The Radical Fringe

On the silliness of any sentence that lumps the "extreme left" and "extreme right" together.

9 min. read Replies open ↓

This is going to be blunt: anyone who utters the phrase “both the radical left and right” is, immediately, at the risk of making zero sense. Ditto goes for “fringe right and left” or any such comparison that puts the most extremely-conservative people in the same bucket as most extremely-progressive. We need to stop giving this a pass, and I’ll explain why.

In our gut, a lot of us crave routine, similarity, and are resistant to change. The idea that the weather tomorrow is going to be severely different from today, regardless of the weather today, is enough for everyone to feel the need to remark on it.

If you’re a person who travels around a lot, you might get to relish in the consistency of people almost everywhere branding changing weather as being a regional phenomenon. In pretty much every city or state in the U.S., and a lot of the world, the phrase, “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a few hours,” will garner a laugh. Yeah, no, that’s not a Cleveland thing – that’s just weather. It’s what weather does. You’re not special.

From this homeostatic comfort, I suspect, comes a want for politics that aren’t too extreme. “Why can’t we just compromise?” (But deep inside, if people are being completely honest, they don’t want full, equally-measured compromise, they want compromise that benefits their position, or their stance.)

And from this pseudo-celebration of compromise, or a middle road, or “balance,” comes an upholding of moderate (or centrist) politics, and an ideologically-devoid distaste for the extremes.

“I don’t care if you’re on the extreme right or left, it doesn’t matter. We need something practical that works,” is a sentence someone said, just now, somewhere, with no intention of irony, to a person who nodded in agreement.

It’s in this comfy gooey molten center that terrible ideas are born, like Horseshoe Theory.

If you haven’t heard, I’m not going to do it justice here (nor try), but Horseshoe Theory is the idea that the far right and the far left are essentially more similar than dissimilar, compared to the moderate right and moderate left (who are, according to the theory, quite different). And the more extreme you get (either left or right), the closer you get to resembling the other side.

Thus, the metaphor of a horseshoe-shaped political spectrum was born:

Horsehoe theory diagram showing the extreme right and extreme left closer together than the moderate right and moderate left

Horseshoe Theory is one of those things you stumble upon, maybe mid conversation, and at a glance seems right. “Yeah! The extreme left and right are both absolutist, uncompromising, and unrealistic. They’re basically the same!”

But when you take more than a third of a second, and think through the implications of this idea (what Daniel Kahneman would call System 2 thinking), it falls apart:

  1. Even if their tactics are similar, what they’re arguing for is absolutely dissimilar. The policies, beliefs, stances, and values of the “extreme left” and “extreme right” are absurdly different. As a venn diagram, they’re two circles with room for a galaxy between them.
  2. The tactics of “moderates” and “centrists” can also be quite extreme. Look no further than the moderate billionaires who spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an election cycle to advance their belief system, or shape politics to their liking. What’s more extreme than the phrase “spend hundreds of millions of dollars”?
  3. It ignores history and obfuscates the future. What comprises the political platforms of “left” and “right” is contextual: a lot of what was “extreme left” a few years ago is “centrist” today, or even “moderate right.”

Horseshoe Theory is like saying a banana and a lemon are almost the same thing, “Because, well, look – they’re both extremely yellow, aren’t they?”

Time is the only lens you need to recognize the obvious distinctions between the extremes of “right” and “left.” Both looking backward, at what those political movements advocated for and how their priorities have changed as society has changed. And also looking forward, toward the future society each is advocating that we create.

I want to zoom in on that. For the rest of this essay I’ll be using the terms “conservatism” and “progressivism” instead of “right” and “left.” And not just because I’m a sour grape that we allowed the conservatives to be branded as “the right.”

(I mean, semantically, it’s just massively inconvenient to cede that much mental ground, referring to your political rivals as “right,” especially for such an inane historical reason; but also because those terms are going to be confusing for the metaphor I’m going to propose.)

When we consider time as the main ingredient, as opposed to “extremity” (again, a woefully vague word, that leads to the bad math above), something interesting happens:

A timeline of past, present, and future with consvervatism labeled as past, moderatism labeled as present, and progressivism labeled as the future

What we see here is, I think, a fairly accurate, although still simplified, depiction of our modern political reality, where:

  • Conservatives want things to be how they were;
  • Moderates think things are pretty good now, but there’s room for improvement (either a wiggle toward how things were, or a small step forward into something new); and
  • Progressives want to move us into an as-of-yet experienced future.

