Thoughts on Horseshoe Theory

Did I watch the State of the Union live? Nah. If I was going to waste time watching a badly-staged, insincere show of virtue that only confirmed the opposite, I would’ve watched the Grammy Awards.

But of course the main story leading up to this weekend was #ReleaseTheMemo, in which Republicans were huffing and puffing about the scandal of a biased FBI investigation against Trump, and Democrats were huffing and puffing that the release of FBI decisions was a threat to national security.

The effort was part of a somewhat successful campaign to put the prosecution on trial in the court of public opinion. (Hey, it worked for O.J. Simpson!) But it turned out to be much ado about nothing, for both sides. In terms of national security, the memo didn’t reveal much that we didn’t know. As the memo was analyzed, journalists realized that it relied on a presentation of Carter Page being targeted for his association with the Trump campaign (when it turned out that the FBI was looking at him before Trump even ran for president) and the idea that the Robert Mueller investigation is based entirely on the “Steele dossier” (when it turns out that there is at least one more dossier, and investigations proceeded mainly on suspicion of Trump advisor George Papadopoulos).

All this fails to explain why the whole investigation must be thrown out as “fruit of the poison tree” solely on the grounds of anti-Trump sympathy on the part of some players, but that demand is not automatically invalidated on the grounds that it is justified solely on pro-Trump sentiment. As Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the right-wing Cato Institute put it,  “Honestly, this reads like something you’d put together to *sound* scandalous to someone who isn’t going to parse it closely. ”

Oh gee. I wonder who that would be?

Like it matters, though. It’s of a piece with how Trump, simply by being leader of the Republicans, gets the mob to follow along as he redefines what being a Republican is. First Trump said that John McCain wasn’t a war hero. And Republicans had to go along with it. Then he said that (black) athletes were disrespecting the national anthem. And all of a sudden, Joe Sixpack started boycotting the NFL. Now Republicans are supposed to believe that the FBI – the J. Edgar Hoover organization that is more responsible for Trump’s election victory than any Russian skullduggery – is unpatriotic and a threat to the rule of law. (‘Unpatriotic’ meaning ‘does not worship Trump’ and ‘rule of law’ meaning ‘whatever wild hair is up Trump’s ass.’)

What’s next? Who knows? I’m thinking next week, Trump is going to announce that he is female and is undergoing the process of transition, at which point all the Republicans in Congress will fall on top of each other to be the first one to get castrated on the grounds that masculinity is now “gay.”

But this dynamic gets to a more abstract discussion I had recently with a left-wing Facebook friend. He had posted an article from Quartz about how Richard Spencer and other professional racists are “targeting disgruntled white male lefties to join their movement.” For one thing, the article quotes white nationalist speaker Eli Mosley in saying: “We’ve almost literally drained the market of libertarians.” But I could have told him this. I’ve addressed that subject at length with two detailed posts. In any case, you can’t get many libertarian recruits for the same reason that libertarians have neither taken off with the Libertarian Party nor taken over the Republican Party: There just aren’t that many of us in the first place. But the article went on to mention how the rightist groups were trying to poach leftists using their own language, especially invoking the common enemy of “corporate neoliberalism”. And my friend said in his assessment of the article, “I understand a bit of how this works from back when I was a conspiracy nut. While these days I think ‘horseshoe theory’ is full of shit, from the standpoint of a poor white dude who is not particularly well educated in politics, it *appears* true. What rightwing groups do is create a common enemy and sort of set your focus in another direction. … It’s just a more subtle version of what the far right has done for a long time. Bait and switch. ”

And my first response was, “To the extent that horseshoe theory is BS, it’s because authoritarians at both ‘extremes’ have more in common with each other than they have in common with classical liberals or moderates. But then, that’s why people like me use the ‘classical’ qualifier, because it’s becoming more and more clear that the Left never cared for real liberalism. That’s the main thing Marxists had in common with the blood-and-soil types.”

