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A political glossary for 2017

Thousands march in the Women's March in Seattle a day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Thousands march in the Women's March in Seattle a day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Ask a typical person what system of government we live under, and she might say "a democracy" or "a representative democracy." But in 2017, we may need a broader set of terms to describe the way our political system really works. This post explains some terms that are perhaps more apt for our times.

The basics

Democracy: Defined in Federalist 10 as "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person." There are vestiges of pure democracy in our system, particularly jury trials and the use of initiatives and referenda in many states. But the founders were wary of democracy, which makes it all too easy to ignore civil liberties and suppress minority groups:

a pure democracy ... can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.

Representative democracy: "The delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest" (Federalist 10). Structurally, this is the system we have. But it bears noting that the system may not be as responsive as the founders expected. The congressional approval rating has been at or below 20 percent since 2010. The incumbent reelection rate got as low as 85 percent in 2010 but has been 95 percent (2014) and 97 percent (2016) in the past two cycles. And the winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election will be watching the inauguration on TV, so at present the emphasis is on the "representative" and not "democracy."

The generally weak link between public opinion and government action suggests we may need a wider set of terms to describe this polity.

Rule by the few

Aristocracy: Article I, Sec. 9 clearly states, "No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States." And yet American politics is replete with family dynasties: The Adamses, Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys, and Bushes have served in the White House, while three-plus members of the Longs, Frelinghuysens, and Rockefellers (among others) have served as members of Congress or governors. These dynasties are due in part to a shared commitment to public service, but also to the influence of brand names and persistent class advantages.

The most recent iteration of this pattern is the instant speculation about whether Donald Trump's children would run for office themselves.

Plutocracy: Government by the wealthy. The US electoral system accords each voter equal weight (within a geographical area), but our system of private lobbying, interest group participation, and financing campaigns with private donations gives wealthy citizens great influence over our political system.

How would you know if you were living in a plutocracy? Well, you would find it a lot easier to get a meeting with a politician if she or he thought you were a donor. Or you might look at who actually gets elected to office and find that most members of Congress are millionaires, while the new president is a self-proclaimed billionaire (albeit one who is reticent to share his tax returns) with a Cabinet whose combined net worth exceeds that of one-third of the US population and many countries.

Governing principles

Finally, we can categorize regimes by the way their leaders govern — the goals they pursue and the tactics they use.

Kleptocracy: Government by theft. If leaders position themselves to personally profit from public office and to share the public largesse with friends and allies, then theft is a central principle of politics.

In a kleptocracy, you might see legislators buy stock in a company, then take actions that directly benefit that company, then get nominated to a more powerful position so they can have even greater influence. For example, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA):

Kakistocracy: Government by the least qualified. This term has enjoyed a surge of usage in the wake of Trump's campaign and victory. Trump, for example, spoke to his rallies at less than a sixth-grade level. And some of his Cabinet picks, like education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, have not impressed senators with their grasp of policy issues.

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