The Horseshoe Effect

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"Fascism in America will attempt to advance under the banner of anti-fascism."
— A quote about this trope, variously attributed to Sinclair Lewis, Huey Long and others.

This trope is when two groups who are ostensibly ideologically opposed to each other actually have a lot of ideology in common.

Conventional political theory holds that all political ideologies sit on a linear spectrum from left to right: communism on the far left, fascism on the far right, and everything else somewhere in between. This theory implies that the further away an ideology is from the centre, the more different it is from a corresponding ideology on the opposite side of the spectrum: centre-left and centre-right political parties are distinct but still fairly similar, but communist and fascist political parties are dramatically different from one another, as they sit on opposite extremes of the spectrum.

In the case of the horseshoe effect, however, this is not so. Rather than a linear spectrum from left to right, political ideologies all sit on a curved, horseshoe-shaped arc, in which the two extremes of the spectrum are closer to each other than they are to the centre of the spectrum, and they have less "space" between them than less-extreme points do (if this sounds like a Mind Screw, look at the page image again). This means that the more radical and extreme an individual's political beliefs get, the more they come to resemble the beliefs of individuals on the "opposite" end of the political spectrum.

For example, far-right fascist or theocratic governments, to advance the national agenda and engender absolute loyalty to God/the state, will interfere with individual rights such as freedom of speech, interfere with individual-institutional rights such as freedom of the press and media, seize property rights for service to God/the state, enact censorship laws, and even try to control the Individual's very own personal life via Thought Crime, punishing aberrant behaviour such as homosexuality and the like. Meanwhile, in Marxist theory, an ideal communist State would be a classless stateless one, but the direct transition of a capitalist society into a communist one is held to be impossible, which is where "the Dictatorship of the Proletariat" comes in: the workers seize control of all private property. The Revolutionary Transitional government will engender absolute loyalty to the state among their citizens, interfere with individual rights, maintain rigid, censorious control of the press and media under the grounds that the state will eventually wither away once the reactionary enemy is defeated, eventually enact Thought Crime policies ostensibly to ensure that no reactionaries ever emerge, which means taking control of a person's individual life (up to and including their sexuality etc.).

Although the ideologies of the two governments in the example above are ostensibly on opposite ends of the political spectrum (such that both states would consider one another mortal enemies), in terms of practical de facto policies, they end up becoming Not So Different.

This theory was first observed in comparing far-right and far-left governments, but is also visible when comparing political groups or organisations on each end of the spectrum. Consider how some far-left radical feministsnote  tend to have remarkably similar attitudes towards prostitution, pornography and Transgender people as do conservative Christian fundamentalists; or how far-right white supremacist groups and far-left black supremacist groups have in some cases been known to collaborate with one another in order to achieve common goals (segregation, for example).

This is a sub-trope of Not So Different. It is commonly seen in concert with tropes such as He Who Fights Monsters, You Are What You Hate, Became Their Own Antithesis or Full-Circle Revolution. It is similar in some respects to Poe's Law; in that trope, the more extreme an opinion becomes the harder it is to tell whether it is intended satirically or notnote , whereas in this trope the more extreme an opinion gets, the harder it can be to tell whether it is coming from the far-left or the far-right. It could also be considered a form of Moral Myopia.

This trope can also lead people to misguidedly believe in the Golden Mean Fallacy, wherein the correct solution to a problem is assumed to be the middle of two extremes. Among political science circles, this trope can be criticised on the grounds that it presents centrist liberalism as the only option for society to take, which can end up being nothing more than calling for the status quo. Mentioning this trope is also something of a Berserk Button for individuals on either end of the political spectrum, who often resent the suggestion that they have anything ideologically in common with the individuals on the opposite end (as testament to this, look no further than the numerous Justifying Edits this page has undergone since its launch). Best practice is not to take the existence of this trope as hard-and-fast evidence that opposing political groups or governments always end up ideologically similar to each other; after all, it's the Horseshoe Effect, not the Horseshoe Law.

Can be related to Enemy Mine, wherein two enemies nevertheless realise they have a common goal and decide to work together to achieve it. Conversely, it can be related to Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters, when enemies don't realise they have a lot in common. It may also explain why people tend to lump Communists and Nazis together in the popular imagination. See also Villain Has a Point and Jerkass Has a Point, when characters the heroes and the author represent negatively nevertheless are in the right for once (and Strawman Has a Point, when this happens unintentionally). For more information, see this article on That Other Wiki.

Note: This trope is about ideological similarities between ostensibly opposed people or groups of people. For other kinds of similarities that aren't about belief systems, see Not So Different and its subtropes.


