Horseshoe theory

In writing on cynicism vs. skepticism I brought up Glenn Beck as an example. The man is an Alex Jones-lite conspiracy theorist whose predictions fail over and over again, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be right sometimes or that he should be completely disregarded. In an episode of his show, he came very close to Jean-Pierre Faye’s horseshoe theory and while the models can be argued over I think the substance behind them rings true.

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Pardon my crude, simplified sketch of Beck’s model. Beck argues that right-wing fascism and left-wing communism are a false dichotomy and that the real model is simply totalitarianism vs anarchy. He believes that the choice between democrats and republicans is simply a matter of degrees and that as a relative framework the two parties are both sliding toward totalitarian models- the democrats are just a little more so than the GOP. As a libertarian, his belief is that the ideal amount of government is just enough to prevent anarchy. (Trivia: some libertarians call this philosophy minarchy.)

political-spectrum-horseshoFaye’s horseshoe theory says the right/left spectrum isn’t linear, but shaped like, well, a horseshoe, and the further one goes to the right or left the closer they actually become. This is best exemplified by the theory that both ideologies will become totalitarian if unopposed, either through communism or fascism. I don’t know if I would have found this theory very credible before living in a variety of different political environments, but I see it now. Obviously, very subtle hints, but there’s a definite tendency of a group in power to enforce its moral agenda on others whether or not they adhere to the same beliefs. Whether it’s the regressive left’s dogma on university campuses or religiously motivated legislation of morality (alcohol, porn, etc.), there’s a definite tendency of unopposed authority to trample the rights of the minority.

Curious digression: several of the Google image results for “horseshoe model” actually placed liberalism at the center of the horseshoe with socialism to the left and communism at the extreme. While I like this based on the definition of classical liberalism, it doesn’t really work in the context of today’s popular usage. Still, there are some fascinating images with detailed placement of ideologies along the continuum if you’re interested.

The horseshoe theory has its detractors, often from the extremists themselves. However, there’s a reasonable argument that says the theory leads to the balance fallacy. There are simply times where one side is factually wrong and they do not merit a fair and balanced representation. But that’s a topic for another time.

Maybe it’s human nature. I imagine if I re-read my social psychology books I’d find an interesting angle to attach this to. In-group bias, maybe? Regardless, there’s merit to both Beck’s and Faye’s models. Maybe the best representation would be a three dimensional combination of the two. Because the hyperbolic warnings from either side about the other creating a police-state are overblown, but the tendency to tell others how they must live is undeniable.

One thought on “Horseshoe theory

  1. >Curious digression: several of the Google image results for “horseshoe model” actually placed liberalism at the center of the horseshoe with socialism to the left and communism at the extreme. While I like this based on the definition of classical liberalism, it doesn’t really work in the context of today’s popular usage

    I think you found one of the common complaints, or perhaps more charitably criticisms, of horseshoe theory. The theory assumes away the point trying to be made: the ‘center’ can be anywhere and so nowhere. The center is wherever your political beliefs are. So every iteration, or almost every iteration, is a little different because there is nothing about the model that is historically or factually limiting.

    Let’s say you’re a part of the radical right. Well, to you, there’s going to be someone, somewhere to your right–maybe Hitler. Maybe someone like Hitler. Presto-chango, if you really think about, “my dear radical right friends,” Hitler was more communist than “Bob, that backsliding son of a bitch.” It’s better to be here, in the center, rather than a backslider or so-extreme-as-to-be-communist.

    And this sort of quasi-argument works no matter where you are on the horseshoe. You can always be the center, even if you’re liberal, and given enough time and throat clearing people who disagree with you share similarities–supposedly–even with each other (dun, dun, dun!).

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