Let's Play Horseshoe Theory

Extremists on the left and the right are much closer to each other than either side would like to admit.


This summer, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos went to the edge of space on a ship he built with his own earnings. A bunch of people saw the billionaire blast off and thought: "Screw that guy and his dumb rocket—the government should take his money because I have a much better idea of how to spend it."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) tweeted, "Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor—but hey, the richest guys in the world are off in outer space! Yes. It's time to tax the billionaires." Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D–Ore.) said he'll introduce legislation that would tax wealthy space tourists in order to "support the public good." And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) reiterated their calls to abolish billionaires via a wealth tax.

The American right has long wanted to get its paws on Bezos as well. Former President Donald Trump has been beefing with Bezos for years, over the editorial line of The Washington Post (which Bezos owns) as well as the conduct of Amazon. In 2018 Trump tweeted, "I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election. Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!" Other conservatives weighed in with their own thoughts when Bezos flew. Matthew Walther, editor of the conservative Catholic publication The Lamp, wrote: "Maybe instead of sending idiots into a blank meaningless void at a gazillion bucks a pop we could build, I dunno, a functioning transit system in our capital city. Maybe we could even try real regional rail. Just spitballing."

The idea that left and right could be united by this moment of inspirational technological and commercial achievement to talk smack and do a cash grab isn't that unusual. There is historical precedent for such a strange-bedfellow slumber party, and plenty of examples of it in our present.

The horseshoe theory, like the Overton window, was a concept destined to be bastardized the moment it entered casual use. Its origins are murky, but the classic version posits that the political spectrum isn't linear, but bent like a horseshoe, with leftist and rightist extremists closer to each other than either side would like to admit.

The theory is typically used to explain why 20th century communists and fascists seemed to have so much in common, though it likely predates the last century. But in the United States in 2021, a softer version of this iron law is at play, with the center-left and the center-right mushily converging toward expensive authoritarian policies that look astonishingly similar despite their supposedly opposite goals. Still a horseshoe, but more like one of the marshmallow ones you can find in bowls of Lucky Charms.

Nowhere is the nouveau horseshoe more apparent than on the debate about Big Tech and free speech, with both the left and the right utterly convinced that large social media platforms and other tech firms are using their sinisterly large amount of power to benefit the other side. And both left and right are cheerfully willing to use the state to solve the supposed problem. Once again, their proposals look quite similar, yet they're far enough apart that never the twain shall meet. Governments absolutely need to tell tech companies what they can and can't publish or sell—on that power players and pundits of the American left and right agree. But does that mean more moderation to remove hate speech and misinformation, both of which can be defined as "stuff I don't like"? Or should moderation be banned altogether to prevent viewpoint discrimination? (More on that in Nick Gillespie's cover story, "Self-Cancellation, Deplatforming, and Censorship," page 16.)

The left and right frequently find themselves in uncomfortable agreement across a censor's tribunal table. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has been wearing a horseshoe around her neck for years, for example: first banned from the libraries of public schools at the behest of Christan conservatives for the allegedly demonic elements in her novels about tween wizards, then canceled for voicing politically incorrect views on trans issues by furious progressives who grew up wishing they could go to Hogwarts.

The squishy horseshoe also shows up in the debate over subsidized spawning. The right wants to encourage childbearing in order to maximize the percentage of native-born Americans in the population and promote family values, while also giving mothers more incentives to stay home with the resulting broods. The left has mixed feelings about whether more kids are good—we need them to prop up a massive welfare state, but they're also little carbon-emitting monsters who will bring about the climate end times—while being quite sure we need to make it easier for post-pregnant people (don't call them mothers!) to return to work.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) has proposed the Family Security Act, a universal kiddie income, "which would provide a monthly cash benefit for families, amounting to $350 a month for each young child, and $250 a month for each school-aged child." He wants to pay for this by eliminating various other competing programs and tax credits. Ivanka Trump backed something similar in her role as policy adviser to her father.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) tweeted that "Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure." The bluntness of those claims came in for criticism, but the sentiment is far from unusual in her party, which would like to insert all policy priorities into a debt-funded omnibus spending bill. (Read all about it in Eric Boehm's "Everything Is Infrastructure Now," page 24.) You get headlines like this one in The Washington Post's lady vertical, The Lily: "Child care wasn't prioritized in the first infrastructure package. It's 'cause for alarm,' experts say."

These two sets of goals produce very similar yet ultimately irreconcilable policy proposals. Families must be funded and nudged by the state using taxpayer money—on this they agree. But ask how much per child, on what terms, and via what mechanism, and the whole thing falls apart.

Once you start collecting horseshoes, it can be hard to stop. The classic "my body, my choice" slogan is now decorating placards at protests for a wide variety of issues, from abortion to vaccines and masking.

The labor left and cronyist right have both long championed "Buy American" policies. They hope to center our politics on the factory workers and manufacturing jobs that were once the mainstay of the American working class, a constituency that has been in play over the last several elections. The notion that we need to build things here is powerfully alluring to people with many different priors, even if it disregards the incredible gains in standard of living and consumer choice enabled by global trade.

The debate over race in public life repeatedly creates an odd juxtaposition in which a tiny number of white nationalists and an elite coterie of social justice activists both argue that, in fact, everything is about race and we should order our politics around that principle.

The notion that we might let people make their own decisions about their own lives in accordance with a liberal democratic legal order remains, luckily, the predominant view in this country. Most people who were not pathologically online or poisoned by power saw the news that Bezos went to space and thought, "Hey, cool. Kudos to that dude." That big curve in the middle of the horseshoe is where a majority of people will continue to reside.

Still, if you want a picture of the future, you could do worse than to imagine a horseshoe stamping on a human face—forever.