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11. The Minority Decides:

Donald’s Paradox:


The Question:

The bedrock of a democratic society is that the majority decides. Is that always so? Are there democracies where a minority can decide something as fundamental as, say who will become president?


The Paradox:

On November 8th, 2016, to nearly everyone’s surprise, Donald Trump won the US presidential elections. Of the 128,838,342 votes cast for one of the two candidates, he obtained 62,984,828. Oh, but wait a minute, that’s only 48.9% of this total. His competitor, Hillary Clinton, obtained 51.1%. With the 65,853,514 votes cast for her, the winner’s score was over 2.8 million voters short of the loser’s. So what’s going on?

Actually, this was not the first time something like that happened in the United States. In fact, before the 2016 elections, such a counter-intuitive event had already occurred four times: in 1824, Andrew Jackson received 152,901 votes but John Quincy Adams carried the day with only 114,023 votes. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won the elections with 4,034,311 votes, while Samuel J. Tilden lost with 4,288,546. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison was elected president with 5,443,892 votes against 5,534,488 for his rival Grover Cleveland. And in 2000, Al Gore lost to George Bush with 50,999,897 votes against 50,456,002. (See also the chapter on the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives.)



Due to a quirk in the American electoral system, Donald Trump became president in 2017, even though a majority of American citizens voted against him. But there was no cheating, everything went by the rules and by the book. As I will discuss below, this is how the American electoral system is meant to work. (The fact that Donald Trump was elected president at all, by whatever electoral method, is a paradox in itsetlf, for which I have no ready dénouement.)

Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s debunked allegation that three million illegal immigrants voted for Clinton, and none for him, it was definitely a minority of American voters who wanted to see the New York real estate developer become president. The reason for that paradox is that it is not the citizens themselves who elect the president but the so-called Electoral College. And in that gremium Trump received 304 votes to Clinton’s 227.



The reason underlying the American electoral system’s quirk was the Founding Fathers’ distrust of the people’s ability to make the right choice. They believed that regular citizens were incapable of analyzing the qualities and skills required of the nation’s leader. They were afraid that a demagogue could manipulate the opinions of the naïve citizens and – quite democratically – assume dictatorial power.

In the Federalist Papers Nr. 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote “…that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

Hamilton’s contempt for the abilities of his fellow Americans harkens back to Plato who proclaimed already two and a half millennia ago, that the task of governing is best left to men who are most suited for the job, ideally to philosophers. However, what irony: the event that the Founding Fathers were afraid of may have occurred precisely because they designed a system to prevent it.

Another, less offensive and more sensible justification for the existence of the Electoral College is to grant more power to states whose voices would hardly be heard due to their sparse populations. By awarding a minimum of three electors to every state, no matter how small its population, even Wyoming and Vermont have a say against powerhouses like Texas and California.

The mechanism the Founding Fathers came up with was that the citizens would elect electors who would then meet and decide who would become president. (While they did not trust the citizenship to elect the president, they apparently did trust them to elect electors.) Each state gets at least three electors, and several more, according to its population. The expectation was that the Electoral College, consisting of knowledgeable people, would act as a check on an electorate that might be manipulated. Furthermore, since electors are chosen only once every four years, and the Electoral College is disbanded after the election, the body could not be manipulated over time by foreign governments or others.

Donald’s Pardox can be considered a paradox only insofar as one believes majority rule to be the sole rational and democratic method to choose a president. By allowing the citizens to choose the electors, the Founding Fathers were convinced, however, and not quite without reason, that their method also fulfilled the basic requirements of a democratic method.


Technical supplement:

It is not fair to say that Donald Trump would have lost the election if the popular vote had been the deciding factor instead of the tally in the Electoral College. Once the rules of the game are changed, anything can happen. Let’s express “the Electoral College decides” as A, and “Donald Trump becomes president” as B. Then, in the terms of symbolic logic, this can be expresses as

From A => B it does not follow ~A => ~B.

In words again: From “if the Electoral College decides then Trump wins” it does not follow that “if it is NOT the Electoral College that decides then Trump does NOT win”. After all, if the popular vote had been the deciding factor, Trump would probably have campaigned more intensely in New York and California in order to garner at least some of the people’s votes in these democratic leaning states. With the current rules, according to which the winner in a particular state receives all of this state’s electors, candidates need only campaign in battleground states.

Recall in this context that George Bush won in the Electoral College against Al Gore by acquiring the crucial 537 votes in the battleground state of Florida, even though he lost the nation’s popular vote.

Comments, corrections observations:    

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