It started even before the Convention itself started. The New York City Democratic Socialists of America were preparing to hold their annual convention in the City, the organization’s highest democratic body where elected delegates would debate resolutions, constitutional amendments, endorsements of city council candidates, and officer elections. As such, it should also be expected to be the foremost battlefield of conflicts within the organization. One only need think of the depiction of democracy in Salman Rushdie’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” where the fantastical parliament of the Guppees is called “Chatterbox.” When the Steering Committee of NYC DSA sent out the agenda and a couple of members (myself included) voiced objection to beginning the Convention with a prayer, it seemed like the debate might be beginning.
But rather than engaging in an internal struggle about how our organization should relate to religion (an issue of importance to socialist organizations throughout history), the response by both NYC DSA officers and membership was to try to stop debate. The critics were told their criticism was offensive, and others simply complained that any debate was happening at all over email. At least as to the former this could be a tactic of debate rather than trying to stop it (though not a particularly comradely one), but the latter was truly shocking to me. Generally when you see complaints about replying all in emails it is because the subject of the email does not apply to, well, “all.” But certainly the agenda of the Convention applied to all delegates. Why would you run as a delegate for Convention if you were not excited to engage in debates?
This would be followed by a passive aggressive email from the Steering Committee right before the Convention itself saying that critics of beginning the Convention with a prayer were “unwelcoming and uncomradely, of an accusatory character, and failed to approach the decision of chapter leadership in good faith.” No person was specified, nor was any particular language criticized, so again it was not an invitation to engage in debate or even to improve on inappropriate behavior but rather an odd jab more reminiscent of Twitter discourse than emails from organization leadership before a Convention. More than outraged or offended, the other delegates I asked about this email (particularly other atheist comrades as well as Jewish and Muslim comrades) were more confused than anything else.
And speaking of Twitter, the specter of Twitter haunted the halls of Convention both explicitly at times as well as creeping between the lines of resolutions and public remarks. As someone who is not on Twitter, and specifically who left Twitter because I found the discourse on it to be so vapid and destructive, this was very disconcerting. Again no specifics were ever stated, with the one exception of a housing working group criticizing our endorsed city councilmember Tiffany Cabán, and even then to this day I have no idea what those tweets specifically said.
What is so insidious about Twitter is that it is structured to make its users think it is an important platform for discourse, especially on politics. And maybe that is true for the technocratic politics of neoliberals, where the opinions of key elites matter and the opinions of the masses, or even the reactions of the masses, are unimportant. There are 69.3 million active users of Twitter in the United States — about 21% of the population. “Active” is deceiving though. Only 35 million, about half, are daily users. And an astonishing 80% of tweets are made by the top 10% of active users. So in actuality, Twitter is essentially a forum of about 2% of the US talking to each other, further segmented by algorithms that construct Twitter feeds to group and classify users.
Unfortunately some of that 2% appears to be in NYC DSA, and even more so in the active leadership of the chapter. And people are upset about it. But the simple solution, to get off Twitter, seems to elude people. Because no matter how upsetting it gets, they’ve been deluded into believing it is important, so leaving it is unthinkable. Instead, we got a combination of resolutions seeking to directly or indirectly influence the use of Twitter and an assortment of speeches begging people to not fight on Twitter. The audacity of this would be amusing if it didn’t waste so much time. Telling people to not fight on Twitter is like telling an alcoholic to not drink and then inviting them to a wedding with an open bar. Sure, it is possible for that person to exercise restraint, but you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.
But not all of the problem was rooted in Twitter. Aside from the very proud Marxist Unity Group, who wore very nice matching shirts during Convention and were very upfront and clear about their membership and politics, the caucuses and sectarian divisions of NYC DSA were barely touched on. Some of the usual players were certainly present (Bread & Roses, Emerge, Socialist Majority, etc.), but why they existed and opposed each other was not clear to me and many others who were not involved with the caucuses. Moreover, as someone who had to withdraw from active participation in DSA for a few months while recovering from a surgery (don’t worry I’m fine), I returned to Convention surprised to see former members of a caucus now extremely hostile to it, caucuses that used to be at each other’s metaphorical throats now working together, and so on. These tensions appeared to be major parts of an unspoken debate on resolutions such as the statewide organization resolution and the “1234” resolution — those not privy to that unspoken debate were done a major disservice by not hearing those aspects, which I presume were not disclosed because of the aforementioned desire to avoid conflict.
Don’t get me wrong — the era of callout Medium posts attacking caucuses or even individual members was not pleasant and rarely productive. But it feels like the pendulum has swung to the opposite side. And of course conflict is alive and well in NYC DSA, it’s just that its contours are now obscured and veiled rather than sensationalized and weaponized. Everyone now seems extremely concerned of being perceived as a wrecker, and performatively speaks out about the need to be comradely and united.
I even had the odd experience of a delegate named Joe (sorry Joe I don’t know your last name) pulling me aside to apologize for “mean tweets” he apparently made about me. I was thrown off by this odd confessional and explained to him that I didn’t have Twitter so I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought this would prompt him to reveal that, and then we could discuss our differences in person and hopefully in a more productive way. Instead, he simply repeated his apology like I was clergy rather than a comrade, and that he sought absolution rather than political engagement. Again, at the Convention, which I had come to so I could debate political opponents rather instruct them to do a few rosaries to be forgiven for their mean tweets (sorry, couldn’t resist a lapsed Catholic joke).
There are many things to be proud of with this Convention. The resolutions, even the ones I opposed, were extremely well-written. The delegates, while still disproportionately white for a city this diverse, represented a plethora of communities that should have a voice in how we build democratic socialism. Our elected officials and former candidates were enthusiastic and actually participated in debates — a good sign that we are not running random politicians but committed organization leaders who will stick with us. I especially appreciated Brandon West, who disagreed on quite a lot with me other than our mutual belief that the Brooklyn Nets need a better coach.
But that’s the point. Conflict and disagreement don’t need to mean disrespect and turmoil. And the solution to them getting heated, especially on Twitter, isn’t to try to stop them or pretend they’re not there — it is to provide opportunities to engage in them openly and regularly in the appropriate venues. If you can’t do that, well, you should probably join me in self-imposed Twitter exile.