the flip side, we all need to be prepared to take advice and criticism and apologize if we unwittingly offend someone. We’re here to work together to make things better.
5) Parliamentary Procedure This doesn’t seem very progressive. What’s next, that we’ll all call each Mr. and Ms. like we’re at boarding school? However, informality can be a cover for unwritten rules and gives insiders an advantage. Some of you may know Jo Freeman’s 1970 feminist essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” DSA embraces Robert’s Rules because having a transparent standard set of processes allows people to participate more equitably. There’s nothing special, secret, or personal about how the meeting runs, and it makes the chair more of a moderator than a leader. DSA-LA recommends this 4H video; I think there may be an element of humor involved in that choice. Our implementation of Robert’s Rules has been on the slack side. We don’t have a parliamentarian or City Clerk to keep things within the lines, and there’s no training for club leaders.
As I’ve discussed in this space before, the Republican brand has been toxic in our area for years, and Donald Trump made it even more so. Thus, anyone seriously interested in local politics will call themselves a Democrat and potentially join this club. At the same time, the center-to-right status quo which lasted a century in this city has been successfully challenged from the left several elections in a row. Now this club is a larger and more diverse group than ever and regularly takes on more controversial issues, so our meetings have become more difficult. Looking at other diverse and intense organizations can help.