The word comes from the Greek words kakistos (κάκιστος; worst) and kratos (κράτος; rule), with a literal meaning of government by the worst people. Its Spanish equivalent is kakistocracia, French kakistocracie, and Russian какистократия.
English author Thomas Love Peacock first used the term in his 1829 novel The Misfortunes of Elphin. 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. 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, that 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."
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. With congressional Republican leaders acquiescing to Trump’s nominees, America is poised to have a government run by the worst sorts imaginable."
- Lewitt, Michael (13 October 2016). "Investing In A Kakistocracy". Forbes. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Fiske, Robert Hartwell (2011). The Best Words. Marion Street Press. ISBN 9781933338828. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Ph.D, Rod L. Evans (2011). Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits: Unfamiliar Terms for Familiar Things. Penguin. p. 87. ISBN 9781101515921. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Dimopoulos, Carlos (10 August 2013). "La kakistocracia: El gobierno de los peores - El Impulso". El Impulso (in Spanish). Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Lavoie, Gilbert (1 November 2011). "» La coalition de Legault restera «caquiste»". Blogues de La Presse (in French). Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- "Какистократия переходного периода". Politikan. 7 May 2010. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Harper, William (1838). Memoir on Slavery: Read Before the Society for the Advancement of Learning, of South Carolina, at its annual meeting at Columbia, 1837. J. S. Burges. p. 49. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
- "Let's dump this kakistocracy for good". Sunday Independent. 30 October 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Ali, Amro (11 November 2016). "Kakistocracy: a word we need to revive". openDemocracy. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Cay Johnston, David (12 February 2016). "Kakistocracy". The National Memo. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Ali, Amro (May 9, 2016). "Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive". amroali.com.
- Leger, Dan (21 August 2016). "LEGER: Trump's America would be a 'kakistocracy, ruled by most corrupt or incompetent". The Chronicle Herald.
- Bouie, Jamelle (18 November 2016). "Government by the Worst Men". Slate. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Del Signore, John (17 November 2016). "Stay Tuned For Trump's Reality Show 'American Kakistocracy'". Gothamist. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Marsden, Harriet (17 November 2016). "Kakistocracy may just be the perfect word to describe the Trump government". The Independent. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Lizza, Ryan (16 November 2016). "Donald Trump's First, Alarming Week as President-Elect". The New Yorker. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Mandvi, Aasif (2016-12-03). "The Trump Tweets I Want to Read". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-12-04.
- 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.