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Horseshoe Theory and Why the Radical Left and Right Wing Are the Same

Updated on August 8, 2017
According to Horseshoe Theory, the Far Left and Far Right are closer to each other than either is to the political center. Horseshoe theory can be controversial because no one wants to believe they're similar to those they strongly oppose.
According to Horseshoe Theory, the Far Left and Far Right are closer to each other than either is to the political center. Horseshoe theory can be controversial because no one wants to believe they're similar to those they strongly oppose.

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). At the left end of the line is the extreme left (sometimes called the regressive left). In 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.

The extreme right demonizes nonwhite people. In their view, it's hard for white people to succeed because affirmative action allows 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. While these might on the surface seem like diametrically opposed views 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 and what have become known as Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) are accused of inciting racial hatred. All that differs is the targets of their hatred.

Both the extreme left and the extreme right engage 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.

Of course, some people may object and insist that horseshoe theory could be seen as overly simplified in some circumstances. For example, they may argue that Sam Harris' desire to end religion is very different than an evangelical's desire to end secularism. Harris' 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 End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Sam Harris' book The End of Faith argues that "in an age of Weapons of Mass Destruction, belief is now a hazard of great proportions."

 

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 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 could be true in some 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 some cases, it doesn't always leave room for complexity.

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  • Learn Things Web profile image
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    Learn Things Web 6 months ago from California

    I'm confused about the point you're trying to make. Aren't conservatives also guilty of authoritarianism and empowering government to implement their wishes? How about forcing women to have babies they can't care for. Insisting that kids should be required to say Christian prayers in public schools regardless of their religious beliefs. Mandating that police can randomly stop and search people. Conservative governors and legislatures in some states are taking power away from towns and cities in an attempt to take away local control and centralize power.

    Having said that, government exists to solve societal problems or as the US Constitution says "provide for the general welfare." The Obamacare mandate was designed to slow the growth of insurance premiums which were out of control and unsustainable. Obamacare was actually originally a Republican idea and every expert opinion I've read has said you have to have some kind of mandate to keep healthcare costs from becoming too unaffordable for most people. Sometimes government has to be authoritarian to solve problems. But unlike in dictatorships, people in democracies actually get to choose who will implement the rules they have to live under. Sometimes liberals win and sometimes conservatives win. It's imperfect but the best system there is.

  • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

    wba108@yahoo.com 6 months ago from upstate, NY

    Again, just because the liberal media and academic culture believe something is true doesn't make it so. Liberals are more inclined to believe in an authoritarian and empowered government.

    They believe that coercive government power should be employed to forcibly equalize society by confiscating wealth earned from one citizen to give to another. That the government should compel (force) its citizens to purchase government approved healthcare ie(Obamacare). They also believe in more government restrictions and top down authoritarian regulation on the free market- read -telling us what to do-! They also have created an authoritarian environment of political correctness that stifles and endangers free speech. ect..

  • Learn Things Web profile image
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    Learn Things Web 6 months ago from California

    It's generally believed that conservatives join the military at higher rates because they're more accepting of authority. Patriotism can mean different things to different people. A liberal may feel like it's patriotism to devote themselves to fighting poverty or homelessness. I would think both liberals and conservatives are equally patriotic. They just express it differently.

    Interestingly, your second paragraph sounds very similar to the kinds of arguments many on the left make. Many liberals would argue that it's the right who has rewritten history (for example, the argument that Texas has too much power over what goes into history textbooks). And that school's and the media are too dominated by right wing thinking. And that's kind of the point of horse shoe theory. There's often a strong similarity in thinking between the left and right. It's just the targets who are different.

  • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

    wba108@yahoo.com 6 months ago from upstate, NY

    Learn Things Web - That more conservatives join the military doesn't make conservatives militaristic. I think conservatives tend to be more patriotic and therefore are more willing to put themselves in harms way to serve in the military.

    Just because most people associate militarism with the right doesn't make it so. Liberals in America have rewritten every jot and tittle of history and continue their propaganda relentlessly. Our educational institutions are almost completely dominated with left wing thought, our schools now indoctrinate not educate young minds.

  • Learn Things Web profile image
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    Learn Things Web 6 months ago from California

    It could be argued that moderate liberals and moderate conservatives disagree more than the agree. While at the more extreme ends there are many more similarities and areas of overlap.

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    Collin 6 months ago

    Im skeptical of horsheshoe theory because you dont have to go to extremes to find overlap. Take immigration! Many liberals and pro business conservatives are pro-immigration because they say immigrants do jobs that Americans dont want to do and immigrants start more businesses and create more jobs for American workers. Other liberals and conservatives say immigration should be reduced because immigrants drive down wages for lower income people. It isnt just at the extremes that common viewpoints are found.

  • Learn Things Web profile image
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    Learn Things Web 6 months ago from California

    I don't think anyone would claim that all people on the right or the left hold the same views. But military leaders in the US are more likely to be conservative than liberal. I've also seen some studies that have found that conservatives are more likely to join the military than liberals. So it's complex. I think most people would agree that militarism is right rather than left. But that doesn't mean that everyone on the right supports foreign wars or that everyone on the left is against them.

  • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

    wba108@yahoo.com 6 months ago from upstate, NY

    I think its a stretch to say that conservatives are militaristic. They do believe in peace through strength but that's a far cry from an imperialistic type of militarism. It's true that GWB was a neocon who believed in nation building but thats a far cry from militarism and conservatives by an large oppose nation building and so does Trump.

  • Learn Things Web profile image
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    Learn Things Web 6 months ago from California

    The argument horseshoe theory makes is that when you go to extremes of either the left or the right, they start to blur and look the same in many respects. You could say there are elements of leftist thinking in Fascism and rightist thinking in Communism. For example, Communists tend to be militaristic. Leftists tend to be pacifistic. But when you go to extremes distinctions start to blur.

  • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

    wba108@yahoo.com 6 months ago from upstate, NY

    My theory is that the left wanted pin the evils of fascism on their enemies and in America its conservatives. Stalin himself used to call his communist opponents fascists ie Leon Trotsky, I think his American leftist admirers followed his lead.

  • Learn Things Web profile image
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    Learn Things Web 6 months ago from California

    Fascism being right wing versus left wing is up for debate. It seems to mainly get labeled right wing due to being considered socially conservative.

  • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

    wba108@yahoo.com 6 months ago from upstate, NY

    I think its a fallacy that fascism is right wing, if right wing stands for the principles of conservatism. Fascism see's the free market, individualism and private property as a corrupting this is diametrically opposed to conservative principles.

    Fascist pioneer Benito Mussolini promoted progressive taxation, wealth redistribution, minimum wage laws, strictly secular schools; controls on profits and industrial policy and a nearly limitless state. American liberals including FDR's brain trust had nothing but admiration for Mussolini and the Italian system.