How Similar are the Far Left and the Far Right?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty Images: Jonathan Bachman
*Updated 2018
Do the far left and the far right ever seem hopelessly similar to you? 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. Violent clashes between the far left and far right, at UC Berkeley, in Charlottesville, North Carolina, and recently in Portland, Oregon, have challenged society to take a look at the actions of the far left and far right and ask: To what extent does similarity in action mean similarity in character?
Below, we’ll discuss three ways the far left and far right are two peas in a pod, and three ways they couldn’t be more different than night and day.


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 the multicultural movement and affirmative action, while proponents of the far left demand restitution for the silencing of minority groups via discriminatory legislation 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 left movements are vehement in their rejection of non-violence and employ it regularly. Right-wing groups are said to have carried out 150 attacks on US soil – from shooting to bombings – since 1993. Similar crimes have 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. 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 Far Left and Far Right Are as Different as Night and Day.


Different hard-wiring.

Psychologist 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 conservative and liberal mindsets – with one emphasizing self-discipline and order, and the other leaning toward the discovery of new experiences. 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. 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.


Bottom lines: 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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