Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up

Author: Dave Meslin

Have you ever broken a rule in pursuit of a higher good? Perhaps you have begged forgiveness rather than asked for permission? Community activist Dave Meslin and his neighbours painted a mural directly on the pavement of a street in his neighbourhood ignoring the bylaw that restricted murals to walls. The beautiful road art drew media attention and with support from residents and the artist behind the design, Meslin and his group got approval for their project from city council. Road murals thus became legal in Toronto. Teardown begins with this inspiring story and ends with the same message:

“Don’t wait for permission or a personalized invitation. You have to invite yourself. This is your chance to find your political voice and declare war on cynicism. By tearing down the structures, assumptions and traditions that stand in our way, we can unleash our collective wisdom, love and imagination.”
In February of this year six members of Concerned Citizens of Haliburton County bought copies of Teardown from Master’s Book Store and met once a week for three weeks. We finished the final discussion inspired and encouraged to take action and contribute positively to our community.
Ideas backed up by examples, whether in Meslin’s hometown of Toronto, across the country or the world, are offered throughout the book. Teardown is not a theoretical examination of our current state of affairs. It is a handbook for anyone who thinks and cares about, public life. Meslin is practical, visionary, critical and unwavering in his belief in the power of ordinary people to affect social change.

Meslin is adept at explaining challenging concepts. He describes proportional representation using a local voting scenario with such clarity and simplicity that our group realized that we finally understood this aspect of electoral reform. Meslin provides convincing alternatives to the status quo in the chapter addressing the flaws in our voting system, suggesting that changes are needed to reinvigorate political activity. Meslin stresses, however that due to the vested interests of established parties, electoral reform must happen at the grassroots with ordinary people leading the campaign.
In Teardown, Meslin documents the changes that have resulted in the deterioration of our political system. He is particularly critical of the power invested in a single leader. Party leaders in the past, have been selected by and thus accountable to the elected members of the party. Meslin’s analysis includes comments of elected members of parliament frustrated by the lack of opportunity to speak about their concerns and those of their constituents. This shift to a greater emphasis on leaders, at all levels of government, means that many voices are not heard to the detriment of the democratic process.

Meslin’s activism and analysis is not all about opposition. The beauty of Teardown is that it offers concrete examples of innovative actions and projects such as Student Vote, a youth engagement organization that conducts mock elections across Canada. Our group endorsed Meslin’s proposal to lower the voting age to 16 years, agreeing with his assertion that students should graduate with a deeper understanding of politics thus laying the foundation for greater engagement in adulthood.
A minor criticism of Teardown is that its focus is on urban environments. While it would have been good to have some rural or small town references, the ideas and thrust of the book have relevance for those of us living in rural areas.

If you are feeling despondent about the current state of politics, read this book. If you want to do something but haven’t got a focus, read this book. Read it preferably with some friends or acquaintances because who knows where your discussions will lead? For the Concerned Citizens of Haliburton County we began this year energized by Meslin’s call to collective action with a renewed sense that the power is in the people.

This review was first published in The Lindsay Advocate in the May 2020 issue and submitted to the Echo by Judy Paul.