Kakistocracy

Drain the swamp

kakistocracy [kak-uh-stok-ruh-see] is a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens. The word is derived from two Greek words, ‘kakistos’ (‘worst’) and ‘kratos’ (‘rule’).

The word was coined as early as the seventeenth century. It also was used by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829, but gained significant use in the first decades of the twenty-first century to criticize populist governments emerging in different democracies around the world.

The earliest use of the word dates to the seventeenth century, in Paul Gosnold’s ‘A sermon Preached at the Publique Fast’: ‘Therefore we need not make any scruple of praying against such: against those Sanctimonious Incendiaries, who have fetched fire from heaven to set their Country in combustion, have pretended Religion to raise and maintaine a most wicked rebellion: against those Nero’s, who have ripped up the wombe of the mother that bare them, and wounded the breasts that gave them sucke: against those Cannibal’s who feed upon the flesh and are drunke with the bloud of their own brethren: against those Catiline’s who seeke their private ends in the publicke disturbance, and have set the Kingdome on fire to rost their owne egges: against those tempests of the State, those restlesse spirits who can no longer live, then be stickling and medling; who are stung with a perpetuall itch of changing and innovating, transforming our old Hierarchy into a new Presbytery, and this againe into a newer Independency; and our well-temperd Monarchy into a mad kinde of Kakistocracy. Good Lord!’

English author Thomas Love Peacock later used the term in his 1829 novel ‘The Misfortunes of Elphin,’ in which he explains kakistocracy represents the opposite of aristocracy, as ‘aristos’ means ‘excellent’ in Greek. In his 1838 ‘Memoir on Slavery’ (which he supported), U.S. Senator William Harper compared kakistocracy to anarchy, and said it had seldom occurred: ‘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.’

Use of the word was rare in the early part of the 20th century, but it 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 use during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, particularly by opponents and critics of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In 2017, Merriam-Webster reported that searches for the word on its online dictionary had spiked to an all-time high.

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