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Teun, thank you very much for joining us. Your work has long been located at the intersection of studying racism, ideology, and discourse. I’d like to start there, as you have recently contributed a chapter to The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis entitled “(Anti)Racist Discourse.” Early in that chapter, you distinguish between racist cognition and racist action, noting that discourse plays a role in each. Can you give our readers a sense of that distinction and expound on discourse’s role in perpetuating racist domination? Then, can you talk about the relatively understudied concept of antiracist discourse and how it interacts with the previously mentioned phenomena?

Thank you for your questions! After my earlier work on the linguistics of texts and the cognitive psychology of text processing in the 1970s, my work since the 1980s has been within the general framework of Critical Discourse Studies (see also the work of Ruth Wodak – also on racism, antisemitism and the Far Right – and Norman Fairclough). Until today much of these critical studies have been on racist discourse, at first, and more recently on the history of antiracist discourse (in Europe, the US, and Brazil). This research has become increasingly multidisciplinary.

Of course, as a discourse analyst, I am first of all interested in the complex structures of text and talk. So many of my articles and books are on the structures of racist news in the press, political discourse such as parliamentary debates, social science textbooks and everyday conversation. Such analyses may be about global meanings (topics), local meanings such as implications and presuppositions, metaphor, argumentation, storytelling, lexical selection, style, rhetoric and images, often ideologically polarized between Good Us vs. Bad Them.

These structures of discourse are based on cognitive structures such as those of knowledge, attitudes, ideologies, norms and values. More than that of my colleagues in Critical Discourse Studies, my work also is about the cognitive aspects of discourse and racism, as is typically the case for racist prejudice. These cognitive studies are partly based on my work with Walter Kintsch in the late 1970s on the cognitive psychology of discourse comprehension. Part of the description and explanation of the structures and strategies of racist text and talk is in terms of socially shared cognition, such as knowledge on the one hand, and ideologies on the other hand. I’ll say more about ideologies below.

Besides cognition, sociopolitical structures also play a fundamental role in racism and hence also in racist discourse. My thesis is that racist prejudice is not innate, but learned, and that it is largely learned through the many discourses in everyday life, such as family talk, TV, newspapers, social media, textbooks, etc. These forms of public discourse are controlled by the “symbolic elites,” whose actors and organizations have preferential access to public discourse, especially in politics, the media and education: Politicians, Journalists and Teachers/Professors. Today, this is also the case for social media platforms that derive most of their ideas from these powerful forms of public discourse. Moreover, racism is a form of systemic power abuse, so the basic role of discourse is the reproduction of this system of domination. My later work on antiracist discourse and its history, similarly is based on antiracist ideology of resistance and solidarity and its attitudes.

My thesis is that racist prejudice is not innate, but learned, and that it is largely learned through the many discourses in everyday life, such as family talk, TV, newspapers, social media, textbooks, etc. These forms of public discourse are controlled by the “symbolic elites,”…Politicians, Journalists and Teachers/Professors.

Hence, my work on (anti)racist discourse relates with social and political structures of domination and resistance mediated by cognitive structures. This has become the general theoretical framework of all my research. One always needs detailed discourse analysis (for the data, etc.), cognitive analysis (both for description and explanation) and sociopolitical analysis (for the overall explanation). This is also the case for my current work on the discourse of social movements such as the Refugees Welcome movement.

Can you talk to us a bit more about how populist movements and leaders fit into the analysis we have discussed above? Many populists come from different political traditions, and therefore, their programs can be more or less racist. But I am curious if you see something in the populist style or repertoire that specifically affects racist cognition. How do they differ from mainstream actors in general, if at all? Could you also tackle the same issue vis-à-vis illiberal movements and leaders?

As I am preparing a paper on ideological analysis of the Radical Right, I recently have been reading much more also on populism, such as the work of Cas Mudde and many others. The more I read on this topic, the more critical I become. Many of the dominant ideas on populism have been (or should have been) on the political discourse of Radical Right parties, but ignores 50 years of theories and methods in discourse studies. Mudde and others define populism as a “thin ideology,” without a detailed definition of such an ideology, and again without knowledge of the vast number of studies on ideology. They pretend to study “ideas” (one could not be vaguer) but without ever opening an introduction to cognitive or social psychology to be more precise about such “ideas” or at least about “beliefs.”