My friend responded, “I don’t think they have ‘more in common’ so much as they have *weird* things in common, which stick out to moderates. I mean, obviously any group that considers the status quo in need of immediate overhaul is going to have that in common. Any group that thinks the government is illegitimate will hold that in common.
“But those don’t define the left or right as much as they do extremism in general. If there were true ‘radical centrists’ that were actually uncomfortable with the status quo, they would have these traits. But the statement that radical groups are radical is never as profound as it seems to those who just discover it. It doesn’t change that the goals of the extreme left and right are opposite, and their policy preferences are irreconcilable.”

This was a topic I wanted to go over in light of my prior observations.

I have read that the problem with “horseshoe theory” is not merely that it oversimplifies politics to say that each political wing becomes more alike as they become more extreme, but that it discounts the fundamental differences between Right and Left in their motivations and goals. But if moderates fail to grasp the real political differences between two extremes, those differences likewise seem immaterial if you are a victim of extremism. It doesn’t matter to me whether I get thrown in the concentration camp because I’m gay, or Jewish, or atheist, or Muslim, or just because I didn’t follow whatever the fashion of political correctness was last week. The result will be the same.

As an example, a lot of leftists will excuse the Cuban government under Fidel Castro on the grounds that they created free education and health care. To me, “free education and health care” strikes me as the Left’s version of “at least Mussolini made the trains run on time.” And I say this because social democracies in Europe managed to develop support systems and health care without also putting gays and religious dissenters in prison. Apologists for the Castros will tell us that the Cuban regime militarized largely to defend against the hostility of the United States and its boycott of the island. But in response to that embargo, Cuba became an economic part of the Soviet bloc, and when the USSR ended, opened trade relations with wealthy Western nations that ignored the embargo. Leftists will also say that Cuba was a small, poor Latin American country with no resources to develop itself without socialism. But Costa Rica is a Latin American country with less natural resources, and it had both universal health care and a multiparty democracy in the 1940s. If the motivations of leftism are to give power to the people and create a more equitable standard of living, liberal and left-socialist governments have done so in several cases without becoming Cuban or Soviet-style regimes. But if you want to put gays and religious people in prison, then Cuba is not a failure but a success.

This is the practical reason why we should not use the ends to justify the means, because ultimately the means are ends in themselves.

Now for a more relevant example: It was reported last month that the Koch brothers are going to spend 400 million dollars on the 2018 midterms to preserve the Republicans’ majority in both houses of Congress. Previously they had spent $20 million in 2017 to run media campaigns and support efforts to pass the tax bill. In the CNBC article on the Kochs’ support network, it was also mentioned that they sponsor efforts at prison reform and also supports Trump’s recently announced idea of creating a path to citizenship for Dreamers while also opposing their drive to end chain migration for families. In the past, the Koch family were instrumental in the development of the Libertarian Party (David Koch ran as the running mate of Ed Clark in 1980) and also helped found the Cato Institute. Several of their positions (in support of immigrants, criminal justice reform and civil liberties, for instance) are worth supporting in themselves but are at odds with the positions of most Republicans. However Koch Industries is still based in fossil fuel production and the Koch network is actively against not only climate change legislation but any attempts by government or private enterprise to create energy alternatives.  Moreover, for the sake of specific goals that coincide with libertarianism, the Kochs give monetary and other support to conservative groups with questionable goals, for example contributing to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has sponsored voter ID laws in several states to restrict voting. This would be one thing if the agenda was simply economic libertarianism or Paul Ryan-style fiscal policy (which liberals would hate in any case). But as the vehicle of the Republican Party becomes more and more enslaved to the whims of Donald Trump, whatever social or even economic libertarianism could be achieved through conservatism will be undermined by the much broader movement towards authoritarianism. Given that the Kochs, unlike most Republicans, know enough about the Libertarian Party and the libertarian movement to know the difference between libertarianism and conservatism, they had the choice to use their wealth and influence to organize and grow a party that could challenge a problematic conservatism. The fact that they do not indicates that instead of trying to replace a dysfunctional system, they would rather maintain that system in order to serve their short-term purposes.

