The Dialogues

Dave Meslin, ASG’s Senior Associate for Democratic Innovation in conversation with ASG President John Armstrong

on
October 6, 2021
Dave Meslin

This interview was undertaken during the 2021 Federal election. It has been edited for ease of reading.

John Armstrong:

We are joined by senior associate Dave Meslin, ASG’s senior associate for democratic innovation. Hi Dave. You joined the ASG in 2019 to set up a new division in democratic innovation. Your experience as a community activist combined with the research you undertook for your book Teardown; Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, and your ongoing activism on democratic innovation offers enormous benefit to organizations interested in improving their civic engagement. So, let's start with why did you get interested in democratic innovation?

Dave Meslin:

I got interested in this topic because democracy is everything. No matter what issue someone might be concerned about being environment, climate change, pollution, social justice, Black Lives Matter, indigenous reconciliation, whatever it is, a lot of it comes down to the legislation and the bylaws that are passed by our members in House of Commons in Ottawa, in our provincial legislatures and in our local municipalities.

Dave Meslin:

We do ourselves a disservice when we don't participate. One way to measure it is through voter turnout, which is really the lowest bar because it takes maybe half an hour once every few years. Even that is pretty miserable, one out of three voters stay home federally and most voters stay home municipally.

Dave Meslin:

I shifted gears about 10, 15 years ago away from all the issues that drove me, which was cycling issues. I was really involved with urbanism and public space usage, and I got really interested in this topic of how can we just make democracy work better and how do we get ordinary people, not the activists, not the lobbyists. Ordinary ... My mom, my sister, my old friends from high school. How do we get them plugged in? It's been so much fun to try and answer that question.

John Armstrong:

It actually moved you into writing a book: Tear Down Democracy, which is a very compelling and comprehensive read. What made you go to the length of researching and writing a book on the subject? Doing a book is a very serious commitment. 

Dave Meslin:

It did and I really poured my heart into it and I did enormous amounts of research. Not as much academic research but actually getting on a bus, getting on a plane and going places and trying to find examples of places where they were trying to do it better, where they were experimenting. Because I think the main thing holding us back when it comes to politics is inertia.

Dave Meslin:

We're just kind of stuck in a rut and there are so many people in the civil service and in elected office and voters who just seem okay with the idea that we should do politics a certain way because our parents did and our grandparents did, and because it was written in a history book 100 years ago.

Dave Meslin:

We almost embrace tradition to an extent that prevents us from even trying new things. What I try to do with my book is two things. One is really an honest and sobering diagnosis of how bad our democratic health is right now. But then number two more importantly, here's ways we can fix it, and not in a kind of patronizing I have all the answers way because I don't, but more like, "Hey, here's 100 things we could look at that we should try, that other people are trying and they seem to be working."

Dave Meslin:

We'd be crazy not to experiment a little. I'm trying to shake things up a bit and I've been doing that as an activist, I've been doing that as an author, and now it's been really exciting to be doing that in a professional context with Armstrong.

John Armstrong:

I think probably most people have taken our democracy for granted. I think you kind of feel it in the apathy, but you also feel that in people being somewhat cynical about it as well, and, for lack of a better expression, in the Trump era of post-truth, we're seeing new threats to democracy as we can't seem to find a common discourse or agree on facts. How do you think the future of democracy is sitting right now for us in Canada?

Dave Meslin:

I would say that a lot of the worst elements that we're seeing right now aren't new threats, but rather the inevitable outcome of a system that really discourages new voices from participating and really amplifies the polarization of what some people call right-wing and left-wing.

Dave Meslin:

In the States, that's very clear because there literally is only two parties. They've really rigged the system down there to make it almost impossible for a third party, let alone a fourth, fifth or sixth to get off the ground. Here in Canada, it seems like we have more than two because you'll see an orange and a green and Maxime signs.

Dave Meslin:

But if you look at the actual stats of how many parties have ever been in power in the history of Canada, federally it's really two. It's been red or blue and provincially most provinces would say the same. In fact, some provinces are closer to one.

Dave Meslin:

I think that has two main impacts. They're really uninspiring, boring and stale. That creates a lot of frustration and apathy, but more importantly, when everything is framed as there's only two options of who can win this. This week it's Trudeau and O'Toole, but I've seen this in replay over and over provincially, federally and municipally, where everything is a good versus evil war, and you're supposed to pick a side and hate the other side.

Dave Meslin:

That polarization pushes us away from what we're capable of being as a species, which is thoughtful humans who can have nuanced views that are moderate and complex and can acknowledge that there's truth on both sides of almost every spectrum.

