Mistaken for populism: Magufuli, ambiguity and elitist plebeianism in Tanzania

Daniel Paget* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


‘The elite’ in ideational and discursive conceptions of populism has gone ill-defined. This makes conceptions of populism elastic. This article asserts that a discourse should only qualify as populist if it constructs an elite that acts in its collective interests and possesses a majority of power across fields. These criteria narrow the definition of populism and reveals another type of discourse, christened here ‘elitist plebeianism’. While populists bifurcate society between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, elitist plebeians trifurcate society between ‘the common people’, ‘the elite’ and a middle stratum. While populists vilify the elite, elitist plebeians heroize it and vilify the middle. In office, populists struggle to reconcile their power and their opposition to the powerful; elitist plebeians do not. This similarity in terms and structure facilitates the movement between populist and elitist plebeian discourses. That makes elitist plebeianism a ready-made script for so-called ‘populists in power.’ Tanzania provides proof of concept. Tanzania’s opposition constructed Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) as a corrupt establishment. Magufuli and his party appropriated this discourse but relocated corruption from the elite to the bureaucracy and business, which they portrayed as less powerful than themselves; their discourse is not populist, but elitist plebeian.

Victory contains its own defeat for the populist. Populists, whether defined by the ideologies they espouse or the discourses they express, present themselves as champions of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’. The ascent to public office exacerbates the populist’s struggle to maintain their distance from that elite. They employ numerous means to reconcile rhetorically their positions of power and their opposition to the powerful. Some portray themselves as under siege in their own government by a hostile state. Others continue the fight against an establishment which is not in government but in the heights of the economy, the media, or the international system. Others still forsake their populist messages once in office, or even avoid holding office altogether. This tension in populism stems from its ideational structure. By dividing society into ‘the underdog’ and ‘the establishment’, populists discursively hem the powerful together. Thereby, they become trapped by their own rhetoric. As they win power, they are hoisted by their own petards.

Several politicians have been classified as populists in sub-Saharan Africa. 1 Among the most recent African politicians to join this canon is John Pombe Magufuli, the President of Tanzania. Sabatho Nyamsenda describes Magufuli’s ‘authoritarian populism’. 2 Thabit Jacob and Rasmus Pedersen and Japhace Poncian characterize Magufuli as a populist and resource nationalist. 3 The Economist dubbed him a populist. 4 However, Magufuli has not struggled to reconcile his rhetoric with his high office. Far from underplaying his power and overplaying others’, he inflates his power, and deflates others’. He leads the longest-ruling party in sub-Saharan Africa, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) or the ‘Party of the Revolution’, 5 and he declared that it would rule ‘forever’. 6

Magufuli’s characterization as a populist despite his easy relationship with power touches on an ill-resolved issue in the study of populism as a discourse or ideology, namely, the role and the definition of ‘the elite’. Scholars disagree whether ‘the elite’ is an essential aspect of populism. Conceptions of populism that incorporate this term frequently leave it ill-defined. This lax treatment of ‘the elite’ makes ideational concepts of populism elastic. The cases which have been subsequently classified as populist pull at the edges of the concept and frustrate attempts to incorporate all such cases into a coherent definition. This only exacerbates the definitional challenges plaguing the study of populism which Margaret Canovan elucidated in 1982. 7

To address this concept-stretching and mis-application, this article proposes a stricter conception of ‘the elite’ as constructed in populist discourse. In the search for a sharper definition of ‘the elite’, this article returns to Ernesto Laclau. Laclau stipulates that populists discursively divide society dichotomously into people and elite and imbue the latter with power. 8 Three criteria follow about how a discourse must characterize ‘the elite’ to qualify as populist. First, collectively, an elite should have more power than any rival set of actors in the society. Second, it should have more power even when aggregating power across each field in which power is imagined. Third, the actors that are imagined as ‘the elite’ should act collectively to defend and pursue their collective interests. Narrowing the definition of ‘the elite’ tightens the definition of populist discourse. If one accepts this stricter conception of populism, then some discourses which have been classified as populist should be reclassified. By returning to Laclau for these criteria, this article reasserts an earlier conception of ‘the elite’ in populism consistent with contemporary discursive and ideational definitions, rather than inventing a new one.

Tightening the conception of populism reveals another discourse, christened here ‘elitist plebeianism’, which bears remarkable similarities to populism but also pertinent differences from it. Elitist plebeians also construct ‘the people’. However, they do not bifurcate society between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’; they trifurcate society, and imbue two groups that it constructs with power. They imbue one with a minority share of power and characterize it as an enemy of the people. They imbue the other, ‘the elite’, with a plurality of power, and characterize it as a friend and advocate of the people. Therefore, elitist plebeians too create an antagonism along a ‘down/up axis’ of power. 9 However, while populists vilify the elite, elitist plebeians heroize ‘the elite’ and vilify a powerful middle stratum.

While populism and elitist plebeianism bear remarkable similarities, they are also bear dissimilarities, and these differences are discerning. First, populism is anti-elitist, while elitist plebeianism, as the name suggests, is the converse. 10 Second, populists advocate overthrowing the enemy of ‘the people’, while elitist plebeians advocate sanctioning them. Third, while populism creates rhetorical contradictions for its proponents as they win power, elitist plebeianism does not. Fourth, the similar terms and structure of populist and elitist plebeian discourses enable politicians to fluidly move between them. This facilitates the transformation of populist discourse into elitist plebeian ones, and vice versa. Therefore, they are paired concepts; the occurrence of one is connected to the occurrence of the other. To conflate these discourses would be to obscure these subtle but significant conclusions. However, this is precisely what treatments of populism, particularly, ‘populism in power’, have done to date. This article calls for studies to attend to these differences forthwith.

This article applies that conceptual apparatus to contemporary Tanzania rhetoric. It takes issue with ascriptions of populism to Magufuli. It argues that between 2015 and 2017, Magufuli and his party appropriated opposition discourses by vilifying the corrupt but rhetorically relocated corruption to the bureaucracy. They portrayed themselves as a virtuous elite that fought corruption on behalf of ‘the people’. In other words, they articulated an elitist plebeian message rather than a populist one. While Magufuli did not portray himself as in conflict with ‘the elite’, many commentators did. Therefore, Magufuli did not express a populist discourse, he was sometimes characterized through them. The examination of political messages in Tanzania offers a proof of concept. It fastens elitist plebeianism to a real-world case and it illustrates the potential of this conceptual apparatus to reinterpret so-called ‘populists in power’.
Original languageEnglish
Journal Journal of Political Ideologies.
Early online date4 Aug 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Aug 2020


  • populism
  • discourse
  • elite
  • bureaucracy
  • corruption

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