(Preface: No demographic is a monolith. Each political party, ethnicity, sex, nationality and religion has a diversity of philosophies and viewpoints. Much of my writing is about this diversity and pushing back against stereotypes. Thus, this essay isn’t about the political “Left“ versus “Right,” but elements and trends within those large groups.)
I am not the first to observe how extreme elements within today’s American political Left and Right mirror each other. This mirroring is largely due to elements within the Left abandoning traditional liberal ideals— such as upholding viewpoint diversity, freedom of speech and expression, and academic freedom–, and adopting methods of the extreme Right. Religious-like fundamentalism and intolerance, censorship, and undermining of democratic processes used to be associated with the Far Right but are now also associated with the Far Left.
Much of this has to do with the nature of extremism, authoritarianism, and dogmatism. Extremist and authoritarian behavior in the Left and Right is really about psychology not politics. An Emory University study showed that far-Left authoritarians share key personality traits with the far-Right. A University of Montana study showed that Leftists are just as likely to be dogmatic authoritarians as those on the Right.
The horseshoe theory in political science is that “the extreme Left and the extreme Right, rather than being at opposite and opposing ends of a linear political continuum, closely resemble each other, analogous to the way that the opposite ends of a horseshoe are close together.” In his landmark 1951 social psychology book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer wrote: “Though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. The fanatics of various hues eye each other with suspicion and are ready to fly at each other’s throat. But they are neighbors and almost of one family. They hate each other with the hatred of brothers.”
The following are examples of this mirroring between the political Left and Right
Censorship and attempts to suppress free speech
Censorship used to be associated with the Far Right. American political liberals and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had long been outspoken champions of freedom of speech and the press. Today, however, some Left Social justice activist movements push back against freedom of press and speech and have worked to censor and ban books.
A top lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called for the banning of a book he disagreed with. Censorship is promoted by many social justice activists on university campuses. Critical race theory and Left activists such as Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo promote censorship, claiming that freedom of speech “harms” minorities. Leftist Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods recently called for Chinese style censorship of the internet.
Psychology professor and media expert Christopher J. Ferguson writes, “Censorship efforts appear to be on the rise on both political right and left. Both the political right and political left are attempting to block books in schools.”
Ideological distortion of news by partisan media
Media both on the Right, such as Fox News and Newsmax, and the Left, such as MSNBC and CNN, distort news and facts to fit their and their audiences’ ideological narratives. On the Right, it has been coverage of the pandemic and false accusations of a fixed 2020 Presidential Election. On the Left, it has been coverage of the Trump-Russia relationship, theories about the Covid pandemic, and the Kyle Rittenhouse case.
What is alarming is that these distortions are so widespread and normal. MSNBC and CNN are relatively moderate media sources, and Fox News is widely followed. Americans have the lowest level of trust in the media of any country. Media bias endangers democracy because a healthy democracy requires an informed public.
Conservative, fundamentalist, and Evangelical religious denominations that push Creationist beliefs in schools are associated with the Far Right. However, some of today’s extreme social justice activism also resembles religious fanaticism.
An earlier post detailed how extreme social justice activism has many of the hallmarks of fundamentalist religion. In New Zealand, Indigenous creationist mythology is now taught in science class. In the name of social justice ideology, the liberal arts college Hamline University supported a Muslim student to dictate what other students could learn and fired a professor for religious blasphemy.
Rejection of science
The recent post “Antiscience Beliefs in the Left and Right” explains how some within both sides of the political spectrum reject science when it contradicts their deeply held ideological beliefs.
Racial essentialism and stereotyping
Extremist Right groups, such as White Nationalists and Neo-Nazis, have long had a racial essentialist view of the world and society, using racial stereotypes and caste systems.
Traditional Martin Luther King Jr-style racial justice activism hoped for a colorblind society where people are judged by their personal character and merit and not by the color of their skin. However, some modern racial justice activism is premised on racial essentialism theories, stereotyping, and racial caste systems. Critical race theory (CRT) is a Marxist-influenced model that organizes people not by class, but by race and other immutable characteristics.
Antisemitism exists within both the Far Right and Left, using ancient ignorant stereotypes about Jews.
In the end, this all is a lesson on how personality and psychological traits of all kinds are found across the political spectrum. No political party or demographic has a monopoly on tribalism, cognitive biases, stereotyping and bigotry.