Open main menu

A kakistocracy [kækɪ'stɑkrəsi] is a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens.[1][2] The word was coined as early as the seventeenth century.[3]


It also was used by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829, but gained significant use in the first decades of the twentieth century to criticize populist governments emerging in different democracies around the world.


The word is derived from two Greek words, kakistos (κάκιστος; worst) and kratos (κράτος; rule), with a literal meaning of government by the worst people.[4]


The earliest use of the word dates to the seventeenth century, in Paul Gosnold's A sermon Preached at the Publique Fast the ninth day of Aug. 1644 at St. Maries:[3]

"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!"[5]

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.[6] In his 1838 Memoir on Slavery (which he supported), U.S. Senator William Harper compared kakistocracy to anarchy, and said it had seldom occurred:[7]

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 1877, 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?"[2]


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.[8]

The word returned to use during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, particularly by opponents and critics of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.[9] In May 2016, academic and blogger Amro Ali argued that kakistocracy was a word that needed to be revived.[10] Salon would later credit Ali's blog post with initiating a wider conversation on the term.[11] In August 2016, Dan Leger of the Halifax newspaper The Chronicle Herald suggested that a Trump victory in the U.S. presidential election would require renewed use of the term "kakistocracy."[12] Since Trump's victory in the presidential election, the word has been used to describe the Trump administration by critics of that administration on multiple occasions.[13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23] 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.[3] The Washington Post reported on the use of the word going viral to describe the Trump administration on 13 April 2018.[24]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Lewitt, Michael (13 October 2016). "Investing In A Kakistocracy". Forbes. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  2. ^ a b Fiske, Robert Hartwell (2011). The Best Words. Marion Street Press. ISBN 9781933338828. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "Trending: When Government Is Just The Worst". Merriam Webster. 29 June 2017. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  4. ^ Evans, Rod L (2011). Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits: Unfamiliar Terms for Familiar Things. Penguin. p. 87. ISBN 9781101515921. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "Kakistocracy".
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Let's dump this kakistocracy for good". Sunday Independent. 30 October 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  9. ^ Cay Johnston, David (12 February 2016). "Kakistocracy". The National Memo. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  10. ^ Ali, Amro (May 9, 2016). "Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive".
  11. ^ McClennen, Sophia A. (2016-12-17). "Degeneration nation: It takes a village of idiots to raise a kakistocracy like Donald Trump's". Salon. Retrieved 2017-01-15.
  12. ^ Leger, Dan (21 August 2016). "LEGER: Trump's America would be a 'kakistocracy, ruled by most corrupt or incompetent". The Chronicle Herald.
  13. ^ Bouie, Jamelle (18 November 2016). "Government by the Worst Men". Slate. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Marsden, Harriet (17 November 2016). "Kakistocracy may just be the perfect word to describe the Trump government". The Independent. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  16. ^ Lizza, Ryan (16 November 2016). "Donald Trump's First, Alarming Week as President-Elect". The New Yorker. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  17. ^ Mandvi, Aasif (2016-12-03). "The Trump Tweets I Want to Read". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-12-04.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Krugman, Paul (16 January 2017). "With All Due Disrespect". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 January 2017.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ Ornstein, Norm (2017-10-09). "There's a Word for the State of American Democracy: Kakistocracy". The Atlantic. Retrieved 6 December 2017.
  22. ^ John Brennan [@johnbrennan] (13 April 2018). "Your kakistocracy is collapsing after its lamentable journey. As the greatest Nation history has known, we have the opportunity to emerge from this nightmare stronger & more committed to ensuring a better life for all Americans, including those you have so tragically deceived" (Tweet). Retrieved 13 April 2018 – via Twitter.
  23. ^ Green, Lloyd (24 March 2019). "Kushner, Inc review: Jared, Ivanka Trump and the rise of the American kakistocracy". The Guardian.
  24. ^ Selk, Avi (13 April 2018). "Kakistocracy, a 374-year-old word that means 'government by the worst,' just broke the dictionary". The Washington Post. Retrieved 21 November 2018.