kakistocracy /kakɪˈstɒkrəsi/ – government by the least suitable or competent citizens of a state.
The professionals might decry such a claim, but sometimes armchair psychology is really easy. It’s a game probably most people play with national leaders, especially at a time like ours when so much political power around the planet is being held by people who shouldn’t be allowed to have any. To survey the global landscape of power in 2017 is to behold so many figures occupying a spectrum of egregiousness that ranges from the Machiavellian to the inadequate, from malfeasance to maladroitness, it feels not so much a time to think about creating a better tomorrow, more crossing fingers that there will be a tomorrow at all.
The first time this writer felt seized by a sense that seriously bad actors held serious power was in the immediate period following 9/11. It was immediately clear that there was going to be a violent response. That the perpetrators had to be dealt with is not in dispute, but it was easily foreseeable that vindictive, neoconservative violent retribution was going to kill large numbers of people, who were largely neither directly responsible nor enablers of that singular terrorist atrocity. To be fair, George W Bush wasn’t such a terrible president during his final years in office. He had arguably begun to acquire some multilateralist instincts after he’d done the worst of his damage in the Middle East, and the financial crisis that erupted on his watch was the result of thirty years of bad policy rather than something to be laid at his door alone. One might even say it isn’t only conservatives who miss him. The aftermath of the Bush years has seen far more self-parodying boneheaded figures emerge under the Republican banner.
The crazed atmosphere that has taken hold in that party is not, however, something that in this moment can be described as a kind of American exceptionalism. Nationalist-fuelled hate is present and ascendant in many countries, and it is a pity. As any sane and fair minded person should know, the jingoism and nationalism that many people mistakenly describe as patriotism is instead “the purest and the deadliest form of eejitry known to man”. True patriotism is about civic duty at home and being an ambassador for the place one comes from when abroad. It is usually underpinned by progressive taxation. That is not to be dismissive of the world’s problems. This is a time of legitimate unrest and dissatisfaction with the way the social contract has been broken by corrupt transnational (and domestic) moneyed interests and the politicians who serve those interests. But nationalism, and its inherent implied hostility towards “the other”, is not the panacea. Mankind falters when nationalism and the ‘strongmen’ who prosper from it is rampant.
And in 2017, you don’t have to be a dictator in the normal sense of the word to be a dangerous abuser of power. This is an era when the mechanisms of the democratic process – elections, plebiscites – are being deployed as tools for entrenching power (as in the case of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). Taking the case of other notional democrats, and to take but a small sample of their notable outrages, we have in our midst today leaders who have directed vulgar slurs at other heads of state (Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines), attempted to introduce unconstitutional and racist travel bans (Donald Trump), imprisoned political opponents on questionable charges and been implicated in the assassinations of others (Vladimir Putin), suspended a recall referendum movement that arose in response to terrible stewardship of the country’s affairs (Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela), undermined academic freedom and autonomy (Hungary’s Viktor Orbán), and openly boasted of killing people personally (Duterte again).
You could continue ad nauseum before you even arrive at the depravities of Assad, the dangerous manoeuvring of Kim Jong Un, and the medieval barbarities of the regime in Saudi Arabia. It is obviously not the case that there was ever a Golden Age of benign global leadership, but there was at least a time when most democratic leaders were serious people. They are thin on the ground these days, at a time when democracy is in the weakest health it’s been in for many years. As a political system, are its days numbered?