From Wikipedia:

The horseshoe theory in political science asserts that rather than the far left and the far right being at opposite and opposing ends of a linear political continuum, they in fact closely resemble one another, much like the ends of a horseshoe.

For example, segregation and discrimination are often attributed to the right, and yet the left is actively practicing these policies these days (Daily Mail, LA Times)

A few more examples to clarify:

What do political scientists generally think of the horseshoe theory?

  • 7
    I think your examples show similarities of behavior, but not necessarily similarities of intent/philosophy.
    – user1530
    May 8, 2015 at 17:36
  • 6
    I think the horseshoe theory doesn't require for the two extremes to have similarities in what they believe, only in what they do.
    – falcon
    May 9, 2015 at 1:17

6 Answers 6


Yes, but not in the simplistic left/right way it's presented.

  1. People (and politics) are not single-dimensional, but multi-dimensional. This better model can be seen in 2-demensional political charts like Nolan's, and many others.

    Some of those charts illustrate and explain the reason why horseshoe theory fits pretty well (this one is from Political Compass organization):

    enter image description here

    If you notice, the left and right both have an independent second dimension - liberty vs. authoritarianism or totalitarianism (in other words, how much power an individual has vs. the state). If you draw a horseshoe - either upside down, or upside up, it would fit.

    Both the authoritarian left and right are authoritarian at the core, and frequently have more to do with each other - especially concerning methods and tactics and view of human nature - than the libertarians on either right or left.

    This is why you hear right-libertarians in USA complain about G.W.Bush and "big government republicans" - while far from "far right", the latter are just as happy to grow the power of government, they simply wish to use it for their preferred ends and not the ends of the Democrats.

  2. To expand on the similarity of approaches:

    • The overriding human-nature philosophy of an authoritarian is that most people aren't fit to govern themselves, and only select few (with the right ideas and the right skills) are to be entrusted with power[1][2].

    • The preferred strategy is to pass intrusive laws to enforce desired approaches and outcomes; and harsh enforcement on those violating said laws.

    • Heavy use of propaganda and icons.

    • Governing approach frequently characterized by lack of interest in efficacy of approaches (as random examples from both extremes in USA, abstinence-only sex ed on the right and pouring endless money into schoolrooms with zero improvement on the other, though this isn't always confined to the extremes).

    • Viewing the political opposition as the enemy, not the opposition.

    • Finding a specific group to vilify (frequently, but not universally, Jews work out pretty well, both for left and right)

    • At the far extremes, willingness to use violence and terrorist tactics to achieve goals.

  3. Quite interestingly, people that are "extreme far right" according to the left-wing (that is, fascists), don't consider themselves to be on the right (or left) at all. Given that I'm not an expert on fascism, let's ask an expert, shall we?

    • Benito Mussolini in 1919 described fascism as a movement that would strike "against the backwardness of the right and the destructiveness of the left".

    • Hitler named his Nazi party "NSDAP", which means National-Socialst German Worker's Party.

[1] - of course, as always in politics, nothing is quite as black and white. One of the most authoritarian lefties ever, V.I. Lenin, famously pontificated on the topic of "We know that an unskilled labourer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration" - but followed up with admonition to teach said labourers to govern. Whether he was genuine about the latter or not, we all know how that evolved in the state he built - only the Party elite had real power

[2] - In a non-extreme way, we have people like NYC ex-mayor Bloomberg, who basically seamlessly switched from D to R so he could run for mayor on a totalitarian platform of not allowing people to drink large-sized sodas. Or every single Party Bigwig in USSR suddenly becoming a bigshot "democratic" leader in post-Soviet space. In a more extreme way, see the latter bullet #3 about fascism

[3] - ... and most people chanting "Death to Jews" in Europe in 2014 were Socialist party voters, not Marie Le Pen ones.