Examples:

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     Literature  

  • By the end of Animal Farm, the oppressive pigs running the farm are scarcely distinguishable (in appearance or beliefs) from the oppressive farmers they deposed. Note that this example wasn't so much to say that Communism and Fascism was Not So Different, but rather that Napoleon the Pig (representing Stalin) himself was the one Not So Different by essentially abandoning Animalism (Communism) for his own ends. Orwell after all was a Trotskyist and the story favors Snowball the Pig (Trotsky).
  • A recurring theme in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
    • The ideology of the totalitarian Party is called Ingsoc (English Socialism), and yet the society it governs has a great deal in common with far-right fascist dictatorships, with a strictly regimented class system based upon a subservient working class and a hierarchical, dictatorial system of rule. Goldstein's book, which describes the society, puts it rather baldly:
    ...the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism. note 
    • The premise of the book postulates an ongoing Forever War between three superpowers (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia), the political ideologies of which are, respectively, Ingsoc, Neo-Bolshevism and Obliteration of the Self. To the extent that the citizens of each superpower are aware of the other superpowers' political ideologies, they deride them as monstrous outrages upon common sense. However, as Goldstein notes, the three ideologies are functionally indistinguishable, as are the societies they support.
  • Parodied in A Confederacy of Dunces:
    • Most obviously, this appears when Myrna sends Ignatius a letter describing a folk singer who gave her a pamphlet detailing a conspiracy theory that the Pope was planning to amass a nuclear armory. She assumed that the folk singer was a leftist anti-religious civil rights activist, and only later realized that the pamphlet was actually published by the notoriously anti-Catholic far-right Ku Klux Klan.
    • Less obviously, Ignatius and Myrna themselves are examples. Theoretically, Myrna is a Jewish far-left proto-hippienote  who's all for socialism and thinks sex will solve everything, while Ignatius is an Irish Catholic far-right avant-le-lettre neoreactionary who believes in medieval-style monarchy and holds very conservative beliefs about sex (so conservative that even the contemporary Catholic Church seems liberal by comparison). Under the surface, however, their political views lead them to rather similar critiques of their common enemies (particularly conventional White Protestants), and Ignatius and Myrna's political views are basically a product of their difficult relationships with the Establishment. In other words, their obvious mutual attraction (despite Ignatius' protestations to the contrary) is clearly less strange than it might appear at first.
  • In The Screwtape Letters, the titular demon speaks about how any ideology can be used to turn a human to evil. He encourages creating zealots on both sides, and claims that after death their opposing souls can be blended into a most appetizing wine.
  • Small Gods features an atheist character of such burning passion that it works just like belief in the gods. This was because he very specifically didn't believe in Om (in fact, he pointedly refused to believe in Om to Om's face); another character who's a general atheist (in a "they're not real but there's no point thinking about it" way) just gets hit by lightning a lot.
  • The Handmaid's Tale:
    • The book depicts radical feminists as having worked together with far-right religious fundamentalists on at least some issues that helped lead to the foundation of the theocratic state of Gilead. (After which, the far-right fundamentalists turned around and slaughtered their former allies.) Specifically, both had a similar disdain for things such as pornography and prostitution, among other issues.
    • The earliest mentions and descriptions of Offred's mother make it sound like Offred was raised in a religious household, what with Offred mentioning that she watched ultra-conservative Female Misogynist preacher Serena Joy on TV as a child, or her mother's distaste for pornography and delight in burning it. As we later find out, Offred's mother was on the radical feminist side.
  • Played to a disturbing degree in Fear, Loathing and Gumbo on the Campaign Trail '72:
    • In the first part of the story sees the rise of Mao Yuanxin, Mao Zedong's sociopathic nephew, who pushes an extreme left wing ideology that rejects Soviet imperialism, yet copies Stalinist policies, including the mass murder and enslavement of millions of people, and the purging of many leadership roles.
    • In the second part of the story, Donald Rumsfeld becomes President and pushes strict anti-Communist, pro-capitalist policies, but part of this platform includes incarceration of political dissidents in asylums, censorship of the media, restrictions on interstate travel, and the creation of deranged paramilitaries.

     Live Action Television 

  • Braindead 2016: Jules (an extreme right-winger) and Noah (an extreme leftist) actually get into a road rage incident over their opposing views, but are persuaded to ally later because they both agree on so much (never compromising, going to war in Syria, etc.).

     Music  

  • The song "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who tells the story of an idealistic young revolutionary. In the first few verses of the song, he sings praises of the revolution and how it will change things for the better. By the end of the song his tone is more cynical and disillusioned as he realizes that the new society created by the revolution is no better than the old society (specifically the lyrics "there's nothing in the streets / looks any different to me" and "meet the new boss / same as the old boss").

