Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up

By Evan Osenton

by Dave Meslin
Penguin canada
2019/$27.00/384 pp.

A warlike parliament. Infantile legislatures. “My way or the highway” leaders. Legislation-by-lobbyist. Ignored grassroots. Unrepresentative governments (Canada has had a female PM for all of 132 days). Toxic elections whose outcomes badly distort how we actually vote. Citizen apathy. This is Canada’s democracy, argues Dave Meslin (compellingly). The activist and community organizer believes, however, that none of this is preordained. He has many ideas—simple and complex, intuitive and surprising—on how to fix our democracy.

In each chapter of Teardown, Meslin briefly describes a problem in our democratic system before exploring solutions in depth, using local and international examples. He begins with how citizens are deterred from participating—at all levels of government—by everything from jargon-filled civic notices to elections held on weekdays. What if, he proposes, instead of meeting during work hours, legislatures met evenings or on weekends, offered observers free childcare, allowed food and drink in the gallery, or sat in different cities instead of just the capital? What if corporate influence were stunted not by banning lobbyists but by providing free lobbyists to citizen groups lacking resources, akin to legal aid?

Citing Denver’s Democratic School, BC’s 2004 Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform and Calgary’s and Edmonton’s City Hall Schools, Meslin shows how community-level politics and civics education can be meaningful, even exciting.

Once political spaces are more inviting and citizens empowered to take part, Meslin wants to reform politics itself. Party members and candidates are now often reduced to their donation-generating prowess. But electoral finance can be different—New York City, he notes, matches donations under $175 with public funding at a 6:1 ratio, which has tripled the rate of small donors, opened political participation to low-income citizens, made candidates less beholden to the rich and freed up their time to learn about real issues.

Meslin’s argument about the stupidity of Canada’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, complete with illustrations, is lucid. (More-proportional electoral systems have long been a lefty cause, but perhaps after winning 2019’s popular vote but getting no real power, Canada’s federal conservatives may be receptive to change.) Among Westminster systems, Canada allows the highest concentrations of power. Meslin proposes a ban on leaders vetoing candidate nominations—or wants caucuses to choose leaders in the first place, returning power to elected members and the public. (A bonus: No more “kamikaze candidate” or “fake ballot” scandals.)

Meslin addresses possible objections by showing that many of his ideas already work at some level of politics in this country or have a track record abroad, and that with many democratic practices we see as normal—including FPTP—Canada is in fact an outlier. The big challenge, he says, will be to overcome the politicians and corporations who enjoy the status quo.

The author devotes a chapter to the demoralizing bloodsport of party politics, in which adversarial opposition is built into our system by design. His concerns are echoed by the 80 MPs interviewed for the Samara Centre book Tragedy in the Commons (cited throughout Teardown). Some of his solutions seem easy enough, such as Iceland’s seating legislators randomly rather than by party, which creates civility and elicits more consensus.

To list so many of Meslin’s fix-it ideas rather than focus on his underpinning argument about our system’s failings risks making him sound scattershot or naïve, but his critique is strong. More importantly, Meslin’s book has a uniquely optimistic energy that helps readers see how a more meaningful experience of democracy is not just desirable but attainable.

—Evan Osenton is the editor of Alberta Views.

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