I wrote about this as The Problem of Progressivism, and think it maps more nicely onto a timeline as a metaphor than a horseshoe.

And if we wanted to plot “extremes” on this mental model, we could easily say that the “extreme conservatives” are advocating for taking us even further into the past, and “extreme progressives” are arguing for policies that would leap us drastically far into the future – both of them off the charts, so to speak.

My favorite thing about this way of thinking about our political spectrum relates to my #3 point above: which bucket you drop something into, labeling it as convervative vs. progressive, depends on when you’re labeling as much as what you’re labeling.

If we were in 1930 right now, we’d be in the midst of an intense debate about a proposal called “Social Security.”

The conservatives would be saying things like, “How will we pay for that?”, farmers would be trying to opt out (citing individual liberties and taxes), and opponents would literally be asking “Isn’t this socialism?”

Progressives, arguing for an uncertain future, would be saying things like this is an essential safety net, the economy and world is changing, and we need to be taking risks and implementing new programs for the betterment of all.

And if we jump from 1930 to 1935, all of a sudden the labels of “conservative”, “moderate”, and “progressive” would start to align with different stances. Social Security had just been implemented, making advocating for it in its current form “moderate.” “Conservatism” was aligned with repealing Social Security (i.e., reverting to the past). And “progressivism” moved on to expansion of the Social Security, and other related social policies (like adding Medicare and Medicaid to it).

Now, all of those stances and arguments might sound eerily similar. They did to me. I chose Social Security on a lark, I didn’t cherry-pick, so imagine my amusement when I learned the “socialism” card was being played then. Swap out 1930 for today, and Social Security for a different policy proposal, and you can run the whole thing like a Mad Libs.

Actually, truth be told, you don’t even need to swap Social Security for a different policy. Here in 2020, the more extreme wing of conservatism is actively trying to cut or severely defund Social Security, doing their best to transport us all the way back to 1934 – talk about off the charts.

While social justice dogma (SJD) – and a lot of the tactics, stances, and acceptable actions espoused by the dogma – are often extreme, it’s a fool’s errand to compare the most staunch purveyors of SJD to people advocating for the extremes of conservatism. It’s bananas and lemons.

What we’re advocating for matters more than how we’re advocating for it, at least if you care more about the future world we might create (or the distant past we might backslide into). That’s a distinction I hope I made clear above.

I’m sharing all of this to address a common response I’ve seen to my writing and speaking SJD over the years, and attempts to squash its rise within all stripes of justice activism. In all of my efforts, a lot of people notice something like moderatism.

I get emails that say, to some effect, those same moderate-appealing sentiments I shared at the beginning of this essay: appreciating compromise, balance, and denouncing the “extreme left” along with the “extreme right.”

“I’m so happy that you’re writing about this! I’ve been really sad to see how extreme things have gotten. We need someone speaking up for who are more in the middle.”

To anyone who is thinking that, let me say this: You’re paying attention to the wrong variables.

Dogma, and the fundamentalism it represents – the ideas that there’s an absolutely correct way to be, do, think, or exist, and that questioning that is tantamount to treason – are ideologically-disconnected bents. Look around and you can see myriad examples of dogmatic conservatism as readily as you find dogmatic progressivism.

Using my timeline metaphor above, right now social justice is a progressive-to-extremely-progressive political project (depending on what policies you’re advocating for, and how far into the mental idea of future you’re hoping we’ll reach).

SJD isn’t a too-extremely-progressive vibe within the social justice movement that’s trying to push us too far into the future.

And my work to challenge, question, and – with any luck – depose SJD within our movements isn’t, in any way, a reflection of moderatism. I’m not saying things are “okay” how they are, or that we just need to make a few “small tweaks” and we’ll be in good shape.

If anything, the opposite is closer to being the case: Social Justice Dogma is, in a weird roundabout way, a force of conservatism within our progressive movements. It’s making it harder for us to move forward, not trying to force us into some distant future.

Or imagine that the project of social justice is like driving up a huge hill.

I see SJD a detour along the road, at best, adding extra driving time. But more commonly I’m worried it’s gunking up our gears, slowing us down to the point that we might grind to a halt. Or, at worst, it leads to us rolling backwards down the hill.

Removing SJD isn’t like putting the car into neutral, or parking on the hill. It’s filling the gas tank with rocket fuel.

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I opened up replies on this post because I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm @Killermann on Twitter if you'd rather talk there.