John Armstrong:

We are in the process of launching a municipal democracy index, you have been analyzing the largest municipalities in Ontario. And analyzing them for their level of democracy across a number of domains. Why don't you talk to me a little bit about that project?

Dave Meslin:

It's weird that no one's ever done it before. When I'm driving my car, I've got the temperature of the oil, I've got the fuel gauge, I've got the RPMs. I have all these indicators telling me how my car is doing because if something's not working well, I need to know so I can fix it.

Dave Meslin:

Now we don't have any gauges like that for democracy, we just have these hunches, people seem disengaged or people seem frustrated. The only real one we have is turnout, but there's so many more we should be looking at.

Dave Meslin:

What I’m doing with Armstrong is create a series of empirical measurable objective pieces of data that we could use to compare cities against each other and against where they should be. So, for voter turnout, for example, it really should be 100 percent. I don't think we're going to hold people up to that standard because no one's close, but it'd be good to see who's the highest so at least we can see what's possible now.

Dave Meslin:

And then see if we can boost them even higher by implementing some of the ideas I researched and are in my book about how to make politics more friendly and inviting and inclusive. The data sets are: 1. voter turnout municipally going back to the last election in 2018. The second one is gender balance on our city councils. That's pretty depressing considering where we should be in 2021.

Dave Meslin:

Obviously we've made a lot of ground in the last 100 years, but really it should be pretty balanced. We still have cities that are all male, the entire council and mayors, I think almost all the big mayors right now except for I guess Mississauga and Burlington, they're almost all exclusively men.

Dave Meslin:

All these numbers are much worse at the municipal level, racial diversity, gender balance, turnout, all these numbers are the lowest when it comes to city elections. That's why I think it's something worth highlighting. Then the fourth category after turnout, BIPOC representation and gender, is it's a set of 10 survey questions that I asked 32 city clerks.

Dave Meslin:

It's a total of 320 questions being sent out to city halls across the province. They're all questions that serve as a bit of a litmus test to show whether the city is making any effort really to engage the public, or whether they see the public as kind of nuisance.

Dave Meslin:

If you want to vote once every four years, that's fine. But after that, just stay away and you don't need to tell someone to stay away for them to stay away. You just have to make a space really uninviting and difficult.

Dave Meslin:

If I don't want you in my house, John, I don't have to put up a sign saying, "No Johns allowed." I just need to actually invite you over and make sure you have a terrible time. I don't feed you, I don't offer you a drink, I have bad music on. I don't even tell you where my house is so you get lost trying to find it and the first time you show up, I'm not even there, et cetera, et cetera.

Dave Meslin:

Then the second level, that gave them two points out of 10 was you're allowed to drink if you want, but we're not serving you anything. One extra point for we're serving water but nothing else. I think I gave them four out of 10 if they had coffee or tea, which I think one city actually hit but no one was actually serving snacks.

Dave Meslin:

How hard would it be? I mean, the thing is I know that they do this for counselors. If counselors in Toronto are having a committee meeting or something, there might be some snacks out for them and that's a really interesting thing to point out the double standard because in many city hall, John, if you walked in as a citizen to watch the meeting, again you've got that sign up, no food, no drinks. Meanwhile, the counselors can do whatever they want. They can set up a sushi buffet right in front of them and eat to their heart's content.

Dave Meslin:

Even though really, I think that building should bend over backwards to accommodate the citizen, not just the council. It's there as a palace of the people. So anyways, there's 10 questions like that. Some are about how cities design their elections.

Dave Meslin:

Do they offer public campaign financing for candidates which makes it easier for anyone to run for office, not just those who can raise a lot of money from wealthy friends or have business connections. Then we're going to take all those numbers, mix them up together, add them up and come up with a list of which of those 32 cities is the healthiest and which one is in the ICU when it comes to democratic health.

John Armstrong:

I think the old management consulting expression, I don't know the quote exactly, which is “if you can't measure it, you can't improve it.” At least that's the way we're characterizing it. By creating measures, by doing comparisons with other municipalities. Municipalities often measure themselves against their peers, it then provides more impetus and rationale for those who think that improving it would be a good idea. It gives them reason to actually work on improving it.

John Armstrong:

I think it's a very worthwhile project, Dave, and we're delighted that you're here with the Armstrong Strategy Group and working on democratic innovation. 

ASG Newsletter
If you enjoy our posts and dialogues, stay up to date with the latest news and insights from the ASG team by signing up to our occasional newsletter.
Thank you! You are now signed up!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form