The Alt-Left And Alt-Right Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin
How the horseshoe theory explains the rise of alternative politics
On a crisp winter day in early February, a white-haired man with a thick New York accent, ranted to MSNBC decrying the influence of fat-cat political donors and superPACS. He promised the American people that he would be different than the other politicians they had grown tired of, arguing that he was the true voice of the people.
His audience, galvanized and excitable, screamed their support. They waved banners and cheered, eventually erupting in their favorite chant — one that would become the infamous descriptor of this very campaign:
“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
The 2016 Presidential election brought two anti-establishment, populist figures to the forefront of the American psyche. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gained popularity with a sect of voters who seemed disillusioned with the current political landscape. These were people that were tired of politicians that seemed to cater more towards Wall Street than the American working class. They felt that something they were owed had been taken away from them — or they felt like the world their parents had promised them didn’t really exist anymore. They were angry and desperately wanted change.
So two boisterous, opinionated New Yorkers promised exactly that. They condemned the current political configuration, arguing that Washington had become a sea of corrupt, power-hungry individuals. Establishment became a dirty word. They ran campaigns based on the idea that maintaining the status quo was the greatest threat to the American people.
And the American people loved it.
Let’s be clear. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are two very different people. They represent different factions of the American public. Trump is a billionaire businessman with a corporate empire known the world over. Sanders is a registered Independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats and repudiates corporate greed and the very billionaire class that Trump exists within. However, those factions they represent — the groups that scream and holler for them at rallies, whose cries of revolution were heard throughout the entirety of the 2016 campaign season — look a lot more like each other than the rest of the country.
The Horseshoe Theory
In traditional thought, the political spectrum is considered a straight line, progressing from the liberal left to the conservative right. As our governments have become more complex and interconnected, many scientists have posited other formations to better understand the political spectrum. The horseshoe theory — I can already hear the Reddit forums screaming — presents an alternative. The ideology, which has been credited to French writer Jean-Pierre Faye, suggests that the far left and far right share much more in common with each other than they do with the majority of their respective parties. Much like a horseshoe when the iron is bent, the ends of the spectrum are closer to each other than the center.
Faye believed that both political extremes represented totalitarianism of different sorts. While the extreme left often trends towards communism, the extreme right bends towards fascism. This theorem is seen displayed in other categories such as competing monotheistic religions and nationalist groups. It essentially revolves around the fact that the more radical a group becomes, the more isolated it becomes from majority thought. The extremes of any system often reject the status quo of the majority, thereby resulting in comparable outlier values.
Basically, when you boil it down to their core beliefs, the alt-right and the alt-left are two sides of the same coin.
Take, for example, the case of Gil Troy, a presidential historian and history professor at McGill University. Right after the election, Troy wrote an op-ed in Time Magazine suggesting that Bernie Sander’s campaign pushed Hillary Clinton so far to the left that she was unable to swing moderate voters in the general election. He listed this as one of the many reasons Clinton lost.
Now, argue the legitimacy of his claim all you want — but it’s still far from the worst “Why Clinton Lost” hot take I read in November. In response to this relatively nerdy analysis article, Troy was doxxed horrendously by the online community. He was the recipient of a myriad of racist and anti-semitic tweets, some which threatened violence and the release of his personal info.
This reaction is pretty par for the course in the current online dialogue. The kicker, however, is that these messages which called him a “kyke” and a “paid shill,” didn’t come from the proudly bigoted alt-right, as one might have come to expect. They came from the alt-left, and they were all emphatically Bernie Sanders supporters.
How a Sanders supporter can call someone a kyke, and act as if they truly support “Bernie’s Revolution” is beyond me.
Origins of a Movement
So when did this all begin? When did the extreme factions of both the Democrats and the Republicans become so mainstream?
Most would argue this mobilization was born the day Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.
At the heels of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, American conservatives were angry. And while their movement would eventually become a protest against President Obama’s progressive policies, it started off with less partisan leanings. They were frustrated with bank bailouts and demanded to know why their tax dollars were subsidizing what seemed to them corrupt government programs. These feelings weren’t necessarily tied to traditional conservative values, and even contained elements of more liberal philosophies.
John Daniel Davidson, senior correspondent at right-leaning publication, The Federalist, discussed the origins of the Tea Party movement in an essay determined to understand the surging support for both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump:
“Most Americans think the Tea Party movement was a conservative protest against the Obama administration’s progressive policies. It certainly became that, but it didn’t begin as an outpouring of principled or coherent conservatism — nor was it only a movement of the Right.
In its wrath against Wall Street and crony capitalism, for example, the early Tea Party contained elements of the political Left. More than a complaint over any specific grievance, early Tea Party rallies — hodge-podge affairs featuring tri-cornered hats and, in a few cases, offensive signs — were an expression of deep anger and disillusionment, not with a particular party but with a political establishment perceived to serve special interests, not the American people.”
The Tea Party itself was born out of two moments — a small protest launched by an online forum and an infamous CNBC reporter’s on-air call to action. While broadcasting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Rick Santelli ranted against the Obama administration’s policies, accusing them of subsidizing bad mortgages. The traders seated behind him erupted in cheers when he issued what would become the rallying call of the Tea Party movement:
“We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July, I’m thinking of organizing it.”
10 days later, the first Tea Party rally was held.
Conservatives were not the only ones angered and disillusioned by the housing market crash. Although it took them a few more years to create a distinct movement, the left eventually responded to this same disenfranchisement. As the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 reached its climax, a group called “New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts” staged a meeting on Wall Street to strategize and organize a protest against the economic state of the nation.
On September 17th, 2011 approximately 1000 protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to march on Wall Street and began an occupational sit-in which would last nearly two months.
It’s a little hard to talk about what exactly Occupy Wall Street stood for because its message encompassed a myriad of frustrations and policy stances. According to the OWS website, the occupation of Wall Street was intended to “[fight] back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.”
It’s important to note that none of these grievances have particularly partisan leanings.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were born out of a similar discontent. As disparate as they may have seemed at first glance, both movements were a response to the economic downfall of the early 2000s, and the government’s unwillingness to hold members of Wall Street accountable. Their actions would emphatically affect the next few election cycles, creating an influence on policy that no one really expected. The Tea Party — with the help of some heavy duty fundraising — formed their own faction of the Republican party because they felt ignored by the GOP leadership. They were citizens forgotten by an establishment that stopped representing the voice of the people, in order to protect their own gains.
Fast forward to 2017, and the Tea Party and OWS have evolved into something more adept to the digital age. The alt-left and alt-right have reached most prominence in the online sphere, taking over Twitter and chat boards, respectively. Neither are exactly direct descendants of their predecessors and do have origin stories of their own — but there is no doubt that they exist as a result of the climate created by that time.
Given that these two factions are subsections of traditional parties without fully structured leadership, their views change depending on the spokesperson espousing them. However, when you break down the tweets, forums, and stump speeches — you start to see a bit of a pattern.
The two both rely on extremely purist ideology suggesting if you can’t change things exactly to your liking, it’s better to not do anything at all. While this is pretty antithetical to how government actually works, it explains the lack of alt-left figures elected to representative positions. Additionally, it speaks to the inability of the Republican caucus to successfully whip votes regarding certain legislation. With their party split between traditional conservatism and radical extremism, it’s difficult to create policies that successfully acquiesce to both.
Additionally, their stances on many of the issues concerning today’s voters are remarkably similar. Take Russia for starters. While the far right is firmly anti-collusion, refusing to even consider the possibility that the Trump campaign collaborated with the Russian government — the alt-left takes a slightly more subtle take. They argue that #Russiagate is simply an excuse Democrats use to explain why they lost the election, instead of taking responsibility for the faults of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept — a paper known for its anti-collusion leanings — espoused this belief in no uncertain terms:
“It is exceptionally important to Democratic partisans to believe that the reason they lost this election is not because they chose a candidate who was corrupt and who was extremely disliked and who symbolized all of the worst failings of the Democratic Party.”
Even our President seems to agree with Greenwald on this one.
Hillary Clinton colluded with the Democratic Party in order to beat Crazy Bernie Sanders. Is she allowed to so collude? Unfair to Bernie!
When it comes to Hillary Clinton, neither side takes a favorable approach. The alt-left generally sticks to traditional slurs of “corporate whore” or “establishment shill,” while the alt-right seriously believes she has ordered the deaths of multiple people. Neither takes into consideration her lifelong dedication to politics, and her track record of working across the aisle — necessary skills that, regardless of your opinion of her, our current president lacks.
Both sides tend towards sexist epithets when describing her — perhaps alluding to a deeper misogyny that permeates extremist thinking. Additionally, it’s well worth remembering that majority of subscribers to these extreme political beliefs are white men; a categorization which is necessary to make when analyzing the amount of racism and hate speech involved in alt-rhetoric.
Regarding more policy based subjects, these two factions agree on trade, big money in politics, lobbying, and the breaking up of Wall Street. They even agreed on the expansion of Social Security. Or they did, at least until the House introduced the AHCA. They both ignore the complexity of the reasons behind the current working class distress — including deindustrialization and globalization.
The alt-left and right even cross party lines in order to support candidates that they believe represent their values. Richard Spencer, the alt-right leader, and white nationalist has become a fervent supporter of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii. Gabbard was a strong Sanders supporter during the primaries but is known for political stances that align with Trump’s ideology. She’s for increased vetting for refugees, and even backed a Republican-sponsored bill to accomplish such back in 2015.
Gabbard is a woman of color, so she’s far from the traditional figurehead for these groups. However, her “America First” and staunchly non-interventionist beliefs when it comes to foreign policy, have been enough to sway Spencer and his supporters’ hands.
Tulsi Gabbard 2020 #Trumped
The alt-left and the alt-right yearn for the same reckoning, and they’ll sacrifice whatever and whoever they need to get it.
The Co-Opting of the Two Party System
Here’s the rub. Neither the alt-left nor the alt-right is actually representative of the two main parties of the American system. The traditional values of the Republican party don’t necessitate racism and sexism the way that one would believe given the current climate. Fiscal conservatism isn’t antithetical to minority rights. And the politician the alt-left rallies around isn’t even a registered Democrat. Which would be completely fine, were it not the Democratic party they were trying to restructure.
Both wings are destructive to our current political system — and it’s clear this destruction is what they are trying to accomplish. Their calls for a specific form of revolution advocate for the type of chaos that leads to the overhaul of a political system. Steve Bannon himself has argued in support of Leninist thinking — essentially the full destruction of the state.
This is not how change happens in a democratic system. And while it’s well known and accepted that our system is flawed — you don’t burn down the house because it needs some fixing up. That doesn’t help those who are already disenfranchised and certainly doesn’t create economic stability. The extreme sects of the right and left have created a kinship based on delusion and the capitalization of real Americans’ anger and subjugation.
Of course, there are stipulations to this comparison. While both sides are equally problematic, this does not mean they are equally dangerous. The rise in hate crimes and racist movements since Trump’s win has been nearly entirely perpetuated by members of the alt-right. The exceptions, of course, being the horrific shooting in Alexandria in which Majority Whip Steve Scalise was critically injured and the deadly Portland attack by a known white supremacist and Sanders supporter. The irrational rhetoric created by the severe partisanship of these groups is dangerous in a very real way — which in truth, is the most important take away from these kinds of discussions.
So how do we combat this? How do we continue to push for political change without becoming distracted by the antics of the far left and right? First, we need to call out these factions when we see them. We cannot allow the fringes of a movement to get in the way of real progress and revolution. We need to expose purist ideology that comes from discriminatory thinking. And then we need to address the issues that brought us to this point. We need to fix the economic policies that led us to the instability that bred such distrust in government. We need to take a long, hard look at the uncomfortable discussions surrounding identity politics. In the end, we need to do what neither the alt-left nor the alt-right ever seems to want to do — get deep in the trenches and get to work.
And as our previous President reminded us, just before the 2016 election, we must remember that there is more that unites us than divides us:
“I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity, the future of the world is going to be defined by what we have in common, [not] those things that separate us and ultimately lead us into conflict.”