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A kakistocracy (English pronunciation: /kækɪsˈtɑkɹəsi/) is a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens. The word was coined as early as the 17th century. It was also used by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829, but gained significant usage in the 21st century.
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).
The earliest usage of the word dates to the 17th century, in Paul Gosnold's A sermon Preached at the Publique Fast the ninth day of Aug. 1644 at St. Maries:
"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 (ἄριστος) means "excellent" in Greek. In his 1838 Memoir on Slavery, 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.
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?"
Usage 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 usage during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, particularly by opponents and critics of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In February 2016, writer David Cay 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."
In November 2016, the word became commonly used by critics of Trump, a man who had never held any public office, after he was elected President of the United States and began to announce his appointees. Stephen Wolf of  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."
On 29 June 2017, Merriam-Webster reported that searches for the word on its online dictionary had spiked to an all-time high that day, after journalist Joy Reid tweeted, "Look up the definition of "kakistocracy" today, my fellow Americans. Things will make much more sense."
An October 2017 article in The Atlantic, titled "American Kakistocracy", covered numerous examples of the administration's transgressions, including: Cabinet members' use of pricey charter planes instead of low-cost commercial flights, questionable stock transactions, questionable campaign ties with the Russian government, apparent violations of domestic and foreign emoluments clauses, use of private email accounts for government business, hundreds of unfilled executive positions, purging distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, bypassing civil-service rules to remove managers, a $25,000 soundproof both for Interior Secretary Scott Pruitt office.
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- Fiske, Robert Hartwell (2011). The Best Words. Marion Street Press. ISBN 9781933338828. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
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- Ph.D, Rod L. Evans (2011). Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits: Unfamiliar Terms for Familiar Things. Penguin. p. 87. ISBN 9781101515921. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Charalambidis, Michalis (11 October 2012). "Μια άλλη Ελλάδα μπορεί να ανοίξει τη συζήτηση για την Ευρώπη". Tovima (in Greek). Retrieved 8 December 2016.
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- Gosnold, Paul (1644). "A sermon preached at the publique fast the ninth day of Aug. 1644 at St. Maries, Oxford, before the honorable members of the two Houses of Parliament there assembled by Paul Gosnold ... ; and published by authority". University of Oxford Text Archive. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
- "Kakistocracy". Dictionary.com.
- 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.
- McClennen, Sophia A. "Degeneration nation: It takes a village of idiots to raise a kakistocracy like Donald Trump's". Salon. Retrieved 2017-01-15.
- 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. Archived from the original on 20 November 2016. 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.
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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.
- Hasan, Mehdi (20 January 2017). "Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people". The New Statesman. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
- Ornstein, Norm. "There's a Word for the State of American Democracy: Kakistocracy". The Atlantic. Retrieved 6 December 2017.