In the last election, right-wingers had a choice: vote for Trump (which the majority did), vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson (which I did) or vote for Hillary Clinton (which a lot of NeverTrumpers, even Penn Jillette, did). Each choice implied different value judgments and bargains as to what package deal was acceptable in politics. If for instance you seriously believe that personhood begins at conception and therefore abortion is always murder, you will find it almost impossible to deal with the Democratic Party or even the Libertarian Party. But if you align with the Republicans, you now know that you are supporting people who place cult of personality above the rule of law.

And from the left-wing perspective, being “pro-choice” and pro-woman often means putting yourself in contradictory positions, for instance taking money from Harvey Weinstein for Democratic campaigns.

In judging political alignments, that is, what party or general platform an individual chooses, the tendency seems to be that people fixate on a few issues (like abortion, or taxes) and adjust all their other positions around them. At that point, political actions are simply a matter of what one is willing to do and how far one will justify the overall goal. This might not be done for the sake of an extreme position, but it is possible to be led into extremism for the sake of the position. In this country at least, that usually occurs because of negative motivations and a desire to stop the opposing faction rather than promote a favored one. If there is one thing that extremists of both Left and Right have in common, it is not a vision of society but a hatred of “bourgeois” moderate liberalism and the process of negotiation in a representative democracy. This may be why the racists in the Quartz article had reason to think that by bagging on neoliberalism and capitalists that they could get recruits from the Left who would otherwise have nothing in common with them. After all, historically they’d done it before.

So in reviewing horseshoe theory, I think it’s fairly clear that the two political wings can both end in authoritarianism, regardless of apparent first motives. However, horseshoe theory doesn’t strictly apply in the current case, because it doesn’t explain why the slide to authoritarianism happens in the current context.

I again return to the point that “polarization”, at least in America, doesn’t work the way it does according to conventional wisdom. The process in our two-party system has been that years before Trump, the Tea Party and other factors purified the Republican Party of “RINOs” and even serious conservatives (like Utah’s Bob Bennett) because they weren’t following the conservative version of political correctness. Trump is simply the culmination of this. The result was that in a two-party system, people kicked out of one party normally go to the other one (the Democrats) even when that really isn’t a good fit for them. The long-term result was a dilution of whatever appeal Democrats had to the hard left and working class, and increased the perception among people like the Clintons that “neoliberal” friendliness to the elites was the way to go, if for no other reason than that it got them campaign money. As a tangential point, I bring up my theory that this is why the “stuff your principles and vote for the lesser evil” attitude, promoted by the Democrats most of the time but especially in 2016, was counterproductive and actually played into Trump’s hands. Because a lot of the moderates and NeverTrump right-wingers (like myself) had quit the Republicans precisely because we rejected that binary logic, and apparently so did a lot of left-wingers. The kind of people who did embrace binary logic were the kind of people who stuffed their qualms and decided to vote for Trump. The Republicans have gambled on having fewer but more committed voters whereas the Democrats have a theoretically larger voter base but fewer actual votes when it counts. And as we see, the gamble has paid off, not so much in presidential races (until now) but in state and down-ballot races that gave Republicans their legislative majorities, which magnify the effects of a Republican presidency and stymie the goals of a Democratic one.

The problem is less the differences between Left and Right and more a matter of what approach the political environment rewards.

This means that the other point is that it doesn’t matter so much whether a party is “extreme.” If you’re not going to uphold standards when the president is not a tyrant, and his party is moderate, you can’t expect standards to be upheld when the Leader is thoroughly crooked, his party is openly authoritarian, and their emotional and political investment in him is that much deeper. Which to me means that the cause of our current political moment is not to get this country back to “normal.” Because the prior normal sucked, the normal was dysfunctional, the normal is what got us to this point, and the goal must be to get us to something better than the previous norm.


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