What is horseshoe theory?
The horseshoe theory states that both extremes of the political spectrum are pretty similar to each other. Historically, both communist and right-wing fascists have made very comparable political decisions. For example, Stalin’s communist Russia and Hitlers Nazi Germany both went through similar destructive authoritarian regimes within the same few decades. Stalin and Hitler had a lot more in common than modern neo-Nazis and far-left agitators would be comfortable admitting.
The theory was first formalised by French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye. One of the recent examples of horseshoe theory is the growth of populist parties in both Germany and Austria. In both countries, populist ideas of isolationism and wealth redistribution took hold. However in Germany, it was left-wing populism at the face of the movement. Conversely in Austria, right-wing parties were pushing this narrative and managed to gain 30% of the vote in a 2008 election.
Has the horseshoe theory been debunked?
As expected, both left and right-wing extremists would prefer not to address the horseshoe theory. The far-left would of course not admit to occupying the same space on the spectrum as fascists. One of the most commonly cited arguments against the horseshoes theory is that the far-left and far-right would naturally be similar in relation to their opposition to the status quo. Therefore, it’s easy to group the two.
However, when fascists implement totalitarian regimes, it’s usually within the bounds of national and ethnic purity. Conversely, when communists become totalitarian, it is more often within the bounds of wealth redistribution and internationalisation. Not all authoritarian regimes fall within these bounds, but these classifications mostly hold in recent times. For example, China today is underscored by a lot of international intervention, such as their diplomatic reach into Africa and Southern Asia.
Ultimately, the horseshoes theory has not been debunked. Political commentators agree that extreme ends of the spectrum can become totalitarian. However, they also agree that the idea oversimplifies a complex mix of beliefs within the political spectrum. The right and left will always be vastly different in terms of their ideological beliefs. They do not share the same space within any ideological spectrums.
Is the horseshoe effect happening now?
An unusual example of what could be the horseshoe effect is the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016. He was able to command a healthy margin at the polls across both the right and left-wing. His message of creating an equal distribution of wealth seemed to resonate with most of the US population. The method by which this redistribution occurs may be a point of debate, but both ends of the spectrum shared the underlying principle.
However, this is a weaker example of the horseshoe theory in effect. Bernie Sanders was not looking to overhaul the whole system and create a communist state. Instead, the Sanders campaign wanted to add some social democratic elements infused into the current US system. Neither the right-wing or left-wing extremists looked at Bernie as an advocate for an authoritarian regime. These rare events of agreement between the two ends of a spectrum are not a real example of horseshoe theory, but more a solution to a common problem that most people face daily.
Interestingly, recent discussions in combating racial disparity have started to raise concerns. We are now seeing both the far right and the far left arguing for the return of segregation. Though both are debating segregation for different reasons, ultimately, they are still advocating for policies that would bring back some forms of segregation. Specifically, the far-right fear that mixing races may lead to a white genocide but those on the far left fear mixing races will lead to black genocide.
There are examples of this similarity all across society. For example, the extreme left would want to implement gun control and ideally eliminate guns from society. Similarly, the far-right would like to ban abortions completely. These are authoritarian views of the world, and if implemented, people could argue that these policies would represent totalitarian regimes.
Is the political spectrum changing?
The political spectrum is not changing. What seems to be likely is that perception of the spectrum is changing due to news media. Yes, there are always extremes on both sides of the spectrum who lean favourably to authoritarian regimes. However, most left extremists are not authoritarian communists, and the right is not authoritarian fascists. Neither of the two is genuinely advocating for communist or fascist regimes.
Instead, there are now a handful of organisations and media personalities who have deep financial incentives to present politics in this way. Left-wing media (the vast majority of mainstream news) wants its viewers to feel like the right is leaning towards fascism. Right-wing news, and more importantly, right-wing social media influencers, want their viewers to believe the left want to create an authoritarian communist state.
However, if you converse with the ‘extremes’ on both sides, you’ll find that they don’t want to destroy the existing democratic political and economic systems. Instead, both wings wish to modify some parts of the system. Unfortunately, presenting politics in this way is ‘boring’ and does not bring in viewers.
The horseshoe theory has always been correct by definition. Implementing policies from either extreme of the political spectrum would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. For instance, if you implement a far-left anti-gun policy, there would be many people on the right who policymakers would have to control to execute the policy. However, this does not mean that you can group both ends of the spectrums according to ideology. Instead, it’s the method of implementing their ideology that is similar.
Both extremes on either side are completely separate entities with their own political beliefs. Their strategies to grow their brand of populism and the way both groups interact with society might be similar, but their ideologies are incredibly different. They are only similar in their opposition to the status quo. It’s more likely that to each group, the other is presented as advocates of authoritarian regimes when they are not.
The left-right political spectrum should not be about the methodology of governance (authoritarian vs liberal) or the perception of ideology by opposing groups. The spectrum should be about identifying and grouping the underlying economic and political beliefs of societies.