  • 3
    The interesting thing about drawing a horseshoe on that graph is that it can rotate relative to the traditional linear spectrum. So at one point in time the Libertarian Left might be considered "far left", with the Libertarian Right being "far right", but at some later point the horseshoe may have rotated clockwise 90°, so that the extreme ends are both "Left" but differ on the Authoritarian/Libertarian axis, and the "Right" represents the more mainstream view. Or vice versa with a counter-clockwise turn. The current horseshoe is not the permanent ordering.
    – Bobson
    May 12, 2015 at 1:25
  • 2
    @Avi - to paraphrase the "faster than the bear", the 2D model doesn't have to be good. It just has to be better than absolutely useless 1D model
    – user4012
    May 13, 2015 at 0:54
  • 2
    @Avi - the only assertion my answer is making is that 2D (of almost any kind) is better than 1D. It's quite possible that 3+D is even more accurate - however, that is not necessary to provide an answer (although a more accurate ND model may result in an even better answer for all I know)
    – user4012
    May 15, 2015 at 13:09
  • 2
    @Avi - which part of the linked Wikipedia article leaves any doubt that political scientists think that 1D model is inadequate?
    – user4012
    May 15, 2015 at 23:05
  • 4
    I like this answer a lot, except for the bizarre (and really unnecessary) claims in point 3. First, the idea that the Nazis were actually leftist because they have "socialist" in their name is absurd and debunked. More importantly, Left-Right self-identification is pretty irrelevant to your argument and distracts from the other strong points. To use that Mussolini quote as evidence for the Horseshoe theory, requires proving that he truly believed that his party was neither left or right and that it's not just propaganda. The answer would be stronger without dealing with self-identification.
    – divibisan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 15:08

What do political scientists generally think of the horseshoe theory?

None of your examples are really political issues from a comprehensive political platform.

The problem is things are not a clear continuum and motivations/rationale for believing perspectives do affect issues.

It does not take much time to find significant issues which the "horseshoe" effect will not come close to being true for the extremes, such as:

  • Welfare (Republicans could do away with the entirety of it, Democrats have it considerably expanded)
  • Healthcare (Republicans want it 100% private, Democrats 100% government)
  • Military (Less obvious, but Republicans support stronger military than Democrats)
  • Taxation (Democrats support much. much more progressive taxation than Republicans)

Just those issues alone are pretty clearly "opposite" if you take them to their extremes. Each political perspective when taken further becomes less and less like the other.

Now, if you want to talk about specific issues rather than overall policy and the methods people use to "get" their way? Perhaps, since the easiest way to make a point or get media coverage is normally violence.

But your example of the feminist/radical Islam both disliking bikini ads? Just take that to the extreme for both. How similar would a society run by radical feminists really be to one run by extremist Muslims?

Very, very different. So your initial example seems misplaced - the methods used are similar, but the underlying political theory, political motivations, and desired outcomes are dramatically different.

  • 8
    I can imagine that a society run by radical feminists may end up becoming a gender-reversed Saudi Arabia. Racism and anti-racism would seem to be opposite extremes as well, and yet we've gone full circle. Perhaps someone decides to take welfare and progressive taxes so far that they implement short-sighted policies that end up hurting poor people even more?
    – falcon
    May 8, 2015 at 4:30
  • 4
    @falcon This says much more about your ill-conceived vision of what feminism (radical or not) is than about the horsehoe theory.
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 15, 2018 at 12:26
  • 1
    Ordinary disagreements like Welfare pro & con aren't relevant. It needs to be made very extreme -- very extreme welfare would give the poorest people everything, (say, as compounded interest on reparations of the harms of impoverishment), and very extreme anti-taxers would allow the richest to own everything, (they earned it and deserve it so it's their right, and selfishness is realist virtue), so either way a small group winds up owning it all. "Wait a tic... blimey, this redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought."
    – agc
    Jul 15, 2018 at 4:51
  • @agc No, very extreme welfare would not allow for any discrepancies in income or wealth. So this would wind up into anybody owning the same amount. I never heard of any idea to give all the wealth to the poorest, not in communism, not in any other theory. That seems just a ridiculous idea (although the Internet is large and you may find somebody somewhere who proclaims such an idea, but then there are Flat-Earthers, so...).
    – Thern
    Jul 16, 2018 at 12:02
  • @Thern, Please click on that "blimey" link for an illustration. But supposing a more even distribution, relative wealth to a poor family might be fatal misery to a wealthy one. Many of the extremely wealthy are like captive, pampered, or specially trained animals not acclimated to survive a theoretic egalitarian jungle.
    – agc
    Jul 17, 2018 at 11:42

How accurate is horseshoe theory?

Accuracy in political science would be empirical matching in a major political science discourse. I assume that this would produce articles that would be located with the search terms "horseshoe theory" "review article" "politics". Nothing.

What do political scientists generally think of the horseshoe theory?

My understanding is that scholarly disciplines produce "general" understandings through the generation of widely reviewed monographs ("seminal texts") or through review articles summarising major theoretical work in a field. As I can't locate a review article, I do not believe that political scientists share a general understanding of horseshoe theory.

There may be a reason for this, in Filipović, M; Đorić, M. (2010) they summarise, "Competing with different linear and multidimensional classifications of parties, Faye (1996) developed a much criticized horseshoe theory asserting that the far The Left and the far The Right resemble one another to a great extent and are not the opposing ends of a political spectrum." This is an extremely hostile characterisation of Faye's work.