They claim that populism as a “thin ideology” can be combined with other ideologies, such as nationalism and racism (nativism) on the Right, and nationalism and socialism on the Left (e.g., in Latin America). However, such combinations do not make sense, because the underlying ideological structures, such as norms and values, are incompatible. The only way one can combine populism with the Right or the Left is through comparable structures and strategies of discourse, such as the polarization between the (Good, Pure, etc.) People vs. the (Bad, Corrupt, etc.) Elite. Depending on the sociopolitical context, this People and the Elites can be defined and described in different ways.

As previously shown on social psychological group theories, the polarized definition of ingroups vs. outgroups, mentioned above for racist discourse, populist structures of discourse persuasively try to win votes among the (of course positively described) people, especially in times of crisis (poverty, pandemic, immigration, etc.) when any powerful elite can be blamed. As also happened with antisemitic blaming of the Jews. In other words, these are well-known discursive structures and strategies, and nothing special about populist discourse. In sum, populism is not an ideology, not a social-political structure, and not a new kind of discourse. So, much of the hype and debate on populism is just hype. Often, it is (wrongly) used to describe the Radical or Extreme Right, but whatever populist discourse structures they use, their real ideologies are combinations or clusters of ideologies such as nationalism, racism, patriarchy (machismo), Catholicism, etc.

Besides the overall polarized meanings (topics) of the (Good) People vs. the (Bad) Elites, populist discourse may further be characterized by various aspects of style and rhetoric, such as impoliteness, hyperboles, or specific metaphors, for instance as violations of parliamentary codes, etc. Ruth Wodak and many others have especially shown how Radical Right discourse is structured so as to generate fears among the population. But this is not because such discourse is “populist,” but because of a complex of many other discourse structures.

Looking around the world today at the movements and regimes that are (ostensibly) challenging the liberal status quo, we often see that these parties and regimes are described using a vast array of terms: populist, illiberal, authoritarian, radical right, etc. You’ve taken to labeling many of them “reactionary right.” Can you talk to us about the merits of this term compared to some of the alternatives listed above? What are the defining characteristics of a “reactionary right” movement?  

The Radical Right consists of those parties that have strongly reacted, especially since the 1990s, against the many sociopolitical and ideological changes since the 1960s, as was the case for liberal movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, the LBGT+ movement, the Pacifist Movement, and the Green Movement. Radical Right parties have been a reaction against increasingly shared and popular ideologically based attitudes on immigration, abortion rights, gay marriage, euthanasia, antiracist theory and education, Me Too, and so on. Thus, within a broader Culture War, parties of the Radical Right are especially reacting against the growing influence of “liberal” changes since the 1960s. In that sense, the main ideas and policies of Radical Right parties are reactionary, Hence, I also call them Reactionary Right parties. As reactions against the influence of liberal changes in society, we may also, and even better call them “Illiberal”, because that term defines against what they are organized. The more influential liberal ideas, the stronger illiberal reactions.

You have also done a lot of work on ideology, taking a deliberately multidisciplinary approach that centers the relationships between cognition, society, and discourse. Can you expound a bit on your theory of ideology and how it differs from traditional approaches that may center sociology or political economy?

As I have explained above for racist discourse and more generally of racism as a system of (white) power abuse, ideologies play a fundamental role as the cognitive basis of systems of domination. Since Marx-Engels, such ideologies were very vaguely defined in terms of “false consciousness” (without further cognitive analysis), and later more generally in terms of ideological belief systems (also without detailed cognitive analysis). So, my theory of ideology first of all stresses that ideology should be defined in terms of a specific form of shared social cognition, based on the more fundamental shared system of sociocultural knowledge. For the first time, I also defined the major categories of the structures of such ideologies, in terms of Identity, Action, Goals, Norms/Values, Allies/Enemies and Resources.

My theory of ideology first of all stresses that ideology should be defined in terms of a specific form of shared social cognition

Such very general ideologies are derived from, and later control, more specific ideological Attitudes, e.g., on immigration, gay marriage or abortion. Actual ideological debate and struggle is about these Attitudes because they are about relevant social issues. Ideologies and Attitudes are shared by ideological groups, such as socialists, feminists, pacifists, racists, etc.

But these attitudes are also shared (at least partly) by the members of these groups, so we also need a theory of the personal opinions and emotions of these members, for instance in mental models (part of autobiographical memory) of individual people, e.g., about specific events in their everyday life or known through the media, e.g., about recent immigration events (like the arrival of thousands of refugees) or a feminist demonstration.

These mental models finally control the ideological individual talk and text of these members, such as a racist conversation, a feminist opinion article, or a pacific slogan. In sum, this theory of ideology for the first time explicitly relates the structures of ideologies with the structures of discourse.

