When you think of the political spectrum, you probably think of a straight line. In the middle of the line is the political center. At the right end of the line is the extreme right (often called the alt-right/Trumpism movement). At the left end of the line is the extreme left (sometimes called the regressive left). Between the center and these extremes are gradations. Most people think of the extreme right and the extreme left as polar opposites with diametrically opposed views.
Horseshoe theory argues that the political spectrum isn't a line. Instead, it's a horseshoe shape. The rounded part of the horseshoe is the center. The ends of the horseshoe are the extreme left and right. This theory argues that rather than being opposites, the extremes actually closely resemble one another.
A common example used is that of communism and fascism. Communism is an extreme left ideology with a strong central state. The population must work for the collective good. Fascism is an extreme right ideology with a strong central state. The population must work for the collective good.
Another area where you see this resemblance is in race relations. There are factions on both the far right and the far left who argue for segregation. Those on the far-right fear a white genocide due to race-mixing while those on the far left fear a black genocide due to race-mixing. Both support discrimination. The alt-right justifies discrimination against people of color (POC), women, and LGBT. The left justifies discrimination against straight white men.
The extreme right demonizes nonwhite people. In their view, it's hard for white people to succeed because affirmative action allows less qualified minorities to succeed at the expense of white people. The extreme left demonizes all white people. In their view, it's hard for minorities to succeed because mediocre white people are given opportunities that only minorities who are the best of the best can get. On the surface, these may seem like diametrically opposed views, but both are in fact arguing the same thing. It's harder for group X to succeed because group Y receives many 'undeserved' opportunities. Both the alt-right/white supremacists and Social Justice Warriors (SJWs)/woke activists are accused of inciting racial hatred. All that differs is the targets of their hate.
The extreme left and the extreme right are accused of engaging in scapegoating or blaming a certain group or groups of people for the ills of society. On the extreme left white people, especially white men are the problem. On the extreme right Jews, feminists, Muslims, and immigrants are the problem.
In Sam Harris' book The End of Faith he argues that religion needs to end to save humanity from the havoc wrecked by religious extremism. Evangelicals believe that Christian values need to be imposed on societies to save humanity from the evils of sin. Some argue that the New Atheists like Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, are just as guilty as religious people of trying to force their beliefs down other people's throats.
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Of course, some people may object and insist that horseshoe theory could be seen as overly simplified in circumstances like this. For example, they may argue that Sam Harris's desire to end religion is very different than an evangelical's desire to end secularism. Harris's fears are based on a real concern that a religious extremist with access to nuclear weapons could wipe out humanity. The gist of his argument is that we need to end religion before it ends us. While the methods of both groups could be seen as superficially similar it could be argued that this is a case of false balance. Sam Harris could be seen as sounding an alarm rather than trying to force his worldview on everyone else just because he thinks he's right.
The horseshoe theory was formulated by French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye who argued that extremists on both the left and right represent authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Both are willing to take away individual freedom to impose their will on others. The extreme left and the extreme right think it's acceptable to take away people's rights. They just differ on whose rights and what rights should be taken away.
The extreme left may argue that no one should be allowed to own a gun because guns lead to a large number of deaths. The extreme right may argue that no one should be allowed to have an abortion because they lead to large numbers of deaths. Both are authoritarian positions that take away from the individual the right to decide for themselves what's best for their own lives.
The horseshoe theory appears to suggest that moderation or centrism is the right and correct way to run a society. The further a belief moves from the center the more problematic it becomes. This is true in many situations. Centrists are more likely to attempt to accommodate everyone's concerns. A centrist may take the position that guns should be legal but with reasonable restrictions in place. A centrist is likely to believe that abortion should be legal but we should do everything we can to make it a rare occurrence by preventing unwanted pregnancies. The centrist doesn't want to dominate or control. They want to find solutions that are as fair as possible to everyone.
However, centrism may not always be the best course. Take climate change as an example. Global warming will lead to more droughts, floods, and famines. It will be a major national security concern. It will create millions of climate refugees as low-lying land is lost to rising sea levels. If human activity really is causing the Earth to heat up, and the experts tell us that is the case, we can't respond to that with a centrist position. We have to go to a farther left position and replace fossil fuels with clean energy sources as soon as possible. Even if that means telling people what kind of vehicles they can and can't drive. So while the horseshoe theory is interesting and is valid in many cases, it doesn't always leave room for complexity.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 LT Wright