Kakistocracy (kækɪsˈtɑkɹəsi) is a term meaning a state or country run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens. The word was first coined by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.
The word comes from the Greek words kakistos (κάκιστος; worst) and kratos (κράτος; rule), with a literal meaning of government by the worst people. Despite its Greek roots, the word was first used in English, but has been adapted into other languages. Its Greek equivalent is kakistokratia (κακιστοκρατία), Spanish kakistocracia, French kakistocracie, and Russian kakistokratiya (какистократия).
English author Thomas Love Peacock first coined the term in his 1829 novel The Misfortunes of Elphin, with kakistocracy meaning the opposite of aristocracy (aristos in Greek (ἄριστος) means "excellent"). In his 1838 Memoir on Slavery, U.S. Senator and slavery proponent William Harper compared kakistocracy to anarchy, and said it had seldom occurred due to the "honor" of human nature:
Anarchy is not so much the absence of government as the government of the worst—not aristocracy but kakistocracy—a state of things, which to the honor of our nature, has seldom obtained amongst men, and which perhaps was only fully exemplified during the worst times of the French revolution, when that horrid hell burnt with its most horrid flame. In such a state of things, to be accused is to be condemned—to protect the innocent is to be guilty; and what perhaps is the worst effect, even men of better nature, to whom their own deeds are abhorrent, are goaded by terror to be forward and emulous in deeds of guilt and violence.
American poet James Russell Lowell used the term in 1876, in a letter to Joel Benton, writing, "What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? Is ours a 'government of the people by the people for the people,' or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?"
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Usage of the word was rare in the early part of the 20th century, but regained popularity in 1981 with criticism of the Reagan administration. Since then it has been employed to negatively describe various governments around the world. It was frequently used by conservative commentator Glenn Beck to describe the Obama administration.
The word returned to usage during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In February 2016, writer David Clay Johnston wrote that the United States was in danger of becoming a kakistocracy, "America is moving away from the high ideals of President Kennedy's inaugural address — 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' Instead we see politicians who say they love America, but hate the American government."
In May 2016, academic and blogger Amro Ali argued that kakistocracy was a word that needed to be revived, as the word had long fallen out of circulation and there was a pressing case to rehabilitate it as "stupidity in governance needs to be treated as a political problem, and kakistocracy can best capture this problem." After an analysis of the word, the author concluded that "either kakistocracy gets used and thoroughly examined or a Trump presidency will force us to do so." Salon would later credit Ali's blog post with initiating a wider conversation on the term.
In August 2016, Dan Leger of Canadian newspaper The Chronicle Herald predicted that a Trump victory in the U.S. presidential election would require renewed usage of the term "kakistocracy," writing: "The kind of government he offers are so off the wall that words fail, or at least modern words do. So one from the Greek past has been revived to describe what the Trump presidency would mean, in the unlikely event he should be elected." Leger compared the 2016 election with that of 1968, which featured two unpopular candidates. He wrote that after Richard Nixon won, he "established a kakistocracy of corruption, misuse of power and scandal lasting until he was driven from office in 1974."
In November 2016, the word became commonly used by critics after Trump, a man who had never held any public office, was elected president of the United States, and began to announce his appointees. Stephen Wolf of the progressive website Daily Kos said the Trump presidency appears to be headed toward a kakistocracy: "Trump has only been the president-elect a mere two weeks, but he has already sparked outcry over promising key appointments to white nationalists, unqualified sycophants, and those with troubling ties to Vladimir Putin's Russia." Economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times, "[Trump is] surrounding himself with people who share his contempt for everything that is best in America. What we're looking at, all too obviously, is an American kakistocracy — rule by the worst."
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- Wolf, Stephen (25 November 2016). "Trump's presidency is shaping up to be a kakistocracy: government by the worst possible people". Daily Kos. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
- Krugman, Paul (16 January 2017). "With All Due Disrespect". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 January 2017.