Discipline in DSA and the BDS Controversy

On the recent controversy in DSA over the de-chartering of the BDS working group. B&R NPC members Laura Gabby and Sofia C. explain why they opposed that disciplinary action against the working group.


A few days ago, the DSA National Political Committee de-chartered DSA’s national BDS Working Group and moved it into our International Committee. For the last four months or so, the NPC and BDS WG have been in conflict, beginning with the controversy over Jamaal Bowman. 

We disagreed with how we as an NPC handled the original conflict, and B&R members offered alternatives that might have made the situation less explosive which were not taken up, such as a discussion between Bowman and the NPC open to DSA members. We are unequivocal in our support for Palestine’s right to exist and for the BDS movement. Nonetheless, we think it’s also been unquestionably true that the BDS working group has acted destructively.

A few weeks ago, the BDS WG publicly renewed their demand to have Bowman expelled. The majority on the NPC claimed that this thread included misinformation that Bowman’s team stated he would continue to “come out against BDS.” This was part of a larger pattern of problematic behavior from the group over the last few months that went beyond political disagreement.

After this, a series of votes were brought to the NPC on disciplinary measures to be applied to the BDS WG and its steering committee if it did not remove the thread and comply with the national committee requirement to share their social media passwords. These ranged from revoking access to national resources and Twitter, to de-chartering the working group, to suspending working group leaders from national bodies or DSA entirely.

While we have been disappointed with how the BDS WG have presented themselves publicly and interacted with the NPC, we voted against all the potential disciplinary actions except for asking them to hand over their Twitter account. We felt it important to stop the spread of misinformation from an official DSA account but also believed that any disciplinary consequences beyond this would require democratic buy-in and communication with our members first.

This is why we suggested that the NPC hold a forum with the BDS WG and discuss DSA’s strategic approach to BDS work, including how we relate to candidates. The Bowman controversy showed that as an organization we need a well developed and consistent position on how to balance these issues. Absent broader understanding among DSA members about the underlying political issues at stake in the conflict between the BDS WG and the NPC, any harsh disciplinary measures taken by the NPC would be seen as extreme overreach. We argued that if the NPC felt the BDS WG was such a threat to the health of the organization it needed to engage the membership and make this case to them. Unilateral action would risk further undermining our legitimacy as a leadership body.

Unfortunately our perspective was in the minority, and most of the disciplinary measures were approved. The BDS WG was then notified that unless they complied with sharing their Twitter login with staff and taking down the recent thread with misinformation, they would have access to all national resources revoked, and the working group would be de-chartered.

What Just Happened?

After that vote a group of NPC members (including Sofia) met with the BDS WG to try and get them to agree to the demands. This was unsuccessful and the working group did not agree to take down the thread.

On March 19, a SC member notified the NPC that we were going ahead with the consequences and asked us to notify the working group. Here was Sofia’s response:

“I think there are real problems with the working group structure of DSA, and the episode with the BDS working group clearly illustrates that. That said, I didn’t feel that imposing these disciplinary measures was the way to solve it. And I still feel that it would be better to draw these politics out in front of membership using a town hall. But the majority didn’t agree and voted instead to do this. I think it’s important we carry out what we vote for as a body, so I’ll support the body to move forward with this.”

Unless someone who voted in favor of consequences changed their mind, the matter of dechartering was unfortunately settled. Therefore we agreed to move on and let membership know as soon as possible. 

Why is DSA an Undisciplined Organization and How Do We Change It?

This issue of the BDS WG, which has taken up an inordinate amount of our time on the NPC, is an instance of a problem all DSA members have faced at all levels of the organization. How do you get DSA members to act together? How do we build a more disciplined organization that can punch above its weight, rather than below it?

But asking how we impose discipline on the organization is putting the cart before the horse. In a voluntary organization it is impossible to impose discipline. As Mike Parker wrote:

“Rules about discipline are actually very weak in any voluntary organizations where people can always quit or split. What makes discipline work is:

Belief that a decision was made fairly and represents the views of the majority.

A high degree of general political agreement.

A sense that collectively the group is advancing in part because of the united struggle.

A sense that the minority point of view can become the majority.”

DSA must improve our performance on these criteria. There have been efforts to do so on this body with our “fireside chats,” publicizing our votes, and moving on our convention proposals for a labor staffer and matching funds. But we are still not there yet. As a result, discipline — even if in response to destructive behavior — is perceived as illegitimate.

As B&R members on the NPC have written before, democracy must be strengthened in DSA. Historically, our national conventions have little bearing on what work the NPC carries out. The work that does get done is invisible to our membership.

The reason we proposed to the NPC that we hold a discussion with the BDS WG open to members was so that we could try and elevate the disagreement to a political level. If the BDS WG had refused our conditions or represented their views poorly, the membership would have had a chance to see that. But if the NPC wants to act as the arbiter of acceptable political boundaries within DSA, it needs to earn that trust from the membership. Punishing the BDS WG, or any grouping in DSA, without broad support based on clear political majorities, will most likely only further polarize the organization. 

A more disciplined DSA is only possible if we first have a more active and political DSA. Whether at the local or national level, no political group can generate a collective sense of purpose without serious political interventions in the world. 

The most important question right now is not whether we agree with the BDS WG or like how its members have conducted themselves. It’s a question of how do we build a more vibrant DSA with a political agenda capable of mobilizing its own members? A more democratic organization would give members a greater investment in DSA and a consequent willingness to act in concert. Conversely, if an organization is capable of making real interventions in the world, it means the democratic decisions made in that organization are all the more important. Internal democracy is both the precondition and consequence of a more disciplined organization. Attempting to impose discipline from the top down without first generating legitimacy from the bottom up won’t get us there.

An earlier version of this article stated that Bowman would no longer support Iron Dome funding. That was mistaken.

Sofia C. and Laura Gabby are members of DSA's National Political Committee, North New Jersey DSA, and DSA's Bread & Roses caucus.