‘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.
I would like to thank Michael Freeden and two anonymous reviewers for their comments and encouragement. My thanks go to Alastair Fraser, Portia Roelofs and Aikande Kwayu for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. I would also like to extend further thanks to and acknowledge the contributions of Aikande Kwayu, Erick Mwakibete, Athuman Mtulya, Deogratias Munishi, and other peers, who wish to remain anonymous. Their insights in conversation have significantly refined the arguments presented herein. Any remaining errors are my own.