A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Politics and Left/Right Authoritarianism: Two Brothers From the Same Mother*

The horseshoe theory of politics is a political theory that suggests the political spectrum is not a straight line, but rather a horseshoe-shaped curve. The horseshoe theory posits that the far-left and the far-right of the political spectrum are more alike than they are different, and that they both share common characteristics such as authoritarianism and a desire for radical change.

The horseshoe theory has its roots in the early 20th century and was first proposed by French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye in his 1962 book, Langages totalitaires (Totalitarian Languages). The theory gained wider recognition in the 1990s with the rise of extreme right and extreme left movements in Europe and the United States.

At the center of the horseshoe is the political mainstream, which is understood as moderate and pragmatic. According to the theory, the further one moves to the left or right down the horseshoe, the more extreme and authoritarian one becomes. However, as one approaches the far ends of the spectrum, the differences between the left and the right become less distinct, and the two sides begin to resemble each other in their methods and goals.

One of the key features of the horseshoe theory is that both the far-left and the far-right are opposed to liberal democracy and the free market economy (though they will say otherwise). While the far-left seeks to replace capitalism with a socialist or communist system, the far-right often advocates for a return to a more traditional or authoritarian form of government often referred to as fascism.

Another commonality between the two extremes is their tendency towards violence and the use of force to achieve their goals. The far-left has historically been associated with violent revolution and guerrilla warfare, while the far-right is often connected with authoritarian regimes and the use of military force to suppress dissent.

The horseshoe theory has been criticized by some political scientists and theorists who argue that it oversimplifies the complex nature of political ideology. They argue that the theory ignores important differences between the left and the right, such as their views on individual rights, social justice, and the role of the state.

Others have pointed out that the horseshoe theory is too simplistic in that it fails to take into account the nuances of political ideology. They argue that political beliefs are shaped by a variety of factors, including culture, history, and personal experience, and that it is impossible to reduce them to a simple horseshoe-shaped curve.

While these criticisms have some merit, the horseshoe theory is no more problematic than the commonly accepted left/right continuum. To picture both extremes at the opposite ends of a straight line gives the false impression that they are worlds apart from each other in assumptions and tactics. Examples abound that demonstrate both extremes are often nothing more than two sides of the same extremist coin. 

For example, book banning is a common tactic of both extremes-- the right has currently organized a concerted effort across America to ban books that portray sexuality and race in a light they find displeasing. The left has sought to ban books that use racialized language and so-called "trigger words" that cause discomfort. The right is willing to restrict the free market and a business's first amendment rights by placing restrictions on companies that are deemed as "too woke." The most notable example is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and his attempt to make Disney World submit to his will. On the extreme left the government can strangle businesses by overreach into company affairs. One case in point is the current exodus of businesses from California for states with less stifling regulatory practices.

There are more examples that can be utilized, but two observations are in order. First, in using the language of left and right, I have not employed the words conservative and liberal as synonyms. This is quite simply because the extreme left is not liberal nor is the extreme right conservative. Mainstream liberalism and conservatism embrace freedom as a central tenet of their political philosophy, though each may disagree on the details of how certain governmental policies will support or hinder the American people in living out that freedom. Nevertheless, freedom has always been respected by mainstream Republicans and Democrats as fundamental to modern democracy. On the horseshoe, the most ardent defenders of freedom find themselves at the top between the two extremes.

One revealing case of the shared assumptions of the extreme left and the extreme right are the imposition of tariffs. Conservative trade policy has traditionally opposed tariffs while liberals have not, though it must be stated that those closer to the center of the horseshoe-- moderate liberals have tended to be skeptical of them while moderate conservatives have been open to tariffs under certain conditions. With the advent of Donald Trump, the right has now become supporters of tariffs demonstrating that the current extreme-right Republican power base is not conservative, but now share the same assumptions as the extreme left which is not liberal. The horseshoe makes sense of this while the left/right continuum does not.

The extremes of left and right are not liberal or conservative, but are rather best described as authoritarian. Authoritarianism is "the enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom" (Dictionary. com). Authoritarians believe that freedom is a secondary consideration to enforcing the morality of their positions. Authoritarians will often use the language of freedom as a way to gaslight the population claiming they are about something they are not. In essence they appeal to freedom in order to reduce what they believe are its unpleasing aspects.

Over the years, my vocal opposition to what has been termed "Trumpism" is not because it is conservative, but because it is not. It is authoritarianism masquerading as conservatism. I have been criticized in the past few years for having spent more time critiquing Trumpism than authoritarian "liberals." While I have turned my focus toward the latter at times, the main reason for my strong critique of authoritarian "conservatism" is that unlike the extreme left, at this moment in political history it is only the extreme right that has the influential national platform in the United States to bring their agenda to fruition. There may very well come a day in the future when the authoritarian left has such a platform. When that time comes, it will be worth the strong gaze of criticism and I will lead the way in critique.

Despite its flaws, the horseshoe theory remains a popular way of conceptualizing political ideology for many people. It has been used to explain the rise of populist movements on both the left and the right, as well as to understand the appeal of authoritarian leaders who promise radical change. It's main value is that it forces the extremes on both sides to consider that their assumptions and tactics are similar to the extreme on the other end of the horseshoe-- something both sides wish to deny.

The only way to recognize authoritarianism is to judge the character of the leader. Authoritarians have a serious character deficit that combined with Narcissistic proclivities can over time lead to tyranny. These should not be dismissed because the voters find their policy positions agreeable. In democracies, authoritarians gain power, not by seizing it violently, but in being elected. Once in power, they will resort to violence to retain power. The horseshoe theory of politics places the significance of character for leadership and the methods such leaders use at the center of discernment. It can help the church in America to be more discerning about its political loyalties. The Bible emphasizes the importance of character while biblical law has much to say about how something is accomplished in the ordering of a community of people. That the church in America has lacked such discernment of late should be obvious.

The Founders recognized the indispensable nature of good character for leadership. The second President of the United States, John Adams understood this when he observed that democracies do not fall from outside forces; rather they commit suicide.
*I am thankful to Michael Kruse for his observations on this post before its publication.


Andy said...

I’m with you on this analysis. Thank you.

Chuck Tackett said...

Excellent essay Allan, spot on! thank you.

Kitty Snyder said...

Very interesting.