Don't Dismiss Horizontalism

 By Jake S.


Tim Denson for Mayor of Athens, GA Logo / Imgur

Occupy was not the pinnacle of horizontalism. Consensus decision making does not have to look like a general assembly of strangers in an occupied park. My experience with Tim Denson’s mayoral campaign convinced me that a fluid yet structured horizontalism is a powerful way to organize.

Athens, Georgia came within a whisker of experiencing a revolution at the ballot box. A small group of leftists put forth a visionary platform which sought to make transportation and childcare free and accessible for all Athenians and to combat racism and patriarchy within our city. The campaign was socialist without the label. Tim acted as our symbol, but he exercised no special authority over the campaign. Every volunteer who worked on the campaign did so in part because they knew it was as much their campaign, their movement as anyone else’s.

We ran our staff meetings on stack. Everyone got a chance to speak, and all issues were hashed out by the group. The structure helped every member feel empowered. This wasn’t Tim’s campaign, it was everyone’s campaign to build a better Athens. We were all united by that vision, and by the specifics of the campaign. That unity and sense of purpose prevented meetings from dragging on into the night. It allowed us to make critical decisions in a timely manner, but only after all the options had been considered and all the possible bad scenarios thought of and guarded against.

Our candidate was a political novice, as was the staff. We were out-fundraised nearly 10 to 1 (our opponent raised over $100,000, breaking the fundraising record within our municipality). Pundits predicted we would be stomped. And why not? This is the conservative south. A basically socialist campaign shouldn’t have stood a chance in Georgia. A fourth of the vote, they said, would be a victory. Yet over 40% of voters expressed confidence in our ideas. We drove turnout in communities which usually don’t vote in local elections, in particular the poor and black and latino neighborhoods. And we received support from groups of people who are functionally disenfranchised; undocumented people, felons (robbed of their voting rights by the new Jim Crow of unevenly enforced drug laws), single mothers unable to leave their children to vote, people who live on the outskirts of town and lack transportation to the polls, etc.

The tactical decision, which led to this success, was our focus on going door to door and talking with anyone who would listen. We actually were encouraged to continue that strategy by our first interaction with the DSA. In the midst of the campaign last February, three of us took time off and made the roadtrip up to New York City to attend the YDS Winter Conference. Our most important takeaway from that conference was a pamphlet called Demand Everything: Lessons of the Transformative Organizing Model, produced by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. The entire document proved useful in guiding our campaign, but the second section, entitled “Reach Out to Listen and Learn,” was particularly relevant to our outreach strategy. We approached every door with the intention of engaging whoever stood behind that door in a mutual conversation about our city, finding out what mattered to them, and listening to their concerns. Our platform was formed in just that way, by reaching out to members of the community and formulating their input into a vision for Athens.

To address the inevitable question, turning each interaction into a conversation did not slow us down at all. We knocked on 14,000 doors, perhaps one third of all the doors in Athens. And we did it with a relatively small cadre of volunteers. We regularly suffered burnout as volunteers who were in over their heads dropped out for a week or two to regain their sanity. Luckily, dealing with a revolving cast of members is one of the strengths of horizontalism. Every member had access to the same resources, the same information, and the same training. Thus, when someone dropped out for a while, another person was capable of stepping up to fill their shoes. People were willing, even eager to take on new responsibilities because they knew that this was really their campaign. The power of feeling a sense of ownership in a campaign cannot be overstated. Demand Everything states “Until a member began referring to the organization in the first-person, we knew that they had not fully integrated into the organization’s work and practices.”  One of the amazing things about this campaign was the speed with which new members began to say “we” when talking about what the organization should do.

Though we lost the election, the margin indicates our success in introducing radical new ideas to the political discourse in Athens. The mobilization of such a large number of residents marks the beginning of a grassroots movement to demand real change. For us, it is clear that our horizontal structure and culture was key to those victories. That is not to say the campaign was perfect. Far from it. But there are lessons in our experience which I feel are worth sharing. A lot of those lessons are echoed by Demand Everything, which proposes a transformative model of organizing which I feel is crucial to ensuring long-term success. It is my hope that Athens for Everyone, the organization which succeeded the campaign, adopts that model, and that the various YDS and DSA chapters and campaigns seriously consider it. To that end, I plan to write several more posts breaking down Demand Everything and relating it to my organizing experiences.

Jake S. is a YDS member from Athens, Georgia.


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