About the Author

Dave Meslin

Dave Meslin is a Toronto-based artist and organizer who has instigated a variety of urban projects including Reclaim the Streets, Toronto Public Space Committee, Spacing magazine, City Idol, Human River, Toronto Cyclists Union, Dandyhorse magazine and Better Ballots. Christina Palassio is the managing editor of Coach House Books. Alana Wilcox is the editorial director of Coach House Books.

Books by this Author


Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up
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I’m often asked how I learned to fight for what I believe in, and I always answer the same way: “that’s the wrong question.” Children exhibit no signs of apathy. They know what they want, and they ask for it—often loudly. We’re all activists at heart. So the question should be: what is it about our society that puts out the fire in so many people’s hearts? Political apathy is something we learn. It’s not a state of un-caring; it’s a state of hopelessness and an erosion of faith. “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy,” recited Richard in the 1990 film Slacker. Exactly. But the result is the same if the disgust isn’t somehow resolved. If we feel that we don’t have any power, we simply stop trying to exercise it. This so-called apathy goes far beyond traditional politics, appearing also in our work­places, our schools and our neighbourhoods. How many people are actively involved with a local residents’ group, condo board, tenant group or parents’ association? How many are actively trying to push for change in the places they work each day? The vast majority of people have simply become disengaged from the decision-making processes that shape the world around them.
The next time you notice something that you wish were different in the world, pay attention to your reaction. You may have walked past a homeless person and thought, “What can I do?” And you’ve likely seen headlines about climate change that make you worry about the future. When we come face to face with things that make us uncomfortable, we can try to work towards change or we can feel paralyzed by hopelessness. Taking action requires faith in our own ideas, faith in each other, faith in our leaders and faith in the system. Most people are lacking one or more of these faiths. I think many are lacking all four. This is what makes our culture so deeply biased against participation.
In the absence of these faiths, we either turn to apathy or offer our unconditional support to heroic leaders who promise to “drain the swamp.” In Toronto, I remember left-leaning mayor David Miller hoisting a straw broom above his head, promising to sweep away corruption. A few years later, conservative mayor Rob Ford promised to “stop the gravy train.” Again, both left and right, with a similar core message: the whole system is screwing you over, and I can fix it. And years before Trump began spouting his infamous swamp slogan, the exact same phrase was being uttered by Nancy Pelosi, a left-leaning senior Democrat. Before her, it was Ronald Reagan. We’re just going in circles. None of these people can drain the swamp, because the swamp is a culture, and we’re all part of it. It’s bigger than any single leader, party or platform.
That said, our obsession with swamp-draining has inadver­tently provided us with a useful analogy because politics is indeed a swamp—not in its foulness, but in its potential. Swamps—also known as wetlands—are vibrant ecosystems that filter water and provide a home to countless plants, fish and wildlife. Politics is also an ecosystem: complex, interconnected, fragile and—dare I suggest?—capable of beauty.
I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life exploring our demo­cratic swamp. Like a political biologist, I’ve journeyed through the strange and mysterious worlds of protest movements, party politics and non-profit organizations. I’ve danced between conventional democratic institutions and grassroots activism, wearing a suit and tie one day and shouting through a megaphone the next. I’ve worked as an executive assistant at both city hall and the provincial legis­lature, painted do-it-yourself bike lanes on the street, organized hundreds of volunteers, started a handful of non-profits, helped draft new legislation, survived tear-gas riots in three countries, buried my car and got thrown in jail. Not in that order.
I started out protesting in the streets and then slowly learned how to navigate through the maze-like corridors of power, to effect change from inside the machine. I’ve learned that politics is an elab­orate chess game, with dozens of forces at play: backroom strate­gists, lobbyists, local columnists, news producers, hidden partisan affiliations, old grudges and older loyalties. By watching the game closely, and playing both alongside and against talented practi­tioners, I slowly began to understand these forces and learned how to take advantage of them to move a good idea forward. But each time I think I’ve got a grasp on how complex the system is, I realize it’s a larger labyrinth than I’d imagined. Having worked as a community organizer, campaign strategist, journalist, lobbyist, fundraiser and partisan staffer, I’ve seen the political ecosystem from a dozen angles. These are the two main things I’ve learned: first, change is possible, and regular people can have an impact; second, change is much harder than it should be because the system is indeed rigged against ordinary people. Voices are marginalized and common sense is drowned out by a political culture that feeds our worst instincts and pushes people away. So I’m left feeling both hope and rage. And I’m ready for a teardown.

