Discourse theory

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Can discourse theory explain Bush's second term election?

Evolving from a mere linguistical consideration of discourse as a textual unit, to introducing and applying the notion of Critical Discourse Theory in the transition periods and processes of economic and social change, discourse theory only acquired its full coherence in its political and ideological dimension, towards the emergence of its third generation.

As such, it is of primary importance to mention the concept of Critical Discourse Analysis, coined by Norman Fairclough and Teun van Dijk , according to whom discourse gains a double function: it is represented by text and spoken communication, but it also shaped by social practices.

Among the most prominent researchers who shaped the way of this third generation and synthesized formerly conducted studies are Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau and French Political Theory Professor at the University of Westminster, Chantal Mouffe. Together with their forerunners in the field, they were successful in determining a shift within the Marxist theory itself towards post-structuralism. Moreover, they focused on semantic aspects, emphasizing their increased importance in the development of an anti-totalitarian, democratically enthusiastic type of discourse.

In a critical analysis of Laclau’s work, an original view upon the relation between antagonism and the system of differences is constructed: ‘Without limits through which a (non-dialectical) negativity is constructed we would have an indefinite dispersion of differences whose absence of systematic limits would make any differential identity impossible. But this very function of constituting differential identities through antagonistic limits is what, at the same time, destabilizes and subverts those differences’. The authors of this critical study notice that a distinction should be made between difference and differential. They also note that antagonism and difference cannot be seen as two perfectly opposing parts of the spectrum, since difference already incorporates a specific type of antagonism. Therefore, the two terms cannot be used together as they share a common intensional meaning.

Having as a starting ground Torfing’s five key-steps in discourse theory, the present essay attempts to bring arguments in support of the idea that third-way discursive patterns lie at the basis of Bush’s reelection in 2004.

As such, the first point in discourse theory explains the emergence of social practices as taking place in an environment dominated by specific discourses. This is why, if we want to understand the emergence of a certain type of discourse, we first have to examine its specific historical background. Furthermore, the shift from one dominant type of discourse to another supposes an implicit liberation of signifiers. And from among these newly freed signifiers, the election of a nodal point takes place, as the most significant of signifiers. However, under no circumstances should it be understood that this new discursive framework is innovative in its entirety, especially since it still encompasses blueprints pertaining to prior types of discourse.

In the context of the 2004 US elections, the American society was dominated by a process of party polarization. But the divergences were far from being just ideological, especially if we take into consideration the 2000 elections, in the aftermath of which both the winner and the runner up suspected each other of having committed fraud. Apart from that incident, the Republicans and the Democrats further disagreed on matters such as the war in Iraq, whether or not it would be equitable to continue the support of American forces in Afghanistan. It is interesting to note that prior to this campaign, Senator Kerry, Bush’s opponent, was in favor of conducting a war on terror. However, the collaboration soon ended, in light of the new presidential campaign. Regarding the nuanced distinction between the war in Iraq and the war on terror, Democrats made the distinction, while the Republicans didn’t.


Norman Fairclough, Norman (1995), Critical Discourse Analysis, Boston: Addison Wesley.

van Dijk, Teun A. (1997), Discourse Studies, A Multidisciplinary Introduction, London: Sage.

Butler, Judith; Laclau, Ernesto; Žižek, Slavoj (2000), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London: Biddles, 1.

Critchley, Simon; Marchart, Oliver (2004), Laclau: A Critical Reader, New York: Routledge, 249.

Torfing, Jacob (2005), “Discourse Theory: Achievements, Arguments, and Challenges” in Howarth, David; Torfing, Jacob (eds.), Discourse Theory in European Politics. Identity, Policy and Governance, Palgrave: Macmillan, 14-15.

Campbell, James E. (2005), “Why Bush Won the Presidential Election of 2004: Incumbency, Ideology, Terrorism, and Turnout” in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 120, No. 2, 225.

Colopelnic, Nicoleta (2008), “The Discursive Road from 9/11 to Operation Iraqui Freedom” in Miscoiu, Sergiu; Craciun, Oana; Colopelnic, Nicoleta (eds.), Radicalism, Populism, Interventionism. Three ApproachesBased on Discourse Theory, Cluj Napoca: EFES, 78.

Bush, George W. (2004), George Bush’s Victory speech, [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/nov/04/uselections2004.usa17], 20 May 2012.

Pier, Penni M. (2010), “Deities, Divisions, and Democrats: The ‘Political Left’ and Religion” in Weiss, David (ed.), What Democrats Talk about When They Talk about God: Religious Communication in Democratic Party Politics, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Kellner, Douglas (2005), “Salvaging Democracy after Election 2004” in Fast Capitalism, Vol.1, No.2, [http://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/1_2/kellner.html], 21 May 2012.

Miscoiu, Sergiu (2008), “Discourse Theory and Political Contestation. An inquiry Based on an International Research Project” in Miscoiu, Sergiu; Craciun, Oana; Colopelnic, Nicoleta (eds.), Radicalism, Populism, Interventionism. Three Approaches Based on Discourse Theory, Cluj Napoca: EFES, 23.

Benoit, William L. et al (2007), Bush Versus Kerry: A Functional Analysis of Campaign 2004, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 19-20.

Bayley, Paul (2007), “Terror in Political Discourse from the Cold War to the Unipolar World” in Fairclough, Norman; Cortese, Giuseppina ; Ardizzone, Patrizia (eds.), Discourse and Contemporary Social Change, Bern: Peter Lang, 59-70.

Coe, Kevin et al (2004), “No Shades of Gray: The Binary Discourse of George W. Bush and an Echoing Press” in Journal of Communication, Vol. 54, No 2, [http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/NoshadesofGray..pdf], 23 May 2012, 235-243.

Gaddis, John Lewis (2002), “A Grand Strategy of Transformation” in Foreign Policy, November, 1, 2002, [http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2002/11/01/a_grand_strategy_of_transformation], 22 May 2012.

Chilton, Paul (1998), “Making Sense of the Cold War’s Collapse” in: Chilton, Paul Anthony; Ilyin, Mikhail V.; Mey, Jacob L. (eds.), Political Discourse in Transition in Europe, 1989-1991, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 15.

Rosati, Jerel; Twing, Stephen, “The Presidency and US Foreign Policy after the Cold War” in Scott, James M. (ed.), After the End: Making U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World, Durham: Duke University Press, 39-44.

Lanshford, Tom, “Homeland Security from Clinton to Bush: An Assessment” in Linden, Edward V. (ed.), Focus on Terrorism, Vol. 8, New York: Nove Science Publishers, 180.

Boyer, Paul S. et al (2008), The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Boston: Cengage Learning, 963-965.

Zelizer, Julian E. (2010), “Establishment Conservative: The Presidency of George W. Bush” in Zelizer, Julian E. (ed.), The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1.

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