Dave Meslin, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy From The Ground Up, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2019, 384 pages
There are many books today about the problems of how politics works, or about how we are straining the limits of representative democracy. Too Dumb for Democracy (David Moscrop) Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone (Astra Taylor), and Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency (Larry Diamond), are but a smattering of 2019 titles alone. But few are as tactical and deep in the solutions they propose (or as hopeful) as Dave Meslin’s new book Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up.
While the book’s title Teardown may prompt you to assume that the author is asking for anarchy and a total rejection of the current systems and institutions of governance, the approach he prescribes actually asks us to take apart each facet of representative democracy, clean it up and then put it back together. And, unlike many books on democracy that tend to focus on the usual suspects – be it elections, or political parties – Meslin takes a much broader view. You’ll read about ballots and civics classes, but you’ll also reflect on the charity law, workplace decision-making and even block parties.
The author describes himself as a “political biologist,” studying our democratic “swamp” over the last 20 years. His tone throughout is refreshingly playful. At heart, he’s a democracy activist; but he’s also held jobs inside political parties and legislatures as a fundraiser, staffer and campaign strategist for many levels of government and he has worked with many different partisans. He knows every problematic and beautiful aspect of Canadian democracy. This book is certainly not an academic project—though it does occasionally cite academic research. It reads more like an enthusiastic guided tour with a seasoned storyteller. In the process, you are asked to look at our democratic institutions, rules and culture with fresh eyes.
Meslin begins the book by exploring the systemic ways that everyday people are kept out of political decision making—whether through signage that is misleading, poor timing for community engagement events or the lack of inclusion of new voices in political parties. He also explores how the complexity of our political system reinforces the ability of those with the know-how, or the money to pay for lobbyists, to obtain greater influence and access. For example, he illustrates how difficult it is for average people to offer input or objections to building developments in their community. Contrasting the engagement notices of a new building with the advertisements offered by corporations, he amusingly offers that cities, building developers and politicians do not actually want the “business” of civic engagement. Given the concerns about describing citizens as “consumers,” many readers may find it surprising how frequently lessons from the private sector are applied to democratic engagement. Meslin suggests adopting the Wal-Mart greeter model at City Hall or borrowing the user-design focus of software companies for government.
He builds up to his real beef over the course of the book: our over-reliance on what he terms “pointy leadership”—a single leader at the top of the pyramid that is present in almost all parts of life, including schools and workplaces. This pointy leadership inhibits collaborative decision-making and, in turn, turns citizens off.
Of course, rather than simply bemoaning the facts, Meslin presents a sweeping array of solutions to the problems he has illuminated by profiling organizations, places and people around North America. Readers may be familiar with participatory budgeting or citizen assemblies, but Meslin also departs the well-worn path by visiting democratic schools to find an education model that inspires young people to engage. He suggests we fund “public lobbyists” to level the playing field of corporate lobbyists. He profiles New York City’s political finance reforms that incentivize new and small donors. He points to bite-sized democratic opportunities, in sub-city level community governments, where people can exercise their democratic muscle.
Meslin is known in the democracy sector as an expert on electoral processes that could replace First Past the Post. In Teardown, Meslin gives an extremely detailed but readable—with hockey references!—explanation for different versions of electoral processes. We could all borrow from his explanation for Mixed Member Proportional Representation the next time we are asked to explain it.
Meslin saves his toughest criticisms for elected leaders and the parties to which they belong. He seems to offer more hope and actionable ideas when it comes to smaller groups, which offer opportunities for people to look each other in the eyes. But, when he turns to the federal or even provincial levels of our system, he finds some of the most intractable problems. How can political parties be big tent, and hear from lots of people, but also maintain control over their narrative? How can parties define themselves, without defining themselves as opposite of another party? Through interviews with elected officials, Meslin explores the challenges of this issue and how it plays out for elected representatives by producing a toxic culture of soundbites where listening to one another is anathema.
His answer to the problems of parties that oppose each other is “a cultural shift from fighting to talking and listening.” The idea of trying to get along, rather than trying to oppose, runs contrary to the way our political systems are set up. His solutions to these fundamental problems require a fundamental shift in approach. While he posits some key steps—including many familiar ones like rotational seating, better training and stronger local constituency associations – this section of the book feels less hopeful.
Part biography, part how-to manual, part ideas-generating machine, Teardown offers possible solutions to the biggest questions that representative democracy is not ready to answer: How do we live together? How do we make decisions together? How can we make sure everyone is empowered? In the face of prolific political cynicism today, Teardown could not have arrived at a better moment.
Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy