From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject On the Sidelines: DSA’s Abstentionism on Biden vs. Trump
Date December 18, 2020 1:40 AM
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[ The heroes of this election victory are the thousands of
grassroots political activists who busted their butts to defeat Trump
by working for Biden, particularly in the key battleground states. Now
we need to focus on Georgia and two Senate seats.]
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Peter Olney and Rand Wilson
December 16, 2020
Stansbury Forum
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_ The heroes of this election victory are the thousands of grassroots
political activists who busted their butts to defeat Trump by working
for Biden, particularly in the key battleground states. Now we need to
focus on Georgia and two Senate seats. _

Not on the Sidelines: Bernie Sanders, AOC, and IIlinois State Senator
Robert Peters promoted a “Deep Canvass to Defeat Donald Trump” at
a People’s Action forum last October., Stansbury Forum


The results are in: Trump was defeated and Joe Biden will be sworn in
as the 46th president on January 20, 2021. This victory is the product
of a broad, popular united front. _Popular_, because there was an
alliance of cross-class forces that opposed Trump. _United_, in that
these forces agreed on a shared objective – electing Biden and
Harris – to remove him from office. In such a broad front, the
reasons for uniting to throw out Trump were varied. Many were offended
and outraged by his anti-democratic rhetoric and conduct. He repulsed
millions with his overt racist, jingoist and sexist behavior, and his
cultivation and encouragement of white supremacists. 

Activists in the labor movement saw his attacks as weakening our
already feeble bargaining power and ability to fight for our members.
Regulations protecting everything from air quality and wilderness
areas to labor and occupational health standards were gutted.  The
left clearly understood that four more years of Trump and his
deepening authoritarianism would make it nearly impossible to realize
progressive reforms like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and the
much needed labor law reforms proposed in the Protecting the Right to
Organize (PRO) Act. 

The heroes of this election victory are the thousands of grassroots
political activists who busted their butts to defeat Trump_ by
working for Biden_, particularly in the key battleground states.
Thousands of our comrades in the Democratic Socialists of America
(DSA) and other socialists worked side-by-side with leaders and
activists in black and brown organizations, women’s organizations,
and labor unions like UNITE-HERE and SEIU.  Because of our
collective participation in this struggle to elect Biden and Harris we
have forged new or deeper ties with organizations and individuals open
to discussion and struggle over the way forward in the future Biden

Few, if any, of the comrades we campaigned with had illusions about
the reality of who Biden actually is or what he represents. They can
recite chapter and verse his personal flaws and long history of
complicity with the neo-liberal project. Nevertheless, there was a
broad understanding that Trump had to go — and that our efforts
would be key to an electoral victory. 


But where was DSA — the largest socialist organization in the U.S.
— during this Presidential election? While many members individually
were leaders in the work to elect Biden — _as an organization_, we
sat on the sidelines. This was the result of a “Bernie or Bust”
position requiring DSA to abstain from supporting Biden pushed through
by a narrow majority of delegates at DSA’s 2019 convention. 

That puts DSA in the embarrassing position of now advancing a program
and promoting actions for the first 100 days of the Biden
administration, while as an organization it played no formal role in
achieving that opportunity. Are we to understand that it would have
been an equally useful result to be heading into the first 100 days of
a Trump administration? Of course not! As long time trade unionists,
we view this refusal to come off the sidelines as analogous to a
faction within the union deciding that they don’t like the leaders
of a strike or their politics. The faction doesn’t participate in
picketing, or the strike kitchen, or the mass demonstrations. Then,
these “do nothings” who essentially sat out the strike, come to
the union hall insisting on a major role in determining the terms of
the strike settlement.


DSA’s formal abstention from the Biden campaign reflects a larger
ideological issue that plagues the organization: a flawed
understanding of the “special role of socialists.” The constant
refrain from many members is, “We are socialists and we have a
special role!” Yes, socialists do have a _special _role to play in
leading popular movements by being the most active and dedicated
fighters in the struggle. That dedication and commitment — not
pontificating about the problems with the
“misleaders/sheepherders” or the neo-liberal from Delaware — is
what opens up the opportunity to win the “uninitiated” to our
socialist ideas and class analysis. 

If this simple concept needs political window dressing from the
socialist liturgy, here is a quote from Karl Marx from 1875 in a
letter to Wilhelm Bracke
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of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

Bernie Sanders’s entrance onto the national election stage as a
Democratic Socialist in the 2016 Democratic primaries was one of the
principal causes of DSA’s rapid growth. Instead of choosing a third
party route, Sanders wisely jumped into the admittedly murky swamp of
Democratic Party politics. And by doing so, his socialist message and
working class perspective blossomed and flourished in the mainstream
in ways that were hitherto unimaginable.

Again in 2020, Sanders ran as a Democrat in a much more complicated
candidate field. Bernie’s campaign forced the other candidates to
contend with his programmatic initiatives addressing a rigged economy
and our broken democracy. After the Democratic Party consolidated its
support behind Biden and Bernie withdrew, he clearly understood what
was at stake. Facing “the most dangerous president in US history,”
he actively campaigned to get his base to support Biden and Harris.

DSA’s experience in the 2020 election can be a teachable moment.
It’s time to acknowledge that “Bernie or Bust” was a major
tactical and strategic error. Now, with critical reflection, it can
lead to a more mature approach to our electoral politics. That
maturation should begin with a disavowal of the position taken by many
DSA chapters in local races that they can only
support _self-proclaimed_ socialist candidates. This too has again
led to the isolation of socialists from the actual struggle over the
needs and interests of our class. Many candidates stand with us on the
issues. They stand for positions that will benefit the lot of working
people and people of color. Their successful election would result in
policies benefiting the lives of the working class. Again, this
abstention is contradictory to the needs and interests of the people
we purport to fight for. It just isolates us from the potential to
make gains, win reforms and win respect for our analysis and ideas.

Let’s learn from 2020. Now it’s time to fight for two Senate seats
in Georgia to create the most favorable playing field on which to
challenge — and push — the neo-liberal President-elect Joe

PETER OLNEY is on the Steering Committee of DSA’s Labor
Commission and a lifelong union organizer.   In 2020, he
volunteered with Seed the Vote (STV) to work on the Biden campaign in
Maricopa County Arizona. RAND WILSON, also a lifelong union
organizer, has been a member of DSA since 1986. After Sanders declared
for the Democratic nomination in 2015, Wilson registered as a Democrat
for the first time. He was elected a delegate to the 2016 DNC
convention and was a member of the DNC Credentials Committee for the
2020 convention.

_[Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been
a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has
worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For
three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor
and Employment at the University of California. View all posts
by Peter Olney → [[link removed]]_

_Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator
for nearly forty years and is currently an organizer and Chief of
Staff for SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director
of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. Active in electoral politics, he
ran for state auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or
fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families
Party. In 2016 he helped to co-found Labor for Bernie and was elected
as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Wilson is
board chair for the ICA Group and the Local Enterprise Assistance
Fund; and a director of the Center for the Study of Public Policy. He
also serves as a trustee for the Somerville Job Creation and Retention
Trust. View all posts by Rand Wilson →
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_Both the Stansbury Forum and Organizing Upgrade
[[link removed]] felt it important to maximize the
exposure of this piece and are co-publishing._

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