Dave Meslin: Fixing a rigged game

Dave Meslin (Mitchel Raphael photo)

Dave Meslin is a community organizer, an activist and the author of the new book Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy From the Ground Up. He spoke with The CJN about what he’s learned from his decades of political experience and his Jewish upbringing, and what lessons he wants people to take away from his book.

What’s your book about?

I think there are two core themes. One is that our democracy is not just broken, but completely shattered, and it’s a disgraceful reflection of our species in relation to what we’re capable of. That’s the downer part. That’s supposed to make you a little angry.

The second theme of the book is that it’s totally within our capabilities to turn that around. Any system will deliver results that are aligned with the design and the intent of the system in the first place, and I think our current system is designed in ways that are inevitably going to bring out the worst traits in each of us, so we end up with a political culture that’s polarized, alienating and hostile. Rather than being evidence-based, it’s more like tribal warfare. And if we can identify the design flaws that perpetuate that, we can totally fix it. And people should feel a sense of urgency to get that fixing process underway.

What do you mean by tribal warfare? Is that related to identity politics?

It can mean a few things. It could reflect on us as voters. So yeah, people are in their echo chambers on social media, getting the same message they already believe mirrored back to them.

But it’s also the way our legislators work. If you spend an hour watching the House of Commons or Queen’s Park, you will see people sitting in these mobs, in tribes, yelling at each other, laughing at each other, standing up and applauding their tribe, but then mocking anyone from another tribe. Surely we’re capable of a higher degree of not just civility, but thoughtfulness. Surely we’re capable of listening to each other, admitting we’re wrong, sometimes learning from those who have a different opinion. It’s a mockery of what we’re capable of.

We all know that any grown adult has the capacity to listen and be thoughtful in the right context. But they also are more than willing and eager to join in to a system of tribal warfare, because both those tendencies come to us naturally, depending on the environment we’re in.

What was your background before writing this book?

I’ve done a lot of political organizing, sometimes with and for parties, but most of it’s been non-partisan or multi-partisan. Now, there are ideas in Judaism around tzedakah, tikun olam – it’s in my blood that you’re supposed to leave the world in a better state than you found it. You should give your time and invest a part of yourself into whatever you want to call it. Some people call it politics, some people call it charity, some call it activism. But the idea is it’s beyond your personal needs of you and your family.

So for me, I identified issues that I felt were important, and I created non-profit groups, started websites or magazines. I’ve spent a few decades experimenting in how to bring people together to find their voice, amplify that voice and then use that voice to make real change happen.

The two things I learned through that journey were: number 1, change is possible. It’s worth the effort. Community organizing is fun and constructive. But number 2, by getting involved with political parties and non-profits and community groups, and exploring the kind of labyrinth of decision-making at all three levels of government, I learned that the system is rigged. It’s rigged against ordinary people. It’s rigged against community voices, and it’s rigged in favour of a small group of elite insiders.

I know that’s the same language that Donald Trump uses, and I think it’s important for normal, thoughtful people to start using that language, because it doesn’t reinforce Trump, it does the opposite. If we’re not prepared to admit that politics has become an insider’s game and to use language that accurately describes that, then we’re leaving that political space open as a vacuum for someone like Donald Trump to walk into. So I think it’s really important to be honest about the diagnosis, because it is an insider’s game.

In many ways, it’s a family game, either passed down through wealth or through political lineage. Whether it’s Doug Ford, whose dad sat as a legislator in the same parliament, or Justin Trudeau, whose dad sat in the exact same seat, we still have a culture that perpetuates an insider’s game, and that is obviously going to be disempowering for the other 25 million people who aren’t part of that group.


What’s one potential solution?

There are more than 100 remedies in the book, and at the end of the book, I encourage you to figure out which remedy works for you. I don’t expect you to like them all. I don’t even expect you to like half, but pick one and move it forward. So I could tell you a few that I think are important, but the book has something for everyone.

So the electoral system we’re using now in Canada, first-past-the-post, is incredibly obscure – to the point that even our own parties don’t use it to choose their leaders or their own candidates. We’re the only major western democracy that’s using it for all three levels of government. It perpetuates a system dominated by two parties, guaranteeing to create these massive fishtails between right and left. So we see this in almost every province, where one government is in for four or eight years, then another government comes in from the opposite end of the spectrum and spends the first year undoing everything the previous government did, which is terrible for everyone. It’s terrible for policymakers, for the economy, for the environment, for social justice issues.

The irony here is that first-past-the-post is sold to us as a system that gives us stability, but it does the opposite. It gives this fake semblance of stability for four years and then this wild, artificial swing that doesn’t reflect the populace. When we go from a Liberal or NDP government to a Conservative government, and they spend their first year undoing everything, that doesn’t mean that the population has completely shifted from left to right at all. In fact, it’s usually a very small shift in the popular vote that delivers us these wild, artificial inflated shifts in the seat counts.

But more importantly, first-past-the-post shuts out new voices. So when new parties emerge, like the Green party, and they get between five and 10 per cent of the vote – which should equal more than 30 seats in Ottawa or 10 seats in Ontario – they tend to get zero seats, or maybe one. So it’s about fairness, it’s about giving voters more choice. It’s also about eliminating strategic voting, so people can actually vote with their hearts, and then having results that we actually asked for. Most Ontarians, for example, didn’t vote for the current government, yet they have a majority government.

In almost any western democracy, if a party takes power against the will of the majority, it’s called a coup. And in Canada, we call it our election, and then we fund the whole thing with our own tax dollars. But essentially, it’s a hostile takeover against the will of the people.

This isn’t a partisan thing for me. I criticize any government elected with the fake math, whether it’s the NDP in Alberta, Liberals federally or Conservatives right now in Ontario. Each time, I call it a fake majority. In some ways, it’s literally the opposite of what people ask for. The majority reject a party, yet that party wins a majority. Why did we bother having an election?


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity