Horseshoe theory

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Proponents of horseshoe theory argue that the extreme left and the extreme right are closer to each other than either is to the political center.

In popular discourse,[1] the horseshoe theory asserts that the extreme left and the extreme right, rather than being at opposite and opposing ends of a linear political continuum, closely resemble each other, analogous to the way that the opposite ends of a horseshoe are close together.

The theory is attributed to the French philosopher and writer of fiction and poetry Jean-Pierre Faye in his 2002 book Le Siècle des idéologies.[2] Proponents point to a number of perceived similarities between extremes and allege that both have a tendency to support authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Several political scientists have criticized the theory.[3][4][5]


The horseshoe metaphor was used as early as during the Weimar Republic to describe the ideology of the Black Front.[6]

The later use of the term in political theory was seen in Jean-Pierre Faye's 2002 book Le Siècle des idéologies ("The Century of Ideologies").[7] Faye's book discussed the use of ideologies (he points out that "ideology" is a pair of Greek words that were joined in French) rooted in philosophy by totalitarian regimes with specific reference to Hitler, Nietzsche, Stalin, and Marx.[8]

Others have attributed the theory as having come from the American sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Daniel Bell, as well as the Pluralist school.[9] Because the theory is also popular in Germany, a co-contributor to the theory is said to be the German political scientist Eckhard Jesse.[10]

Modern usage[edit]

In a 2006 book, the American political scientist Jeff Taylor wrote: "It may be more useful to think of the Left and the Right as two components of populism, with elitism residing in the Center. The political spectrum may be linear, but it is not a straight line. It is shaped like a horseshoe."[11] In the same year, the term was used in discussing a resurgent hostility toward Jews and a new antisemitism from both the extreme left and the extreme right.[12]

Josef Joffe, a visiting fellow at the conservative think tank the Hoover Institution,[13] wrote in an essay from 2008:

Will globalization survive the gloom? The creeping revolt against globalization actually preceded the Crash of '08. Everywhere in the West, populism began to show its angry face at mid-decade. The two most dramatic instances were Germany and Austria, where populist parties scored big with a message of isolationism, protectionism and redistribution. In Germany, it was left-wing populism ("Die Linke"); in Austria it was a bunch of right-wing parties that garnered almost 30% in the 2008 election. Left and right together illustrated once more the "horseshoe" theory of modern politics: As the iron is bent backward, the two extremes almost touch.[14]

The reformist Muslim Maajid Nawaz invoked the horseshoe theory in 2015 while lamenting a common tendency on both extremes toward the compiling and publishing of "lists of political foes;" he added:[15]

As the political horseshoe theory attributed to Jean-Pierre Faye highlights, if we travel far-left enough, we find the very same sneering, nasty and reckless bully-boy tactics used by the far-right. The two extremes of the political spectrum end up meeting like a horseshoe, at the top, which to my mind symbolizes totalitarian control from above. In their quest for ideological purity, Stalin and Hitler had more in common than modern neo-Nazis and far-left agitators would care to admit.

In a 2018 article for Eurozine, "How Right Is the Left?",[16] political scientist Kyrylo Tkachenko[17] wrote about the common cause found recently between both extremes in Ukraine:

The pursuit of a common political agenda is a trend discernible at both extremes of the political spectrum. Though this phenomenon manifests itself primarily through content-related overlaps, I believe there are good reasons to refer to it as a red-brown alliance. Its commonalities are based on shared anti-liberal resentment. Of course, there remain palpable differences between far left and the far right. But we should not underestimate the dangers already posed by these left-right intersections, as well as what we might lose if the resentment-driven backlash becomes mainstream.

In Reason in 2021, Katherine Mangu-Ward, the magazine's editor-in-chief,[18] wrote:

[The horseshoe] theory is typically used to explain why 20th century communists and fascists seemed to have so much in common, though it likely predates the last century. But in the United States in 2021, a softer version of this iron law is at play, with the center-left and the center-right mushily converging toward expensive authoritarian policies that look astonishingly similar despite their supposedly opposite goals. Still a horseshoe, but more like one of the marshmallow ones you can find in bowls of Lucky Charms.[19]

In December 2022, historian Kathleen Belew, in examining the "crunchy-to-alt-right pipeline" – connections between "natural-food-and-body community and white-power and militant-right online spaces" – wrote that an examination of documents connected with the white power movement indicated that a "horseshoe" is not quite right as a visual metaphor for the relationship of the far-left and the far-right, that, in fact, the archive showed that it was more like a circle, at least in the specific case she examined.[20]

The theory has also been cited when referring to American far-right and far-left organizations both supporting Putin in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.[21]

The Probability of Autocratization in the Year after Election shows a horseshoe behavior along the economic left-right axis but not along the cultural dimension.[22]


