Love Them or Hate Them, You Need to Learn Robert’s Rules

Disclaimer: I try to avoid talking about internal DSA matters on this blog. Usually I save these articles for DSA specific publications. However, this topic comes up so much in my life that it would be bad for my mental health if I didn’t speak up on this.

Article upon article has been written about them and DSA members debate about them constantly.

Practically every single DSA member has an opinion about them.

Some love them, some hate them.

Some will say they are the only way to run a truly democratic meeting. Some say it has too much jargon, others see no problem with the jargon at all.

Everyone in DSA, has an opinion about Robert’s Rules.

But whether you love them or hate them, the DSA has an obligation to make our members the most effective organizers we possibly can, therefore the DSA is obliged to teach Robert’s Rules to all of its members through workshops, classes, and yes, by using them in general meetings.

No matter how you feel about Robert’s Rules there is one simple factor that is continually overlooked; knowledge of Robert’s Rules makes one a better organizer.

This does not mean that to be a good organizer one must use Robert’s Rules in every single meeting they run, that is a false equivalency. It means that teaching our members Robert’s Rules prepares them to organize outside the realms of DSA and therefore increase the odds that our members can go outside of our organization to bring more people into our campaigns.

We at DSA want to increase our membership AND we want our members to go into their own communities to organize for the cause of socialism. We want them to become active in their unions, their churches, and other organizations which are ripe for radical organizing.

We also want our members to run for office, do we not?

Well, if you don’t want to teach our members Robert’s Rules but still want them to go into these communities to build socialism, here are some realities you must face:

Most unions use Robert’s Rules in their assemblies.

Most churches, when at convention, use Robert’s Rules.

Most social organizations, such as Toastmasters and even homebrewer associations, use Robert’s Rules.

And literally, every single level of public office, from city council to congress, uses Robert’s Rules.

I understand the need to make Robert’s Rules more accessible to DSA members, I even understand the disdain some have for them because of its bulky emphasis on dated jargon. If we are going to use them in DSA meeting spaces then we do owe it to our members to prepare them for that fact. We owe it to our members to make our meetings accessible, any emphasis on Robert’s Rules should be on the procedural structure they offer, not on the jargon which can be dense and off-putting.

It is also fair to expect most people you are meeting with do not know Robert’s Rules very well since our education system does not bother to teach basic civics. However it is unfair to our members to enable their ignorance on a topic that is so inherent to modern civics. Letting them sit with this ignorance of what is the most universally used parliamentary procedure will only hold them back from being more participatory in the community institutions where they could potentially radicalize.

A common argument against Robert’s Rules is that they are too easily exploited to use for sabotage. Some will refer to the DSA convention and how Robert’s Rules was being extorted to slow procedure so that certain factions could push their agendas. People who make this argument also tend to push for the idea that we should create an alternative to Robert’s Rules.

However, who is to say that the people who develop this alternative system wouldn’t then use the new rules to their advantage? Isn’t it more undemocratic to use a system only a few comprehensively understand than one that is universally applied and accessible? That is the argument of the anti Robert’s Rules side yet I find it much less accessible to use a new system created by a handful of people and will only be applicable to certain meeting spaces than a system that is used so universally. Further, I can think of no greater undemocratic advantage than being the one who both writes and understands the rules.

Rewriting the rules does not change the fact that anyone who understands the rules can then use them unethically. That is the problem with rules in general, the people who know them the best will always have the advantage. Creating an alternative to Robert’s Rules will not change that fact. If anything it will make the lack of accessibility to DSA procedure even worse because knowledge of the rules will no longer be universally accessible, it will be in the hands of the few who create the new system.

I concede that I do think finding an alternative to Robert’s Rules is possible, however it is a grandiose task that I think in the long run distracts us and perpetuates the issues of excessive procedure. In other other words, this attempt to create a more accessible system actually just makes matters more complicated. The task of creating an alternative that is as comprehensive as Robert’s Rules is daunting. What is easier, teaching people some already existing jargon or developing a whole new system and teaching and implementing that system? I argue the former is easier. Also, even if a new system is created there is no way to prevent its use for exploitation. Knowing the rules always puts one in a position of advantage, even if you change them and make them less dependent on jargon.

However, as stated at the beginning of the article, learning Robert’s Rules isn’t just for the benefit of running DSA meetings. We hold our members back from going outside of DSA to organize if we don’t teach them Robert’s Rules.

When we use Robert’s Rules in DSA meetings it is not just to maintain order it is to teach and prepare our members for attending and participating in meetings outside of DSA. If we want our members to radicalize their unions and churches, or to be in a position where they can run for public office with confidence, then we must teach them Robert’s Rules.

People should also understand that learning Robert’s Rules and supporting their use are totally separate things. Understanding something and supporting it are not the same. You do not have to love Robert’s Rules, but that will not change the fact that you are at a serious disadvantage if you do not know them, and this disadvantage WILL be used by the capitalists against you.

We must teach our members Robert’s Rules, and we cannot just teach them through classes and workshops. I am a former teacher and I sincerely believe that the best way to learn is through practice, so we should use Robert’s Rules to give our members that practice.

Robert’s Rules is not just about keeping order, their use in DSA spaces will make members better organizers because it will prepare our members with information they can use to their advantage.

You can hate Robert’s Rules for whatever reason, but if you are against teaching it to DSA members then the fact is you are against seeing fellow DSA members organize outside of the realms of DSA. We can’t send our members into the realms of organizing without every possible tool at their disposal, and whether you love them or hate them, it cannot be denied that Robert’s Rules is a very common tool.

It also cannot be denied that one who knows Robert’s Rules has an advantage when in meeting spaces that use them. The DSA should be intent on giving our members every advantage possible.

The importance of learning and teaching Robert’s Rules can be summed up in a quote from the late South African president and skilled parliamentarian Nelson Mandela, “One cannot play chess when one only knows how to play checkers.”

Comrades, we owe it to each other, to our community, and to ourselves to learn how to play chess.

We have a world to win, and a chess game to play for it, it is time to learn the rules of that game so we can win.