🔮 It’s not populism. It’s something worse

Some ideologies look like populisms, but aren’t. Like populisms, these distinctive authoritarian ideologies envisage struggles of 'the people' against 'the corrupt'. Yet unlike them, writes Dan Paget, they envisage 'the leaders' not as embodiments of the people’s will but as guardians of their interests. He calls this 'elitist plebeianism'

What if some of those defined as populist had been misdefined? What if some threats to democracy read as populist had been misread? These are the questions which run through critical populism research. This line of research argues that some analysed as populist are far right first and populist second, or simply far right (or far left) and not populist at all.

I study the ideologies of liberation regimes in Africa, and particularly that of the late Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli. These regimes, too, have been misdiagnosed as populisms in the ideational conception, in which populisms contain the seeds of a distinctive authoritarian project. Yet these misread ideologies of African liberation do not articulate far rightisms. Instead, to varying degrees and in combination with anti-imperialist nationalisms, they articulate ideologies of a sort which has been quickly forgotten in Western politics. It is an ideology which, while found in eastern Africa, has parallels all around the world. It is one which should give us cause to reinterpret populisms, as Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti extol. I call it elitist plebeianism.

Mistaken for populism

Magufuli became President of Tanzania in 2015. After liberation from British colonial rule (in 1961), an abandoned experiment in African socialism, and a regime-managed transition to multipartyism, Tanzania was home to a neoliberal economy and a dominant party atop a competitive authoritarian regime. In these intersecting contexts, and at the moment of Magufuli’s election, mega-corruption scandals raged.

The willing driver of an authoritarian turn, Magufuli invoked a language of imperial enemies, traitors, and patriots

Once elected, Magufuli declared war upon 'the corrupt'. He fired officials on the spot. With flair and performative ostentation, he vowed to root out commodity hoarders hiking prices and middle-men fleecing producers. He also became the willing driver of an authoritarian turn already in motion. As he issued these measures, Magufuli invoked a language of imperial enemies, traitors, and patriots. This language reached its peak during the violence and electoral fraud of the 2020 elections, and persisted until his death in office in 2021. It is little wonder that, in a global (north) moment overshadowed by Brexit and Trump 2016, Magufuli was read as an authoritarian populist.

However, upon closer inspection, there are remarkable and important differences between the ideology which Magufuli articulated and performed, and populism as conceptualised in the ideational (and discourse-theoretic) traditions.

Flaunting the high

First, Magufuli did not construct ‘the corrupt’ as ‘the elite'. The corrupt had power and privilege, certainly, but he did not locate them at a 'high centre', as Andreas Schedler puts it. Instead, the body imagined at the zenith of the state and society was 'the leaders'.

‘The leaders’ consisted of Magufuli and the senior officials of both party and government. They were not, in many cases, constructed as high by birth or wealth. Yet they had, in their own self-presentation, impeccable credentials. Some, like Magufuli, had doctorates. Many were plucked fresh from academia. This high education was often touted by Magufuli, his allies and media as evidence of their unimpeachable expertise. They also boasted of their superior information, of the revelatory state secrets to which they alone were privilege, and the superior abilities with which they were endowed. Lastly, they exhibited their power and authority in their snap-firing and their imperious commands.

Magufuli and his allies touted their high education as evidence of their unimpeachable expertise

This touting, boasting and exhibiting did not resemble the flaunting of the low theorised by Pierre Ostiguy in his conceptualisation of populist performance. On the contrary, it resembles the flaunting of the high.

In their construction, ‘the corrupt’ were consistently located below 'the leaders'. They connived, they enriched, they manipulated, yet they were also afraid of 'the leaders', forever portrayed as hiding, cowering and trembling when caught.

Guardians of the people

Second, Magufuli and his allies did not present themselves as the embodiments of a popular will. They did construct 'the people', referred to variously as the citizens (wananchi) or the downtrodden (wanyonge). Yet they presented this plebeian mass not as having a general will which it knew intuitively, but a common interest, which it might not. They presented themselves, with their lauded education, and their deep-state knowledge, as the body best able to determine what was in the people’s interests and how that should be pursued. In short, they articulated an elitist epistemology of the popular interests. They envisaged their role as to act in those popular interests on the people’s behalf.

It is easy to see how Magufuli could be misread as populist. Like a populist, he envisaged a popular entity locked in a struggle against ‘the corrupt’ above. Like a populist, he envisaged a popular interest which it was the duty of himself and his allies to pursue. Yet unlike authoritarian populists, Magufuli did not imagine a world 'ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups', as Cas Mudde stipulates they do.

Magufuli and his fellow leaders did not present themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of a popular will, but as the best aristocratic guardians of popular interests

Instead, in Magufuli’s imaginary, ‘the leaders’ existed as a third group, a ‘moral elite’, allied to the people in their struggle against 'the corrupt', yet held apart from them by their distinguishing elite characteristics. Equally unlike an authoritarian populist, Magufuli and his fellow leaders did not present themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of a popular will, but as the best aristocratic guardians of popular interests. He articulated an elitist plebeianism.

A distinctive authoritarian ideology

Magufuli was not the lone proponent of elitist plebeianism. Many liberation regimes in Africa speak in similar terms. So, by degrees, do others elsewhere.

Reading these ideologies correctly matters. Elitist plebeianisms, like populisms, contain original authoritarian projects. They rewrite democratic elections as the means to select the best guardians. They redefine democracy as elected aristocracy. And they contain templates and legitimising scripts for electoral autocracy.

If we misread them, we misunderstand their projects and their weaknesses. We should reinterpret such authoritarian 'populisms', and we should do so urgently.

No.72 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Dan Paget
Dan Paget
Lecturer in Politics, University of Sussex

Dan has held posts at Aberdeen, SOAS and UCL.

He completed a doctorate in politics at the University of Oxford in 2018.

He studies contemporary democratic and authoritarian ideologies, analysing how democracy and autocracy are envisages, critiqued and legitimised in the imaginaries articulated today, and he focuses on this ideational contestation in contemporary authoritarian regimes.

Dan also studies political communication. In particular, he does research on the enormous importance which the mass rally assumes in political communication assumes, especially in much of Africa.

These studies are situated in his ongoing analysis of the political struggles for and against democracy in electoral-authoritarian regimes.

He studies the dynamics of opposition party organising, ruling party repression and political contestation through those struggles are carried out.

Through all of this research, his principal site of research is, and has been, Tanzania.


He tweets @pandaget

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