There’s a new illustration (January 2017) from a New Yorker cartoonist that depicts a man standing up on an airplane and saying: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” The crowd of passengers all raise their hands.
This cartoon has received over 35,800 likes and 19,600 retweets on Twitter and sparked coverage and a debate in USA Today, “‘The New Yorker’ mocks Trump voters and triggers a debate on (smug) experts.”
This simple illustration captures the false dilemma that is perpetuated in more complex and subtle ways in global culture, scholarship, media, international development, and other channels. The false dilemma is between supposedly letting the masses rule (and ending up with Trump, Brexit, or worse) or having the most qualified, the experts rule (presumed to be the “rational” option). In viewing this cartoon, you only have two options: either you’re irrational and support Trump (or his equivalents) storming the cockpit and grabbing the controls or you’re rational and support expert rule, experts flying the plane. There is no alternative question to be asked here. This limits the debate to deciding between one or another oligarchy. The only question then is which oligarchy is the least worst?
I modified the image caption and tweeted it back at the author: pic.twitter.com/rZhJ55BZUV.
The answer to the riddle in this cartoon is that either way you answer the question posed, you’ll end up with oligarchy, elite capture, disempowerment of the people. The answer to the riddle is that you lose either way. The real question here is not who should fly our airplane (whether experts or the angry demagogue backed by the mob should rule), but who should decide where we are all headed. Should we all decide democratically (using sortition)? Or should one or another oligarchic set of leaders decide?
To use this cartoonist’s own metaphor, pilots don’t decide to fly the plane wherever they feel like it; they fly to the destination where all the passengers want to go, where they bought tickets for. Doing otherwise is called hijacking.
Notably, it’s a Twitter user who explains what’s wrong with this cartoon. Udayan Majumdar (@yudi15) responds: “@WillMcPhail @NewYorker then again politics have no fixed qualification unlike pilots. So dis satire is stupid…”
People at large generally seem to feel and know that something is wrong with these two choices; there is an intuition that the “only” two choices (this or that oligarchy ruling) are both bad. But the problem in this debate is that other options do not come up. This false dilemma has such a stranglehold that it is impossible even to imagine other options. The immediacy of a perpetual dire threat dictates that one must always choose sides between oligarchies right now.
Udayan Majumdar’s tweet that “politics have no fixed qualification” sounds just like Jacques Rancière (discussing Plato): “the distinguishing feature of politics is the existence of a subject who ‘rules’ by the very fact of having no qualifications to rule.” “What thus characterizes a democracy is pure chance or the complete absence of qualifications for governing.” The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning seems rarely to be drawn in either popular debates or political theory. Daniel Bensaïd is one of the few commentators on Rancière that I have seen who goes all the way. He states: “Hence the drawing of lots is the logical conclusion” of Rancière’s arguments. But Bensaïd seems skeptical of sortition. (Why doesn’t Rancière, a radical democrat, explicitly explore the potential of sortition in depth? When asked at the “Pedagogics of Unlearning” workshop at Trinity College Dublin in 2014, Rancière did say sortition is something that should be tried out.)
Majumdar does not raise sortition in his further tweets. Nowhere in the debate over this cartoon is anything like sortition mentioned (besides my one tweet at the author).
This cartoon makes me wonder about one key question: When there is such widespread dissatisfaction with both the pilots (expert, technocratic rule) and the carefully managed “democratic” processes for mass participation (that also result in oligarchic rule), why is it so difficult for sortition to gain traction? It seems like sortition ought to be an easy and obvious sell in such an environment. Why isn’t it? Why don’t people go all the way to the logical conclusion of democracy? Why do people keep resigning themselves to supporting the least worst oligarchy … and then often pretending it’s democracy?
What are the anxieties of sortition? I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of others, and I’m working on some thoughts of my own to post.
 Jacques Rancière. “Ten Theses on Politics.” Theory & Event, vol. 5 no. 3, 2001.
 Daniel Bensaïd. “Permanent Scandal.” In Giorgio Agamben et al. Democracy in What State? Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 38.
 Bensaïd asserts: “The radical alternative to the majoritarian principle, the drawing of lots, is no more than a ‘least-bad’ option. It is not surprising that the idea should be bruited about once again, if only in mythical form as a symptom of the crisis of our current democratic institutions. … The straightforward substitution of sortition for representation would thus signify not only the abolition of the State, but of politics in the sense of deliberation out of which may arise proposals and projects to be accomplished.” (Ibid., pp. 37–38.)
 As reported by a workshop participant.