Onward Slate moves to National Convention at local cost

Published July 6, 2023

Editor's note: Read a response to this article here.

Last month, the Onward Slate swept the Metro DC chapter election for delegates to this year’s DSA national convention. Around 230 chapter members voted Onward members into 38 out of 38 seats, with 2 out of four alternates also selected from the same slate.

The Onward Slate’s vision is the only one to receive mass support under the approval voting system adopted by local—its candidates received in the range of 156 to 119 votes, all above the vote counts of every other candidate. I believe this internal election was actually a failing of our chapter and a weakening of its capabilities. More than ten active members have said they will be stepping back, reducing their commitment to the chapter and opting to pull away from internal organizing because of the conditions and tactics used to achieve this victory.

When I moved to DC, I spent over a year trying to find out how to access the Chapter’s Slack—the chapter's primary organizing workspace—but no one could tell me how. I was eventually able to get on with enough pestering, but I say this to emphasize that there are barriers to participating in internal political debate and discussion.

Realistically, reaching members disconnected from these internal workspaces are the only way the Onward Slate was able to receive so many votes; and indeed, the slate’s strategy involved a mass email campaign to disconnected members. I wanted to imagine the information environment that those disengaged chapter members would have relied on to make their voting decisions. So, I looked for publicly available materials on this internal election and the venues for the chapter to reach agreement on, if not candidates, at least issues it cared for at the national convention.

I was disappointed by the results. I looked on mdcdsa.org—the only mention of the convention election is in the chapter newsletter, which focused on logistics, not slate lines.

Similarly, there were no candidate submissions to the Washington Socialist, and there seems to have been no time dedicated to election discussion at the April or May general body meeting. In April, half an hour was spent discussing bylaw amendments, none on convention issues. In May—the agenda and minutes still haven’t been posted—there was no chance for slates or delegates to present or discuss their stance within the general meeting itself. The only option was a happy hour afterward, an informal environment that is more easily exploited by people with central roles in the chapter.  

Simply put: there was no way to make an informed vote in this election without either knowing someone up-to-date with chapter events or joining the Slack and wading through dozens of self-presented candidate profiles in search of information.  

The two slates that lost overall had clear perspectives and proposals outlined in their public statements. Run by members of the Publications working group, Red Slate proposed to develop national DSA support for publications and socialist culture, provide reporting on the convention as a service to this and other chapters, and create local chapter discussions to build consensus on convention priorities. From the NoVA branch, Roots and Branches offered up their knowledge of community organizing, especially in a state with a hostile government. Roots and Branches offered to use this experience to counteract the electoral, US-focus that DSA suffers from.  

So, what, then, did the chapter elect to do at the national convention by supporting Onward? What does Onward's victory mean? It’s hard to say (and I mean that with no disrespect to most of the slate's members). That’s the problem with a slate of 40 people. 

Looking at their platform, Onward at first maps to the current chapter priorities: labor organizing and tenant organizing. The next section argues for electoral strategy that will put socialists into office. A paragraph about combating the far-right mentions passing laws to fight transphobia. The bulk of the end of the statement, however, emphasizes the need for membership growth and staffing. What idea of change, other than socialism writ broadly, underlies all of these points is never spelled out. And the details of what this means at the convention are also not clear. 

I’m here going to list all of the specific changes the slate proposes (anything vague like “support” doesn’t count): 

- Expand the National Labor Commission (NLC) to provide support for labor campaigns via staff, the Strike Ready campaign, and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee
- Create collaboration between DSA and local teacher unions to fight conservative education laws 

- Build National Electoral Committee support for local socialist candidates, modeled after Metro DC DSA’s Political Engagement  Committee
- Develop socialist training for members who want to run for office and encourage DSA national staff to support those elections
- Expand electoral accountability with the Socialists in Office program 

- Encourage annual local recruitment drives
- Standardize membership onboarding
- Expand the DSA field organizing department
- Invest in staff for local chapters, who are employed by the national
- Support travel for staff and national DSA leaders to local organizing efforts and conferences 

The order of these proposals in the platform document is telling: Onward looks like a labor slate at first glance. But the only concrete labor proposal is about directing national resources, not changes in DSA’s procedure or focus—supposedly what’s called for in the crisis of the current convention. That’s something I would dearly love to see, as someone organizing their workplace in the DC area who has received little support from the chapter. In reality, the most specific proposals encourage support for electoral campaigns and national staff. As Gary Z. and Lauren K. wrote in their two delegates’ guides (1, 2) these are not obvious choices nor are they chapter priorities. 

But Onward won! Who cares? I appreciated commentary provided by comrade Diego in a post-convention Slack thread discussing the events: internal elections for national conventions still have local effects. As he put it, “Our relationships in this chapter, our connections… they are the most important resource we have.” When one member raised their concerns about the election and Onward’s strategy, a member of the slate immediately accused them of being right-wing and anti-union. That was one of the first responses to the sincere concern brought forward by a comrade. 

In comparison, many members on Slack were concerned by the low election turnout and the combative environment created by Onward’s aggressive strategy. Its candidates had advocated for “approval voting” in the April general body meeting (before the full slate was announced) and then circulated campaign materials asking members to only vote for Onward, a strategy neither of the other slates used. 

The Onward slate was built around steering committee members who themselves were elected by running a slate the size of the steering committee slots. This is a pattern. It is one that emphasizes central control of chapter efforts and the elimination of public discussion so paper members can be shuffled around via secret email lists. When there’s no room to articulate political views except in private chats or mass emails, those with the most reputation and weight of authority behind them win. This feeds a dangerous cycle where select leaders develop their own reputations and internal power at the expense of broader participation and political development of the chapter.

They call this strategy. I call it failure.

To end on a sunny note, this is what is to be done as I see it. A political victory does not always correspond with collective consensus. Any claims that Onward won the election and therefore should self-determine its behavior at the convention should be ignored—the slate is answerable to the membership, as any elected body is. Complaints about electioneering and procedure should be seen for what they are when misapplied—the weaponization of accountability to secure a political line and isolate that line’s opponents.  

The chapter needs to conduct public, unstructured discussions to give members a chance to voice what they want from the convention. Basic chapter functions like member onboarding and providing public information on chapter decisions have been neglected by a national and electoral focus. Those operations are necessary for the chapter to build a healthy, democratic community. 

That is how we organize. That is how we win. That is it.

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