Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Not-So-Modest Proposals

Prescriptions for an ailing democracy

David Berlin

Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up

Dave Meslin

Penguin Canada

384 pages, softcover, ebook, and audiobook

Any time he is asked how he learned to fight for his beliefs, Dave Meslin answers the same way: “That’s the wrong question.” The long-time organizer and Toronto-based activist explains his go-to answer in his new book, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up. “Children exhibit no signs of apathy,” he writes. “They know what they want, and they ask for it — often loudly.” Meslin believes that “we’re all activists at heart,” and that we all know what we want. If we are not asking for it, it is only because society has robbed us of what he calls the four faiths: faith in our own ideas, faith in each other, faith in our leaders, and faith in the system.

The Mez, as he’s called by many, has a prescription for this loss of faith. Like Jerry Rubin, the social activist who published Do It! in 1970, he believes that the only way to regain our voices and our faith is to engage, make our voices heard, and find ways to make our representatives listen. In other words, he thinks we must take democracy into the streets, run with our favourite cause, and nudge it forward — even if only a bit. What Meslin knows is that activism does its magic only when we exercise it.

When I bumped into him four years ago, Meslin told me he was compiling “a long list of ways to improve our democracy.” Intrigued, I pressed him on the nature of his suggestions, and he happily rattled off ideas like road murals, getting rid of billboards that assault our senses, and persuading government agencies to redesign bulletins and public announcements. Meslin also thinks we should rid our curriculum of the term “civics” and replace it with something more relatable: “Shaping the World,” maybe, or “Your Voice.”

Teardown, which is a primer best suited for the activist at heart, offers more than ninety spirited suggestions like these, which we might group into three distinct categories: the doable, the undoable, and the already under way. The recommendations Meslin shared with me in person fall in the first category. They are decidedly local in scale and scope and might make our neighbourhoods, towns, and cities more inhabitable, friendlier, and more ­conducive to public engagement.

In the class of undoables are suggestions such as eliminating “voodoo tactics” of modern government, including the use of in-camera meetings and the ability to prorogue legislatures or table omnibus bills. Meslin argues such things could change only if a winning party includes them in its platform and only if the public shows incredible support for the changes. Neither scenario seems likely.

Some of Meslin’s other undoables are not entirely thought through. He makes the case for changing the seating arrangements in both federal and provincial parliaments, for example. Instead of parties facing each other on either side of a line of scrimmage, parliamentarians would be seated randomly, in a manner that could encourage more conversation, more collaboration, and perhaps even more friendship among members of rival parties. But Meslin does not consider the possibility that random seating could also lead to willful disruption and contempt.

We can group the remaining ideas into a third category: a variety of experiments already under way. In Teardown, Meslin mentions deliberative budgeting and citizens’ forums, such as those organized by Peter MacLeod’s MASS LBP. Similar organizations exist, including CIVIX and the Samara Centre for Democracy. Then there’s the Resonance Centre for Social Evolution in Peterborough, Ontario, which facilitates discussions between government and citizen associations. There are citizen oversight committees on police boards, on infill housing projects, and on rent control efforts across the country.

What all these organizations and initiatives have in common is that they are already tearing down democracy by pushing beyond clearly defined divisions between government and governed. In 1960s parlance, they share a general commitment to participatory as opposed to representative democracy.

But Meslin does not bother with the past history of such solutions-in-progress; he’s really interested only in the next big thing. And “sortition” is his big idea. “No matter how much we tinker with electoral systems or campaign finance reform,” he writes, “elections will always be an exercise in choosing heroes.” Then he asks whether we really need heroes. “Does government really need three branches? . . . Does Parliament need a prime minister? Does Congress really need a president?”

Sortition is a form of random selection — essentially drawing straws to govern. “With sortition, there would be no insiders and no political heroes,” Meslin writes. “We’d all have an equal chance of sitting in a council seat or in Parliament.” We would finally see our diversity reflected in our government, and parties (and their whips) would disappear. Sortition, he argues, “would actually get us closer to the original design of our political system.”

Yes, a throw of the dice can yield a representative sample. But it can also yield snake eyes: a full complement of racists, monarchists, or misanthropes. Even if we were to place certain limits on the selection pool, Meslin’s claim that sortition gets us closer to the original — the primordial — design of our democracy is problematic. After all, is it not the founding design that led to our current mess? Like Meslin, a majority of America’s founders viewed party and faction as a blight on democracy — the kind of wrench that could throw the machinery of checks and balances entirely off kilter. If one party controls the Congress, the Oval Office, and the judiciary, nothing is checking anything.

Many of those behind Canadian Confederation also thought of parties as terrible things. Consider Joseph-Édouard Cauchon, then mayor of Quebec City, who received extended applause on March 2, 1865, when he encouraged the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada to discover the “courage to rise superior to passions, hatreds, personal enmities, and a miserable spirit of party.” Cauchon’s point was that democracy can work only when all representatives hold in mind both the interests of their constituents and the interests of the country as a whole. Would randomly selected citizens, without any experience, actually be able to hold in mind the interests of the entire country? I don’t think so.

I do believe that the push toward greater participation is a shift in the right direction. To envision its end point is to imagine a system quite different than the current one — where the big guiding decisions are made collectively and not by a small group of politicians behind closed doors. But to get there, we need more than an inventory of possible improvements. We need more experimentation, more coordination between experimenters, more data, greater dissemination of research, and better education, all to make for a better-informed public. In that sense, the great John Dewey was right when he said that the cure for all of democracy’s ailments is more democracy.

David Berlin wrote The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State. He is a former editor of the LRC.