Filipović, M; Đorić, M. (2010) "The Left or the Right: Old Paradigms and New Governments" Serbian Political Thought 2(1-2): 121-144. http://www.sptips.rs/SPT1996/CD-SPT-1-2-2010.pdf#page=121

Faye, J. (1996) Le siecle des ideologies. Paris: Arman Colin


The horseshoe "theory" is actually just an observation that Marxist states always seem to turn into dictatorships that closely resemble fascist dictatorships.

Both fascism and Marxism reject democracy as a mode of government decision making.

  • In fascism the will of the people (meaning in this case the dominant ethnic group in the country) is channelled by a single strong leader who understands what the people want and need, and can therefore interpret the will of the people in the form of government policy.

  • In Marxism the transition to a true socialist utopia is supposed to involve a stage called "the dictatorship of the proletariat" in which the people (meaning in this case the members of the working class) have control of the machinery of the state. However it was clearly impossible to hold a referendum on every decision, so the principles of "democratic centralism" held that the party at each administrative level should debate its course of action and, once a decision was taken by a vote, cease agitating against it. The vote was by the local or national party, which meant that decisions made by the Politburo were effectively orders not subject to debate. The argument to legitimise this state of affairs was that the strong and wise leaders of the people knew what the people wanted and could therefore interpret the will of the people in the form of government policy.

The Marxist variant was always supposed to be temporary. Eventually it would melt away, leaving the workers to simply decide what they wanted/needed to do that day. However that day never arrived. In both Fascism and Marxism the "Economic Calculation Problem" meant that a technocratic elite formed to manage the day to day organisation of productive work, and as a professional managerial class wielding both political and managerial power they rapidly became indistinguishable from the exploitative class that they claimed to have replaced.

Thus the two ideologies arrived at essentially the same system, although the Marxists took a more roundabout route. Hence the "horseshoe theory".


Some similarities and differences in a French context (relevant because a large portion of the electorate there votes for the extremes of the [conventional] spectrum) are detailed by Mayer (2011). To pick some examples, in the 2007 election

On a global indicator taking into account the occupation of the interviewee and of his or her parents, some 70 percent of Le Pen and Besancenot voters had at least one link with the blue-collar world (as against 56 percent in the total sample). Seventy percent found it hard to get by on their present income. If one combines this economic stress with the fact of being unemployed or having a fixed-term contract, one gets an indicator of social precariousness, a condition that affects 15 percent of the 2007 French Panel sample, but one Lepenist voter out of five and one Besancenot voter out of four.

Yet if one looks more closely, differences do appear. Among Le Pen voters there are more blue-collars belonging to the manual working class. One finds more of the lower service class, the “post-industrial” proletariat, among Besancenot supporters, a trend noted by Nathan Sperber in a detailed study of extreme-left voting in 2002. Lepenist voters are older, the majority of them over 40, and one quarter are retirees. The majority of Besancenot voters are under 40, and only some 10 percent have retired. Being younger, they are also more educated. Over 40 percent have at least the baccalaureate, the degree that marks the end of high school in France, double the proportion found in the Le Pen group; and 10 percent of Besancenot supporters were university students at the time of the survey (as against some 2 percent of Le Pen voters). Lastly, the Besancenot group is more multicultural, 30 percent of them have a foreign parent or grandparent, twice as many as among Le Pen supporters.

Leaving demographics and moving on to platforms:

The fact that the extreme Right and the extreme Left both are particularly hostile to European integration is one of the arguments often used to emphasize their convergence, as suggested by the provocative title of Dominique Reynié’s book Le Vertige social-nationaliste: La gauche du Non et le référendum de 2005. Indeed, when asked how they voted in the referendum of 2005 on the European Constitution (Figure 4), respondents intending to vote for Le Pen or Besancenot in 2007 both declared an exceptionally high level of “No” votes.

enter image description here

As Sylvain Brouard and Vincent Tiberj have shown, left-wing voters in general defend the public service and the welfare system against a European Union (EU) they associate with big business and economic neo-liberalism; there is a social dimension to their opposition, while Le Pen voters associate the EU with open borders and massive flows of immigration threatening French national identity.