     Video Games  

  • BioShock 2: Andrew Ryan is an extreme Objectivist whose ultimate goal is to promote Enlightened Self-Interest, while Sofia Lamb is an extreme Collectivist who wants to suppress individualism for The Needs of the Many. Both are oppressive, hypocritical despots who lead Rapture down similar paths to ruination.
  • Joseph Bertrand III and Brooke Augustine from inFAMOUS 2 and inFAMOUS: Second Son respectively are both Boomerang Bigot Conduits with extensive military forces that oppress a city with an iron-fist and encourage anti-conduit bigotry in the populous. However, while Bertrand hates conduits and plots to have them all destroyed in a grand scheme, Augustine plots in a misguided attempt at saving conduits.
  • Shin Megami Tensei: Law and Chaos may be diametrically opposed about the meaning behind their side's actions ("absolute submission to the Greater Good" or "freedom is more important than anything"), but both are ready and willing to deceive, kill (a lot), mutilate, play god and break entire worlds if it brings them closer to victory. Likewise, a victory for one side will entail humanity losing itself one way or the other.
    • Shin Megami Tensei IV reveals that humans subconsciously decide what is real based on their perception, so YHWH decided to make the Order Versus Chaos conflict so that humans would take sides, and inadvertently doom all the others who didn't believe in gods or demons. The two sides are so similar in nature because they were designed by the same entity for the same purpose - get humans to believe in order demons and chaos demons, and ultimately reinforce YHWH's existence. This also explains why a demon that was on one side may be on the other in the next game - whatever gets them more popularity points from the players.
  • The Order of Assassins and the Templar Knights in Assassin's Creed are both opposing organizations that have fought for centuries due to their conflicting opinions of how mankind should regulate itself. The Assassins believe that free-will is worth the trial and error and must be protected, while the Templars believe that free-will will destroy mankind and how they must enslave mankind to ensure its survival. The Assassins follow the creed "nothing is true; everything is permitted", but because this creed is so vague with little substance behind it, it has led to more than one of their members working against their order's interests, including flat-out joining the Templars.
    • In Assassin's Creed I, it is revealed at the end that Al Mualim - Altair's mentor and leader of the Levantine Assassin Order - was manipulating Altair into killing High Ranking members of the Templars so that he could secure the entire Templar Organization (and by extension the Apple of Eden) for himself, having worked with both organizations to achieve this.
    • In Assassin's Creed III, Haytham Kenway's arc at the beginning of the game is played just like a regular Assassin in both plot and gameplay. The twist is revealed that the entire time he was working in the interests of the Templars, their motivations so similar to one another that neither Desmond nor the players realized this until it is flat out stated that Haytham and his friends work for the Templars.

     Web Original  

  • This comic from Everyday Feminism draws such a comparison between "TERFs" (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and conservative Christians.
  • Rational Wiki examine the concept in detail here. Some examples from the page:
    • Noting that while North Korea is ostensibly a communist state, it has a great deal in common with nationalistic, authoritarian fascist regimes.
    • Noting that, although Ayn Rand was a virulent opponent of Marxism, Objectivism has been criticized on the grounds that it is essentially Marxism turned on its head, to the point of having a cult of personality around her during Rand's life, and purges of dissidents within the philosophy.
    • Noting that Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber", has just as many admirers on the left as on the right (he himself criticized the left and advocated some views more often found on the right in his manifesto. He and fellow terrorist Timothy McVeigh conversed in prison, and apparently found they had much to agree on).
  • Frequently mentioned and discussed on Less Wrong.
  • The horseshoe theory is usually seen as a fallacy to be debunked on Reddit's "Bad Politics", "Shit Reddit Says" and "Negareddit" subs. Make of that what you will. Other subreddits (such as "Stormfront or SJW?") actually invoke this one, redacting keywords and letting you guess which side of the political spectrum spouted a particular statement, as a sort of game.
  • The now-defunct Gamer Jargon website defined "Smoke Nazi" as either one who insists that no-one present smoke, and takes this insistence well beyond bounds of propriety or restraint, or one who insists on smoking, and takes this insistence well beyond bounds of propriety or restraint. It also noted that where there is one, there is likely to also be the other ("Anti-smoke Nazis usually claim some dire medical need to be free of smoke. The general consensus is that such people are better off not leaving their homes. Pro-smoke Nazis are usually just libertarian assholes. The general consensus is that such people should throw away their Ayn Rand books and get a life.")
  • politicalcompass.org averts this, instead pairing the left/right axis with an authoritarian/libertarian axis, splitting economic distribution and moral regulation into two different spectrums.
    • However, this only removes the "horseshoe" shape out from the theory. Then again, it's harder for people to visualize "The Torus Theory" as well.
  • This article notes that despite the self-professed opposition between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Islamists, they share a remarkably large number of beliefs outside of the strictly theological.
  • This 4chan post comparing the "alt-right" with fundamentalist Islam.
  • An actual scientific study into the phenomenon. Key quote:
    ...strong Republicans and Democrats are psychologically similar, at least with respect to authoritarianism…these findings support a view of mass polarization as nonsubstantive and group-centric, not driven by competing ideological values or clashing psychological worldviews.

     Western Animation  

  • In the Black Dynamite episode "Bullhorn Nights" or "Murder She Throats", the KKK and the Black Pumas are revealed to be working together and killing Black porn stars in hopes that it would cancel the interracial porno "Willy Wanker & The Chocolate Factory".
  • In the American Dad! episode, "Stan of Arabia", Stan, uber-right-wing American, longs for the days when men had the final say in a marriage. After he and his family are sent to Saudi Arabia on a shit job, he embraces Sharia law to again become head of the household.


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