The Copernican Principle

The Copernican Principle

By David Runciman and Catherine Carr

David gives the third in his series of talks about the future of democracy. This one uses an idea from cosmology to work out where we might be in the story of democracy: are we at the beginning, in the middle or near the end? It all depends when and where we think the story starts. From Stonehenge to Les Miserables, from ancient Athens to Facebook, a simple idea turns out to have some surprising applications, and some important lessons for contemporary politics.

Talking Points:

The Copernican Principle is based on the idea that we are not the center of the universe.

Because we are not inherently special, most of the time, we encounter things without a natural life expectancy somewhere in the random middle.If something has been going on for years, it will likely keep going for years. If something has been going on for weeks, it will likely keep going for weeks.

What does this mean for democracy? It depends on which story you think we’re in.

The long story is about 2,500 years old, going back to the principles articulated in ancient Athens. This is the idea that humans are equal in political terms and no one is uniquely capable of rule.The middle story is about 250 years old. This is the story of representative democracy. Democracies exist to protect against misrule and are based on a division of labor between professional politicians and everyone else.The short story is at most 100 years old (and in many places, shorter). This is the story of mass enfranchisement, mass communications, and administrative democracy.

It’s unlikely that all of these stories will end at the same time, but it also seems fairly likely that there are people alive now who will see at least the short story end.

In Eastern Europe, the short story is only 30 years old.The second story is also under pressure. People are getting tired of the safeguards, and the division of labor appears increasingly unsustainable.The old story, however, still stands. These may be the ideals that are better suited to tackle the current challenges.

David on Democracy:

Democracy for Young PeopleHow Democracy Ends

Further Learning:

Martin Rees and the Talking Politics guide to … Existential RiskThe Talking Politics Guide to … Deliberative DemocracyTP talks to David Wallace Wells about The Uninhabitable Earth
Heart UK