Is It Time to Abandon Horseshoe Theory?

In February, the Pacific Standard published an article making the case for chucking out the horseshoe theory of political alignment. The article is quite thought out, and does a good job of making its case. Though I’m inclined to agree that the horseshoe is an outmoded understanding of the political spectrum, I’m not sure that the answer is total abandonment.

One does not need to look very hard for instances of the far right and the far left doubling back on each other, even if only in style and practice rather than substance and philosophy. Yes, the two most well known examples hail from the last century and are often presented as the ironclad proof of such theory. Indeed there is much to be said about Nazi fascism and Stalinist Bolshevism. They remain the go-to examples of totalitarianism in modern history. However, they are not the only examples. Other examples exist, even as they are typically smaller in scope and presentation.

Take, for example, the concept of “being woke.” While this has started to become a catch-all label for anyone who can see beyond the veil and recognize social strata as manmade abstraction, and the power structures that enforce such strata, it often comes as reactionary in action. Being woke is not just the acknowledgement, tacit or otherwise, that injustices not only exist but exist by design, it is also the decision to act against those power structures when they show themselves. One must first witness an injustice to be able to react to it. It is, by its very nature, a reactionary doctrine. However, reactionaryism is a trait most frequently associated with the political right, with the degree and strength of the reaction increasing the farther right one lands on the spectrum.

Is being woke a rightist ideological phenomenon? Certainly not. It’s aim to dismantle power structures that are, at best, inequitable, places it firmly on the left; most likely quite the far end. It might be thought of as a sort of societal, rather than economic, socialism where everyone has equal claim to the means of justice and no one is oppressed for the sake of maintaining artificially constructed hierarchies. Nonetheless, its reactionary nature and willingness to go at great length to establish its order at least suggest an overlap with methods of the far right, even as it holds at its core a complete and total rejection of far right ideology and construction.

Any serious student of politics will no doubt reject the simple line segment as an illustration of the political spectrum. Indeed, one is more commonly apt to find more usefulness in the quadrant representation of political ideology with an economic left and right, and an individual liberty up and down, with the center where the axes meet being a centrism more akin to total apathy. Experts, students, and laypersons alike will often find value in the quadrant system, and a plethora of tests and quizzes exist to accurately find one’s placement on the quadrant.

But, consider this: It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that one can find themselves in agreement with the rhetoric of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, even as they exist in opposite corners of the quadrant. To be sure, they both have a nearly identical voting record in the Senate, and they both espoused ideas that suggest their support for broader social, economic, and civil rights, often with the aim of a more equitable tax system and broader range of publicly funded social services.

It is to this end that I suggest that there is indeed still more to be learned and understood about the political spectrum, but this does not necessarily mean that one or either visualization is incorrect in totality. Rather, I pose the question that perhaps both the horseshoe and the quadrant have valid merits. If one thinks of the horseshoe as having three dimensions, while the quadrant has only two, it is not a stretch to suggest that the quadrant should be thought of in similar terms to a map; a two dimensional representation of something that exists in three dimensions, similar to a Mercator projection.

By bending the quadrant around a sphere, the differences between both theories can be reconciled. One can move so far in one direction as to double back, in style and practice, while also maintaining a great distance in substance and philosophy. The horseshoe may indeed be outdated, but it should be modified and applied to the more nuanced understanding of the quadrant rather than completely chucked out.

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