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How Similar are the Far-Left and the Far-Right?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty Images: Jonathan Bachman
*Updated 2022
Do the far-left and the far-right ever seem hopelessly similar to you? As odd as this question may sound at first, Horseshoe Theory suggests that the political spectrum is not a straight line with ideologies moving across a line from left to right, but rather a horseshoe, with its farthest outliers bending in toward each other and sharing a number of beliefs. In the US in recent years, violent clashes between the far-left and far-right, on university campuses, in Charlottesville, North Carolina and other cities, not to mention at the George Floyd protests have challenged society to take a look at the actions of extremists on both sides and ask: To what extent does similarity in action mean similarity in character?


The Far-Left and the Far-Right Are Two Peas in a Pod


Victim complex.

People on the outermost poles of the political spectrum, meaning on both the far-left and the far-right, often view themselves as aggrieved parties. Interestingly, one study found that having faced adversity – namely violence, loss of a loved one, or experiencing illness or disability – is indeed a predictor of extreme political views; the more adversity people faced, the more likely they were to lean to the far-right or far-left in their ideologies. Experiencing adversity may explain the rhetoric of victimization that permeates the far-left as well as the far-right. White Nationalists complain of cultural and economic obliteration at the hands of multicultural movements and affirmative action, while proponents of the far-left demand restitution for the silencing of minority groups via discriminatory legislation, the recent rise in popularity of white nationalistspolice brutality and micro-aggressions.


By any means necessary.

Militancy pervades the ranks of the far-left and the far-right. More than idolizing violent purveyors of their ideologies (think far-right’s Hitler to the far-left’s Che Guevara), many far-right and far-left movements are vehement in their rejection of non-violence and employ it regularly. Between 1993 and 2017, right-wing groups are said to have carried out 150 attacks on US soil – from shooting to bombings. Since 2017, there have been a number of far-right terror attacks in the US, not to mention their role in the US Capital riots. However, political violence has also been perpetrated by militant offshoots of left-wing groups, beginning with the 1960’s Weathermen and continuing until today with the Antifa movement.


An idle mind is the devil’s playground.

Scientists have connected boredom to the adoption of extreme political stances, calling youth, wealth, and education the most common risk factors of extremism. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, it could be argued that without families to support or even necessarily the need to support themselves, the average college student has more free time than others to develop defined political views. As such, it is hardly surprising that constituents on the far-right and far-left are overwhelmingly educated and even well-off (a trend that held even for the Hezbollah fighters of the 1980s and 90s). The combination of idle time and unlimited access to social media, where the more polarizing the ideas, the more they are shared, contributes to the rise in extremist views.


The Far-Left and Far-Right Are as Different as Night and Day.


Different hard-wiring.

Psychologists have determined that liberal and conservative brains literally function quite differently. For example, an examination of the possessions of liberal and conservative college students revealed that the former had more books and travel-memorabilia, while the latter had more items relating to cleaning and organization. This investigation suggested key differences in liberal and conservative mindsets – with one leaning toward the discovery of new experiences and the other emphasizing self-discipline and order. This hard-wiring gives rise to dramatically different value systems – systems that view the basic ideas like fairness, equality, and even right and wrong in radically different terms.


History is in the eye of the beholder.

The far-right and the far-left have dramatically different interpretations of the past – interpretations which dictate their political stances and calls to action. The far-right expresses nostalgia for the past and actively works to preserve their history, regardless of what that might mean in today’s context. For right-wing Southerners, like the members of Save Southern Heritage, this means protecting statues of famous Confederates, and decrying the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings or the removal of Confederate monuments. Conversely, the far-left (and in this case, many liberals) associates the past with its ills – slavery, sexism, and other injustices. History and its institutions are not to be preserved and cherished, but rather, an embarking point from which to begin reform.


Superficial similarities.

When two groups utilize similar tactics, it does not necessarily mean that the groups are one and the same. The Antifa and white nationalist movements exemplify key ideological differences that should not be overlooked. While Antifa and white nationalist movements both express distaste for the government (and even a will to overthrow it), their reasons for these sentiments are rather opposite. Antifa, whose members also frequently identify as anarchists, view government as an instrument of inequality, while white nationalists express hostility toward government because they believe it facilitates equality – a notion that offends those whose identity is built upon a defined racial hierarchy.


The Bottom Line: Both the far-left and the far-right have a victim-like mentality and employ militant strategies, yet each group has contrasting views on history and personal values. What do you think? Do overlapping tactics and stances in the far-right and far-left amount to a hegemonic portrait of extreme personalities, or is each extremely distinct?

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