Relating this line of questioning to the former, I’m curious if you think that the contemporary reactionary right has an ideology. Or at least something that is more fully formed than parochial reaction. You have noted in the past that ideologies are “self-serving” and that “power over other groups” may have a central role in ideological development, though not always. Exercising power over minorities, etc. does seem to be a common theme among various manifestations of today’s reactionary right, but is this enough for us to assume that the reactionary right is in the process of developing, or indeed has already developed, a distinct ideology? When we think about the reactionary right today, should our focus be on something other than ideology?

Many of the notions used in political philosophy and debate are not ideologies but ideological clusters of a coherent ‘coalition’ of ideologies, or political configurations (of parties and organizations) along the Left vs. Right political line.

The Radical, Reactionary or Illiberal Right does not have a (one) ideology, but a collection or cluster of ideologies such as nationalism, racism, patriarchy (and antifeminism), neoliberalism, etc. Such combinations or clusters are defined by shared ideological categories, such as Norms or Values, such as order and authority of Radical Right ideologies. The same is true for the Liberal Left and its ideologies (socialism, feminism, etc.) – like the Rainbow coalition – and their shared values of equality and justice. Some values, like Liberty, may be defined differently in Left vs. Right ideological clusters (like Academic Freedom vs. Freedom of the Market). So, many of the notions used in political philosophy and debate are not ideologies but ideological clusters of a coherent ‘coalition’ of ideologies, or political configurations (of parties and organizations) along the Left vs. Right political line.

In the same way the Radical Right is not a (one) ideology but a cluster or coalition of ideologies, many other terms of political philosophy and political science are not ideologies, but should be defined as clusters of ideologies, the positions of their parties on the Left-Right continuum, and their discourses, as is the case for Liberalism and Conservatism, and more generally the distinction between the Left and the Right. Other ‘isms’, such as Authoritarianism and its Attitudes on Law and Order, are not ideologies either, but types of regimes based on ideologies with values such as Order, Authority, Respect, etc., and at the individual level with opinions and emotions of personal mental models based on personality structures (rigidity, etc).

Also in these cases, there is no need for notions such as populist parties, ideas, ideologies or attitudes. All notions can be described with more explicit terms of (i) political structures (parties at the Left-Right continuum), (ii) social structures (ideological groups and movements), (iii) sociocognitive structures of shared structures of ideologies and attitudes, and personal ones of mental models, and (iv) at the basic level, multimodal structures of (inter)action, especially those of discourse.

To close us out, you have an upcoming paper that unpacks some of the themes we have discussed today. Because of our work here at the Illiberalism Studies Program, I was hoping you could give us a preview of that paper, especially as it pertains to how you categorize illiberalism, not as a singular ideology, but rather as an aggregating phenomenon. Can you talk to us about this distinction, why you think its important, and what it may contribute to the field of illiberalism studies?

The theoretical part of this article explains the notion of ideology and the notion of clusters of ideologies to define the ideologies (plural) of the Radical Right, as explained above. As a contribution to the Routledge Handbook of Ideological Analysis, it applies the theory in an analysis of the discourse of Radical Right parties in Chile, Spain, the Netherlands, and Sweden. It is shown that these discourses and ideologies adapt to the political contexts in these countries. Whereas Catholic ideology and attitudes, especially about abortion are prominent in Chile, they are less prominent in Spain, and absent in the Netherlands and Sweden, where on the other hand racist ideologies and attitudes are prominent. The feminist consensus in these countries does not make antifeminist attitudes very relevant to the Radical Right. Similarly, anti-feminist attitudes are prominent in Spain as a reaction against the growing influence of the feminist movement in that country, as is also the centralist nationalist ideology against Catalan and Basque independence movements. In sum, the discourses of the Radical Right and their ideological basis strategically adapt to a social-political context in which they can expect to have popular support.

In sum, the discourses of the Radical Right and their ideological basis strategically adapt to a social political context in which they can expect to have popular support.

Teun A. van Dijk is the Director of the Centre of Discourse Studies and a professor at Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona. After earlier work on generative poetics, text grammar, and the psychology of text processing, his work since 1980 takes a more critical perspective and deals with discursive racism, news in the press, ideology, knowledge, context and social movement discourse. He is the author of several books in most of these areas and he serves as editor for the journals Discourse & Society, Discourse Studies, and Discourse & Communication. His website is

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.