The first episode of Nexus PFM’s podcast Politics and Public Finance with host Geoff Dubrow centred in part on what such mass protests can tell us about broader challenges to democratic institutions. Panelists reflected on a number of factors relating to the Ottawa occupation and similar right wing anti-government protests.

Kevin Deveaux highlighted the role of polarization in creating movements like the Ottawa occupation, where ideological groups form into echo chambers on social media platforms. The lack of open discussion leads these groups to have an alternative view of reality, which in turn is able to motivate members to fight against a perceived threat. It is significant that these groups are willing to accept democratic backsliding in society at large, because it reveals the extent to which the development of insular and alternate realities can limit the democratic sense of shared purpose and citizenship.

Charmaine Rodrigues shared that in Australia, the high level of centralization in the traditional media set the stage for social media’s negative effects. Partisanship in traditional media led to polarization through social media as groups became more committed to their own ideological viewpoint with less discussion with the ideas of others. This has an important knock-on effect at the level of political strategy, where politicians’ responses to protests follow from their partisanship. Charmaine suggests that “politicians have lost their concern for the national interest” and instead focus more on speaking to the base and whipping their votes.

If there is a benefit to protest, Carole Chan argued, it is that the divisive and dangerous ideas in society are becoming visible, and by addressing them we can start to build a better and more inclusive democracy. Rather than a project for elites, Carole believes that the challenge and the solution are both firmly in the realm of the public: “democracy is not threatened by a bunch of protesters,” she said, “it is threatened by complacency.” We have to promote democracy by building community through our day-to-day actions.

Listen to the first episode of the Politics and Public Finance podcast HERE and stay tuned for future blog posts and a follow-up episode. Make sure to subscribe so that you can stay up to date on all our episodes!

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