Teardowns come in three flavours: demolition, disassembly and dissection.
In real estate, a teardown is a house purchased only to be ripped apart by hydraulic jaws. But for an auto mechanic, an engine tear­down requires the patient and careful removal of each gasket, hose, pulley and bracket, followed by a thorough cleaning, replacement of old parts and finally an engine rebuild. And in the world of con­sumer electronics, a teardown is a surgical dismantling of compo­nents, simply to discover what’s inside. The intent of each teardown is unique: to destroy, to repair or to learn.
Inside this book, you’ll encounter a few proposals that require a political wrecking ball. But for the most part, this teardown is a meticulous surgical operation. In an article called “If You Love Your Gadgets, Tear Them Apart,” Wired magazine explored tech tear­down culture and asked, “Why are geeks so fascinated by looking at the chips, wires, ribbons and glue—the hideous part of a gadget—when the gorgeous part is on the outside?” The answer? “It’s quite simple: By peering into these gadget’s ‘souls,’ you learn their secrets.” If we’re to overcome the massive failure of modern democ­racy, we need to look into the soul of the swamp. What are the ele­ments of our democratic ecosystem, and how do they relate to each other? Which parts are salvageable and which are rotten to the core?
This book begins by exploring the basics: our broken voting system, the role of lobbyists, the influence of big money, the hollow­ness of our political parties and all the ways that our democratic spaces are designed to be alienating and hostile. But we’re going to dig deeper than that, because democracy is about so much more than ballots and legislatures. We’ll crack open our schools, revealing not only a broken civics curriculum but also a top-down environment that rewards both obedience and conformity, forc­ing kids to slowly unlearn their own leadership skills. We’ll explore the harm caused by the polarization of ideas and the adversarial battlegrounds that preclude constructive dialogue. We’ll deconstruct the non-profit sector and the ways that politi­cal advocacy is financially suffocated, and we’ll uncover how we’ve drowned out community voices in our public spaces by commodifying the visual landscape. Most importantly, we’ll look at all the ways we’re taught to lie low, to be politically cautious, quiet and disengaged, and we’ll examine why, centuries after absolute monarchy was overthrown, we still cling desperately to the fantasy of a single saviour— a great hero who will lead us and fix our problems.

I’ve been criticized for using words like “rigged” or “corrupt” to describe our political situation. “You’re just feeding the dema­gogues!” I’m told. But the opposite is true: if we’re afraid to state the obvious, then others will fill the vacuum and use the opportunity to push their own divisive (and sometimes hateful) agenda. We need a proper diagnosis—as grim as it may be—so we can apply the proper remedies. Admitting that our political culture is in crisis is not a dec­laration of defeat—it’s an invitation. Those who pretend our democ­racy isn’t broken are themselves part of the problem, because when social, cultural and political barriers conspire against our natural desires to improve the world around us, it’s entirely inappropriate— and dangerous—to simply cheerlead or offer pep talks. It’s like trying to motivate a room full of people to go for a jog—without telling them that their feet are chained together, torrential winds will blow against them, and someone has poured thick tar in their path. When we describe as “apathetic” those who aren’t engaged politically, we’re actually blaming the victim.
Have you ever had an idea for how to improve your neighbour­hood? Your workplace? Your school? If you had unlimited power, what would you change about the world? Now ask yourself, “What have I done so far in my life to make those changes happen?” If the answer is “Not much,” I want to help you understand why. Because I think you have a lot to contribute. We all do.
What you’re holding in your hands is not an aggregation of complaints—it’s a collection of solutions aimed at bringing our democratic ecosystem to life, not only in our legislatures but also in our daily lives, so that we can find our collective voice and make change happen—together.
This is a call for revolution. But not a revolution that takes place in the streets or in stadiums. I’m calling for a revolution against our own cynicism and against a spiritually carcinogenic system that has crushed our voice. Every day, decisions are made that affect our lives—our neighbourhoods, transit, hospitals, schools, parks, water and air. We can choose to be a part of the decision-making process or we can watch passively, withholding our collective knowl­edge and creativity.
Our greatest mistake was assuming that democracy is just about ballots. If you gave people hockey sticks but no rink and no puck, would you be surprised if they eventually put down their sticks and walked away? We need to look at the whole political ecosystem in its entirety.
The growing tides of cynicism and the rise of political leaders who are both vacuous and angry are not reasons to abandon democracy. Quite the opposite: they are the inevitable results of an abandoned democracy. In a time of looming environmental tragedy and increas­ing economic inequity, is it possible for us to tap into our collective creativity to build a more sustainable, healthy and inclusive soci­ety? I believe we can. Our toxic legislatures do not represent what we’re capable of. They’re a mockery of our true potential.
This is no time for tinkering. This is a teardown. Because the most important voice missing from our democracy, is yours.

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The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto
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