One finds the same kind of contrast in 2007. When presented with a list of problems and asked to select the two that would be most important for them at the time of voting, Besancenot supporters put forward social issues. Unemployment, social inequalities, and purchasing power were ranked first or second by respectively 38, 35, and 27 percent of them. The hierarchy was different for Le Pen voters; they gave priority to the issue of immigration, followed by unemployment and crime, chosen by respectively 49, 34, and 25 percent. A majority of both groups believed that their candidate offered the best solutions on the issues that mattered most to them. If one compares the choices of extreme-right and extreme-left voters to those of the sample at large, computing for each issue the difference between the average answers and those of Besancenot and Le Pen voters (Figure 5), the former stand apart by the importance they attach to social inequalities and taxes, the latter by the importance they give to immigration and crime. And both groups appear almost systematically opposed on ten out of the thirteen issues. When one rates an issue higher than the sample average, the other will rate it lower. They clearly have antagonistic visions of the world.

enter image description here

So the modern extremes may meet on some issues, but not on as many as one might think. And based on these issues a score of "ethnocentric authoritarianism" is computed, which (unsurprisingly) oppositely varies with the propensity to vote for the extreme left or extreme right candidate(s):

enter image description here

So while it's easy to find similarities based on past authoritarian regimes (nazism vs stalinism etc.) in terms of methods (physical suppression of opposition, personality cults etc.) a look at the more democratically inclined extremes of today finds the difference in terms of platforms/ideology with relative ease.

Furthermore, not only does the extreme left does not look like the extreme right in terms of values/ideas, but there's also more ideatic variation at each extreme than in the center, in Europe at least. According to Hanel, Zarzeczna, and Haddock:

There is a popular belief that individuals within political left- and right-wing extremist groups share very similar values and attitudes in contrast to more moderate activists, who are seen as more heterogeneous. 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’ (see Choat, 2017). However, not only do recent studies fail to support such beliefs, they also contradict them. For example, van Hiel (2012) analyzed variability in values and anti-immigration attitudes among political party activists who reported affiliation with left-, right-wing, and moderate groups. Analyzing European Social Survey data (2002- 2008) collected from Western European political activists, van Hiel found a substantial amount of heterogeneity of values within left- and right-wing party members, and greater homogeneity reported among members with moderate views. However, he did not directly compare the variability across groups of individuals that identified themselves with the political left, right or center.

[Thus, in the new study...] Specifically, we tested whether the values of left- and right-wingers are more diverse than the values of those in the center across all European countries, using a series of Levene-tests for variance homogeneity. The results showed that left-wingers were significantly more heterogeneous than those in the center for all ten values supporting the view that extreme left-wingers form a less homogeneous mass. Also, right-wingers were significantly more heterogeneous than those in the center for all values except for conformity.

[...] Overall, a higher proportion of variance in value endorsement was explained by country membership among more extreme political supporters compared to individuals with moderate views.

So there's perhaps a country-specific flavor to extremism, but the moderates tend to look the same across countries. (An interesting form of globalization, if you ask me.)

Van Hiel also offers an interesting perspective as to why the Horseshoe theory may have come about, namely the relative uniformity of the moderates:

Imagine two extremists: would you consider them to be more alike to each other than two moderates would be?You probably do. It seems to be common knowledge that members of extremist groups are ‘all alike’, and this idea also seems to pervade the literature, although it is difficult to provide citations that explicitly convey this message.There are, however, social psychological explanations for why extremist groups are often considered to be composed of homogeneous members. For example, almost by definition most people are moderates, and there is only a small number of extremists, which places them in an outgroup position. Social categorisation theory asserts that outgroups tend to be perceived not only as different from the ingroup, but also as more homogeneous (the outgroup homogeneity effect), which may explain why members of extremist groups are perceived as being very similar to one another (e.g., Vonk & van Knippenberg 1995).


Yes, this is accurate, and is explained by the principal of Baptists and Bootleggers. Two seemingly unrelated groups vie for the same thing, but for different reasons. Here is a video which will explain.

Bootleggers and Baptists


Bootleggers and Baptists is a concept put forth by regulatory economist Bruce Yandle,[1] derived from the observation that regulations are supported both by groups that want the ostensible purpose of the regulation, and by groups that profit from undermining that purpose.[2]

For much of the 20th century, Baptists and other evangelical Christians were prominent in political activism for Sunday closing laws restricting the sale of alcohol. Bootleggers sold alcohol illegally, and got more business if legal sales were restricted.[1] "Such a coalition makes it easier for politicians to favor both groups. ... [T]he Baptists lower the costs of favor-seeking for the bootleggers, because politicians can pose as being motivated purely by the public interest even while they promote the interests of well-funded businesses. ... [Baptists] take the moral high ground, while the bootleggers persuade the politicians quietly, behind closed doors."[3]


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .