If the Horseshoe Fits: Illiberalism Across the Political Spectrum
“While far-right ideologues do not hide their illiberalism, their left-wing counterparts tend to mask theirs in the language of equality.
The idea that the left-right political spectrum is shaped like a horseshoe is anathema to those who occupy the extremes of this spectrum. Who, after all, cares to admit that he is the mirror image of his worst enemy? But the fact is that if you go far enough to the right or to the left, you end up with ideologies that are surprisingly similar in their illiberalism.
These ideologies are also inherently totalitarian: they wish to control all aspects of society, seeking complete ideological conformity in all spheres of life. Liberal democracy, which guarantees freedom of expression and allows individuals to pursue their own goals and interests, is thus seen as an obstacle rather than a way forward, despite its unparalleled track record in terms of human development.
At the start of the 20th century, this totalitarian mindset led to the twin nightmares of Communism and Nazism, two illiberal movements that are often portrayed – incorrectly – as polar opposites. In The road to serfdomFA Hayek writes:
“Communists and Nazis clashed more frequently than with other parties simply because they disputed the same kind of spirit and reserved hatred of the heretic.”
While far-right ideologues do not hide their illiberalism, their left-wing counterparts tend to mask theirs in the language of equality. They talk about “social justice” and the need to “dismantle systemic oppression”: progressive-sounding concepts designed to appeal to well-meaning liberals while in practice eroding core liberal principles. Buzzwords like “equity” and “diversity,” for example, often imply unequal treatment and discrimination based on immutable characteristics like race and gender.
These language games have been instrumental in promoting the critical social justice (CSJ) perspective – more commonly referred to as “revival” – which in recent years has infiltrated many societal institutions in the West.
Today’s mainstream “anti-racist” ideology (as popularized by militant scholars such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi) embodies the Horseshoe Principle: it is often unequivocally and unapologetically racist. Linguist and social commentator John McWhorter refers to this creeping phenomenon as “woke racism”. Like many of their far-right counterparts, adherents tend to see everything through a racial lens, categorizing people by skin color.
“A previous generation had come to the conclusion,” writes Douglas Murray in his recent book The war in the west, “that rejecting people, vilifying them, or generalizing about them simply because of the color of their skin was the definition of racism.” Today, we often hear that every white person is complicit in maintaining racism unless they actively work to dismantle “white privilege.”
Many self-proclaimed “anti-racists” therefore support policies that discriminate against white people. To Quotation Kendi, “The only cure for racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination.” For Kendi, racial discrimination is anti-racist if it increases racial equity. Not only is this view based on mistake that racial disparities necessarily involve racism or racial discrimination, which ignores a host of other often interrelated social and cultural factors (such as differences in skills, attitudes and behaviors); it also goes directly against liberal democratic principles of equal treatment and individual rights.
It is not a coincidence. As early as 2001, critical race theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explained in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “Unlike traditional civil rights, which embrace incrementalism and progressive progress, critical race theory challenges the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and the neutral principles of constitutional law. In short, the CRT, which underpins much of today’s racial activism, rejects core liberal values.
The fact that Delgado and Stefancic found themselves in tune with fascists, racists and white supremacists, despite pursuing widely divergent goals, should have given them pause. At the very least, he should have raised some red flags. But today, just two decades later, this illiberal attitude and the tendency to re-racialize society are commonplace among self-proclaimed progressives.
Another interesting case study is far-left anti-fascism. Anti-Fascist Action Groups (Antifa) are usually made up of – or at least harbor – radical leftists and anarchists willing to use violence to eradicate any opposition (thereby behaving like fascists) in the name of “anti-fascism”. This attitude was fully visible when, in June 2019, journalist Andy Ngo was violently assaulted by Antifa on the streets of Portland, Oregon, for being a conservative and publicly speaking out against Antifa bullies. Ironically, these radicals, whose definition of fascism is often so broad that it includes anyone to their right, are actively working to undermine the one thing that offers effective protection against fascist totalitarianism: liberal democracy.
The irony, however, does not end there. Take, for example, the homophobic tendencies of the LGBTQ+ movement. It’s a movement who’s waiting lesbians to overcome their same-sex attraction and sleep with people with penises – formerly called “men” – who simply identify as women, for fear of being accused of transphobia. According to writer and comedian Andrew Doyle, a homosexual:
“Stone wall [the largest LGBTQ+ rights organization in Europe] are the biggest threat to gay rights right now… Now that they’ve decided that being gay doesn’t mean being attracted to the same sex, which is the heart of homosexuality (they say it’s attracted to the same sex; they revised their definition on their website and their promotional material), they promote a new religion of gender identity ideologies: they say we all have an innate gendered soul; and the consequence of that is that it goes against all the achievements of gay rights, which were based on the recognition of biological reality, because gay men are attracted to other men, and gay women are attracted to other women, and that’s what has shamed us for so many years, and that’s why we’ve been attacked. And now we have activists who basically say, if you’re a lesbian and you exclude people with penises from your dating group, you’re a fanatic. Stonewall manager Nancy Kelley calls them sexual racists. It’s the old homophobic trope: you just haven’t found the right man yet (saying that to a lesbian); or maybe there is something wrong with you, maybe you have a trauma; or maybe you have psychological issues, and that’s why you’re not open, it’s old fashioned homophobia from the 80s and before being recycled in the name of progressivism.
As a result, Doyle no longer sees the rainbow flag as a symbol of tolerance but “as a warning of intolerance, illiberalism, tribalism, something quite unpleasant – and that is a complete about-face”.
Moreover, by fundamentally eliminating biological sex from the equation, gender identity ideologues have breathed new life into outdated stereotypes of masculinity and femininity: if someone does not conform to the norm, he is considered not to be truly male or female and is expected to identify as something else or transitional.
The horseshoe theory accounts for the fact that the one-dimensional left-right political spectrum does not reflect reality. The idea “that opinions and political movements can be gathered from left to right, and that as long as you are not on the left, as long as you are on the right” does not really make sense , according to the philosopher Roger Scruton. Why, for example, are fascists and economic liberals considered right-wing? The main problem with the left-right binary, however, is that it obscures important commonalities between seemingly polar positions, pushing well-meaning people into the clutches of radical and illiberal ideologies..
Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a doctorate. in literary and cultural studies. It can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch