In the field of discourse, and especially discourse about politics, Horseshoe Theory refers to a seeming tendency for extreme views on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum to begin to come together like the bend in a horseshoe causes the ends to be closer to each other than to the middle.
This concept is purported to have been coined (in its modern iteration) by a French philosopher named Jean-Pierre Faye whose work focuses on language and its use by totalitarian governments and movements that seem keen to create such governments.
This metaphor goes back much further in history, though, at least to the early 20th century—in Germany in particular—but possibly earlier and elsewhere, as well.
Wherever and whenever it originated, the claim is that as political groups and their beliefs become more extreme (in the sense of deviating from the current norm) those extremes, in more progressive and conservative directions, tend to loop back around so that, for instance, both lefties and righties come out in favor of banning books that contain beliefs or claims they don't agree with.
Across much of the modern Western world in particular, the current manifestation of this concept is often positioned as "Populism" versus "Centrism" or "Elitism," the idea being that the real conflict is between a majority of outsiders against a minority of people who are served by the current status quo, and who are thus incentivized to maintain and defend it.
Some conceptions of this ideological landscape instead posit it's a relative few populist people on the outskirts, because in many societies the majority of people are served by the status quo—even if imperfectly—and as a consequence, we see mainstream political parties representing slightly distinct but (perceptually) largely similar opposing political candidates and platforms, while the outsiders and their groups remain on the fringes: at times completely disenfranchised, but in some cases merely left with little press, funding, or time at the podium.
Folks who are part of these fringier movements, perhaps understandably, don't tend to see this metaphor and its implications as legitimate.
From the ideological center it may seem like populists are populists, causing trouble and smack-talking society.
If you're on the far-left and are branded as similar to those on the far-right, this may be offensive, but also perceived to be part of a larger effort by the center to demean your (in your mind) perfectly legitimate ideas in the public sphere by attaching them to a group you consider to be abhorrent.
The far-right may feel the same about anything that seems to connect their beliefs and actions to those held and perpetrated by the hated group on the other end of the ideological spectrum.
There are a few biases that might inform and perpetuate this theory.
The "false consensus effect" says we tend to think of our own conclusions, backgrounds, choices, and behaviors as being the most common, obvious, and appropriate, while seeing those that differ from ours as extremes.
This, in turn, can cause us to out-group folks who don't agree with us on every particular, which in turn can perpetually separate those people into a distinct category of People With Whom I Disagree And Who Are Thus Wrong.
There’s a related tendency to paint our in-group (and its associated beliefs) with a generally positive brush, ignoring the inconvenient stuff and focusing on what we consider to be the appealing aspects, while doing the opposite for other groups.
We also lean toward a perceptual bias that can cause us to perceive people in what we consider to be out-groups (not our people, not the same as us) as being relatively more homogenous than people in our group; this concept is often shorthanded as "out-group homogeneity."
In essence, this means when we look at groups that are not our group, we'll be less likely to pick up on important details and distinctions—we'll batch them together into an undifferentiated mass—and thus may fail to perceive vital differences because we're not psychologically incentivized to pay much attention to them.
The consequence of these two effects is that we might consider our own choices and beliefs and actions to be obvious and normal, cluster everyone who believes or decides or practices differently from us into a homogenized mass of humanity, and then assume all those other people who we can't be bothered to learn about believe roughly the same thing, when in reality they may believe a great many different things that are somewhat or radically distinct from our beliefs.
This theory, then, may be most useful as a reminder of our tendency toward positioning ourselves at the center of any ideological conversation and out-grouping those even a little off-center (our perceived center, that is) into a mass of humanity we don't take the time to distinguish from each other.
This can bias our ability to tell the difference between ideologies and groups, and it can influence our perception of movements, political platforms, and where our current views fall on the larger spectrum of all available positions.
It may also make us less likely to consider views that currently exist beyond what we consider to be “normal,” because views with which we might agree may be perceptually bundled with others we do not and consequently blurred or ignored into imperceptibility.
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