The horseshoe theory does not enjoy support within academic circles; peer-reviewed research by political scientists on the subject is scarce and existing studies have generally contradicted its central premises.[23][24]

Chip Berlet has characterized the theory as an oversimplification of political ideologies, ignoring fundamental differences between them.[25][failed verification]

Paul H. P. Hanel, a research associate, wrote

Likewise, some even argue that all extremists, across the political left and right, in fact, support similar policies, in a view known as "horseshoe theory". However, not only do recent studies fail to support such beliefs, they also contradict them[...] Van Hiel also found that left-wing respondents reported significantly lower endorsement of values associated with conservation, self-enhancement, and anti-immigration attitudes compared to both moderate and right-wing activists, with individuals on the right reporting greater endorsement of such values and attitudes[...] Overall, van Hiel provided evidence demonstrating that Western European extremist groups are far from being homogenous, and left- and right-wing groups represent distinct ideologies.[26]

Simon Choat, a senior lecturer in political theory at Kingston University, criticizes horseshoe theory from a leftist perspective. He argues that far-left and far-right ideologies only share similarities in the vaguest sense in that they both oppose the liberal democratic status quo; however, the two sides both have very different reasons and very different aims for doing so. Choat uses the issue of globalization as an example; both the far-left and the far-right attack neoliberal globalization and its elites, but have conflicting views on who those elites are and conflicting reasons for attacking them:

For the left, the problem with globalisation is that it has given free rein to capital and entrenched economic and political inequality. The solution is therefore to place constraints on capital and/or to allow people to have the same freedom of movement currently given to capital, goods, and services; they want an alternative globalisation. For the right, the problem with globalisation is that it has corroded supposedly traditional and homogeneous cultural and ethnic communities – their solution is therefore to reverse globalisation, protecting national capital and placing further restrictions on the movement of people.[27]

Choat also argues that although proponents of the horseshoe theory may cite examples of alleged history of collusion between fascists and communists, those on the far-left usually oppose the rise of far-right or fascist regimes in their countries. Instead, he argues that it has been centrists who have supported far-right and fascist regimes that they prefer in power over socialist ones.[27]

While this formal academic analysis is fairly recent, criticism of horseshoe theory and its antecedents is long-standing, and a frequent basis for criticism has been the tendency of an observer from one position to group opposing movements together. As early as 1938, Marxist theorist and politician Leon Trotsky wrote:

The fundamental feature of [arguments comparing disparate political movements] lies in their completely ignoring the material foundation of the various currents, that is, their class nature and by that token their objective historical role. Instead they evaluate and classify different currents according to some external and secondary manifestation[...] To Hitler, liberalism and Marxism are twins because they ignore "blood and honour". To a democrat, fascism and Bolshevism are twins because they do not bow before universal suffrage[...] Different classes in the name of different aims may in certain instances utilise similar means. Essentially it cannot be otherwise. Armies in combat are always more or less symmetrical; were there nothing in common in their methods of struggle they could not inflict blows upon each other.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mayer, Nonna (2011). "Why extremes don't meet: Le Pen and Besancenot Voters in the 2007 Presidential Election". French Politics, Culture & Society. 29 (3): 101–120. doi:10.3167/fpcs.2011.290307. A commonly received idea, one strengthened by the post-war debates about the nature of totalitarianism, is that "extremes meet." Rather than a straight line between the Left and Right poles, the political spectrum would look more like a circle, or a "horseshoe," a metaphor the philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye used to describe the position of German parties in 1932, from the Nazis to the Communists.
  2. ^ Encel, Frédéric; Thual, François (November 13, 2004). "United States-Israel: A friendship that needs to be demystified". Le Figaro. Paris. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2009-02-13. Jean-Pierre Faye's famous horseshoe theory (according to which extremes meet) finds verification here more than in other places, and the two states of delirium often mingle and meet, unfortunately spreading beyond these extremist circles. But contrary to the legend deliberately maintained and/or the commonplace believed in good faith, Israel and the United States have not always been allies; on several occasions their relations have even been strained.
  3. ^ Filipović, Miroslava; Đorić, Marija (2010). "The Left or the Right : Old Paradigms and New Governments". Serbian Political Thought. 2 (1–2): 121–144. doi:10.22182/spt.2122011.8.
  4. ^ Berlet, Chip (2000). Right-wing populism in America: too close for comfort. Matthew Nemiroff Lyons. New York: Guilford Press. p. 342. ISBN 1-57230-568-1. OCLC 43929926.
  5. ^ Pavlopoulos, Vassilis (2014). "Politics, economics, and the far right in Europe: a social psychological perspective". The Challenge of the Extreme Right in Europe: Past, Present, Future. Birkbeck, University of London, 20 March 2014. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: location (link)
  6. ^ Backes, Uwe (1989). Politischer Extremismus in demokratischen Verfassungsstaaten [Political Extremism in Democratic Constitutional States] (in German). Wiesbaden: Springer. pp. 251–252. ISBN 978-3-531-11946-5.
  7. ^ "Le Siècle des idéologies". Pocket. 2008-12-22. Archived from the original on 2012-12-15. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
  8. ^ Le siècle des idéologies - Jean-Pierre Faye - Armand Colin - Grand format - Le Hall du Livre NANCY (in French).
  9. ^ Staff (ndg). "Challenging Centrist/Extremist Theory". Political Research Associates. Archived from the original on 2009-02-02. Retrieved 2009-02-22.
  10. ^ Mentioned critically in Die Zeit article Das Hufeisen muss runter Archived 2020-02-17 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Taylor, Jeff (2006). Where Did the Party Go? University of Missouri Press. p. 118. The concept first appeared in Taylor's M.A. thesis A Common Enemy: Populists of the Left and Populists of the Right Against Elitists of the Center (University of Missouri-Columbia, 1991, pp. 109-110) and then in his Ph.D. dissertation From Radical to Respectable (UMC, 1997, pp. 481–482).
  12. ^ Fleischer, Tzvi (31 October 2006). "The Political Horseshoe Again". Australia/Israel Review. AIJAC. Archived from the original on 16 May 2011. Retrieved 27 March 2015. I think Mr. Loewenstein has done a good job demonstrating why many people believe, as the 'political horseshoe' theory states, that there is a lot more common ground between the far left, where Loewenstein dwells politically, and the far right views of someone like Betty Luks than people on the left would care to admit.
  13. ^ "Josef Joffe". Hoover Institution. Archived from the original on 2020-10-22. Retrieved 2020-11-21.
  14. ^ "New Year's Essay 2009". Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. 2008-12-22. Archived from the original on 2009-02-03.
  15. ^ "The left's witchunt against Muslims". The Daily Beast. 2015-12-14. Archived from the original on 2018-05-23. Retrieved 2018-05-22.
  16. ^ "How Right is the Left?". Eurozine. 2018-05-15. Archived from the original on 2018-05-17. Retrieved 2018-05-31.
  17. ^ Kyrylo Tkachenko Krytyka
  18. ^ "Katherine Mangu-Ward" Reason Foundation
  19. ^ Mangu-Ward, Katherine (2021-09-13). "Let's Play Horseshoe Theory". Reason. Retrieved 2022-07-04.
  20. ^ Belew, Kathleen (December 14, 2022) "The Crunchy-to-Alt-Right Pipeline" The Atlantic
  21. ^ "Why America's Far Right and Far Left Have Aligned Against Helping Ukraine". Foreign Policy (magazine). July 4, 2022. Retrieved September 5, 2022.
  22. ^ Medzihorsky, Juraj; Lindberg, Staffan I (2023). "Walking the Talk: How to Identify Anti-Pluralist Parties" (PDF). Party Politics. doi:10.1177/13540688231153092.
  23. ^ van Hiel, Alain (2012). "A psycho-political profile of party activists and left-wing and right-wing extremists". European Journal of Political Research. 51 (2): 166–203. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6765.2011.01991.x. hdl:1854/LU-2109499. ISSN 1475-6765. The present results thus do not corroborate the idea that adherents to extreme ideologies on the left-wing and right-wing sides resemble each other but instead support the alternative perspective that different extreme ideologies attract different people. In other words, extremists should be distinguished on the basis of the ideology to which they adhere, and there is no universal extremist type that feels at home in any extreme ideology. (p. 197)
  24. ^ Hersh, Eitan; Royden, Laura (2022-06-25). "Antisemitic Attitudes Across the Ideological Spectrum". Political Research Quarterly: 106591292211110. doi:10.1177/10659129221111081. ISSN 1065-9129. S2CID 250060659. On all items, the far left has lower agreement with these statements relative to moderates, and the far right has higher agreement with these statements compared to moderates. Contrary to a "horseshoe" theory, the evidence reveals increasing antisemitism moving from left to right.
  25. ^ Berlet, Chip; Lyons, Matthew N. (2000). Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford Press. p. 342.
  26. ^ Hanel, Paul H. P.; Zarzeczna, Natalia; Haddock, Geoffrey (2019). "Sharing the Same Political Ideology Yet Endorsing Different Values: Left- and Right-Wing Political Supporters Are More Heterogeneous Than Moderates". Social Psychological and Personality Science. 10 (7): 874–882. doi:10.1177/1948550618803348. ISSN 1948-5506. S2CID 52246707 – via SAGE.
  27. ^ a b Choat, Simon (May 12, 2017) "‘Horseshoe theory’ is nonsense – the far right and far left have little in common" Archived 2017-06-19 at the Wayback Machine The Conversation
  28. ^ Trotsky, Leon (1938) "Morals" via

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