Horseshoe Theory: Meaning, History & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do political ideologies end up in extremes, and what do these look like? In this lesson, we'll look at one way of answering this through the horseshoe theory, and see where we see it in action throughout history.

The Horseshoe Theory

Imagine that two people are standing at the same spot on the equator. One starts walking left along the equator, and the other starts walking right. Eventually, they each walk about 3,950 miles. At this point, you may think that they are about as far away from each other as it's possible to be. But you'd be wrong. They've both gone so far that they're actually about to meet up on the opposite side of the globe. By going in extreme opposite directions, they ended up within shouting distance of each other.

This same idea has been applied to politics. We start in a political center, and then one person goes to the political left and one to the political right. In the traditional model, these ideologies expand into opposite directions until each reaches its most extreme form. However, what if we think of politics less like a straight line, and more like a globe? There is a point in which the two people are as far away from each other as is possible, but as they keep moving they actually come back closer together. The more extreme they become, the more similar they become. If we map out this journey and flip it into a 2-dimensional shape, it would look kind of like a horseshoe. For that reason, this idea is called the horseshoe theory.

The horseshoe theory rejects the idea of political ideologies as a straight line
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Elements of the Horseshoe Theory

While it contains elements of Centrist/Extremist political theory, horseshoe theory was first cohesively described by French writer Jean-Pierre Faye. Faye observed that political ideologies on both the extreme left and extreme right were characterized by some similar traits. For example, extremist positions on both sides tend to be pretty authoritarian, maintained by a strong, centralized executive figure, with little room allowed for dissent or opposition.

Furthermore, Faye posited, the extremist views no longer had much in common with the ideologies of the political center. This meant that the extreme left and extreme right were more similar to each other than to the political center. To Faye, this indicated that a linear model of political ideologies, in which each extends infinitely in opposite directions, didn't accurately convey the relationship between extremism and the center.

Example

Political theorists have noted examples of the horseshoe theory in action around the world, from disparate warlords and guerrillas in Africa to violent extremists in Europe. Perhaps the most obvious, and most frequently cited example of horseshoe theory, is in the relationship between fascism and communism (especially as it was enacted under Stalin and Mao).

At the extreme right is Mussolini, head of the fascist state in Italy
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Let's start again at our political center, in which you have a stable government, citizen participation, and a functioning democracy. Okay, now let's start moving right. As we pass well beyond your basic conservative values, new ideas start to emerge, such as the idea that the nation is inherently vulnerable, and that only a strong, single leader can save it. In fact, as we continue moving right, this leader starts insisting that the citizens must forfeit democratic rights in order to create an absolutely powerful centralized state. Dissenters are punished, often violently, as interrupting the security of the nation. Only through intense nationalism, authoritarian control, and a powerful military can the nation survive. Do you see where we are? We went so far right that we ended in up in fascism.

Now let's go left. From the political center, we start moving into leftist policies, but as we keep moving those policies become more and more revolutionary until we hit new extremes. Governments are toppled, the very concept of class is attacked and the structures of the economy are dismantled and rebuilt by a single, revolutionary party. This party now has complete control over the production and distribution of wealth, removing any sense of economic democratization. Dissenters become the faces of class oppression and are silenced by the single-party state. This is what happened in the USSR under Stalin, as well as in China under Mao. We went so far left that we ended up in a communist dictatorship.

To the extreme left is Stalin. Was he more similar to Mussolini or the political center?
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