An aristocracy is government by the best people; the word was adopted into English in the 1560s from a French word coined from the Greek for “best” (aristos) and “rule” (kratos). A kakistocracy is the opposite: government by the worst or most unprincipled people. Given that the Greek word for “worst,” kakistos, is probably related to Proto-Indo-European kakka, “to defecate” – compare caca, known to toddlers worldwide – you could say that kakistocracy is “government by the shitty.”
Kakistocracy first appeared in print in 1829; it was likely coined by Thomas Love Peacock, an English poet, satirist, and official of the East India Company. Here’s the passage in which the word first appeared:
They were utterly destitute of the blessings of those “schools for all,” the house of correction, and the treadmill, wherein the autochthonal justice of our agrestic kakistocracy now castigates the heinous sins which were then committed with impunity, of treading on old foot-paths, picking up dead wood, and moving on the face of the earth within sound of the whirr of a partridge.
World Wide Words helpfully provides a translation:
Autochthonal refers to the indigenous people of a country (from Greek words that mean “sprung from the earth”); Agrestic has the sense of “relating to the country” (Latin ager, a field). Peacock meant by agrestic kakistocracy the English landed squirarchy who kept their tenants in line by severe punishments for offences such as poaching.
Since the U.S. presidential election on November 8, kakistocracy has enjoyed a revival.
Daily Kos, November 25.
We are already living in Trump's kakistocracy.— Lisa Bloom (@LisaBloom) December 3, 2016
A word I never before needed to learn or use when applied to my own country's leader. https://t.co/BGtsKZkCiT
Supporting evidence for the Trump-kakistocracy connection:
- The president-elect’s chief White House strategist is Stephen Bannon, whose priors include tenure as executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.”
- The president-elect’s nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, is a vocal opponent of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He opposes all immigration, including legal immigration, and was once denied a federal judgeship because of accusations of racism.
- The president-elect’s selection for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, in part because of his erratic management style. He is known for propounding “Flynn facts” – untruths – and conspiracy theories: for example, saying that Shariah law is spreading in the United States. (It is not.)
- The president-elect’s choice for secretary of the department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, is a retired neurosurgeon and failed Republican candidate for president who has no qualifications for the job other than being a homeowner. He once called HUD’s fair-housing rule “communism.”
- The president-elect’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is the billionaire scion of the Amway multilevel-marketing company. Her family also owns the nation’s largest charter-school lobbying organization, and she has said that school “choice” – that is, non-public education – is a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” (For more on DeVos and her family, which includes her brother Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater private-military organization, see Jane Mayer’s excellent book Dark Money.)
- The president-elect himself has declined intelligence briefings and flouted the rules of international diplomacy by taking (or arranging) calls from foreign heads of state. His privately held businesses pose “unprecedented conflicts of interest.” Last month he paid a $25 million settlement in three separate fraud suits filed against Trump University.
Of course, a few writers have proclaimed the Trump Era to be the end of kakistocracy. Here’s one of them, writing in The Patriot Post (“Voice of Essential Liberty”) on November 26:
Until recently, I had no idea there was a single word that described Obama’s two terms and what we faced if Hillary Clinton had been elected. A kakistocracy is defined as “a government by the least qualified or worst persons.”
I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that the word sounds like a combination of kaka and catastrophe.
I read the comments on that post. They include epithets such as “the shrew,” “the Witch,” and “dictator O[bama].”
For additional vocabulary words suitable for the Age of Trump – including emolument, alt-right, cuckservative, fake news, and snowflake – see this list-in-progress published on Quartz. I’ve written about cuckservative and fake news myself.