For all their disparate political goals and motivations, what unites the far left and far right is their relationship to U.S. politics...via the horseshoe theory of politics. As a result, the discourse surrounding Russia’s war on Ukraine has created strange bedfellows.
By Jan Dutkiewicz and Dominik Stecuła in Foreign Policy: Since Russia attacked Ukraine, unprovoked, on Feb. 24, the discourse surrounding the war that has emerged in the United States has created strange bedfellows. Although the majority of the American public, led by U.S. President Joe Biden, have thrown their support behind Ukraine, many on the left and right alike have rushed to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime or, at the very least, have urged the United States not to intervene in Ukraine’s defense.
Tucker Carlson, the face of Fox News and host of the most popular show on cable news in the United States, has been spouting pro-Kremlin talking points for months (and is frequently rebroadcasted on Russian state television). Other right-wing figures regularly spew out anti-Ukrainian disinformation and rail against sending heavy weapons to the country.
Meanwhile, the luminary of the American intellectual left, Noam Chomsky, has invoked former U.S. President Donald Trump as a model of level-headed geopolitical statesmanship for his opposition to arming Ukraine. Left-wing sources—such as Jacobin, New Left Review, and Democracy Now!—have hewed to a party line that blames NATO expansion for Russia’s invasion and opposes military aid to Ukraine.
Online, armies of left- and right-wing accounts find fault with Ukraine’s politics, policies, and president. In Congress, seven of the most fervent conservative Trump supporters voted alongside progressive champions Reps. Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush against banning Russian fossil fuels; even more surprisingly, Omar and Bush are joined by so-called squad members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib as well as the far-right fringe of the Republican Party in opposing the U.S. government seizing Russian oligarchs’ assets.
All of these developments highlight a bizarre alliance between the two ends of the political spectrum. The question is: Why?
What we seem to be seeing is a modern-day version of the horseshoe theory of politics, where the far left and far right find themselves in uncanny alignment. Although historically maligned, the theory seems to hold remarkably well when it comes to U.S. opinion on the Russia-Ukraine war. This doesn’t have much to do with ideological symmetry, however, or even Russia or Ukraine, for that matter. Rather, it has everything to do with the fraught state of U.S. politics, where relying on simple notions of “left” and “right” or “conservative” and “progressive” no longer serves a useful heuristic for understanding political developments.
The horseshoe theory of politics was introduced by French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye, who believed that the political ideological spectrum—traditionally construed as a linear progression from some form of socialism or democratic collectivism through a bourgeois-liberal center and on to some form of totalitarianism or fascism—was not a straight line between ever-more-distant political positions but rather something like a horseshoe, with the extremes bending almost magnetically into conjunction with each other.
Based on his observation of the alignment of fascist and communist parties in early 1930s German domestic politics and then on the Nazi-Soviet alignment in the international sphere, perhaps best embodied by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, he believed that the political extremes have much more in common than a traditional interpretation of the political spectrum might suggest.
The idea of the political horseshoe has long been criticized both for its lack of intellectual rigor and for its weaponization by centrists to discredit their opponents, mostly by those on the left who could be compared to the conservatives they ostensibly oppose. Critics of the theory tend to point out that any seeming convergence on political positions between the far left and far right—such as critiques of liberal democracy, globalization, and market-based solutions to social problems—is superficial, masking far deeper and divergent ideological and policy preferences. If anything, what unites the far left and far right, critics assert, is opposition to the liberal center, which is why the liberal center so often uses the horseshoe as a cudgel.
Yet, the theory keeps resurfacing, not least because the far left and far right seem to keep aligning on both ideas and policy.
One reason for this is that the traditional, one-dimensional left-right spectrum does not account for other axes of political division in U.S. politics, such as those dominated not by any traditionally intellectual notions of progressivism or conservatism but instead by negative attitudes toward “the establishment” and broader forms of populism. As one of us has previously noted, populism in the United States is not constrained to the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) Trump supporters on the right. Instead, it is distributed across the political spectrum, with populists both on the political left (among Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters, for example) and right (among Trump supporters).
What seem to unite the ends of the horseshoe, if we run with Faye’s metaphor, are not high-brow notions of conservatism or progressivism but instead, opposition to elites, party “establishments,” and traditional gatekeepers in the mainstream press. When it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not only do we see considerable support for the horseshoe theory but also for something that goes beyond it: the idea that the simple left-right paradigm does not get us particularly far in understanding U.S. politics.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine this year, the vast majority of Americans from both parties have supported the U.S. government’s position: They support providing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and surprisingly, there is even considerable bipartisan support for welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the United States. But Russia has found vocal allies too.
The close ideological and financial relationship between many far-right European parties and the Kremlin is hardly a secret, making their support for Putin’s genocidal campaign par for the course. But considerable elements of the American right, including members of the Republican Party, have openly sided with Russia since the invasion.
The GOP has historically wielded its anti-Soviet (pre-1989) and anti-Russian (post-1989) position to great political effect. This is, after all, the party of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In 2012, then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Russia the United States’ primary geopolitical foe and a country that “always stands up for the world’s worst actors.” Fast forward to 2022, and Republicans—including Trump; his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; (soon to be former) Rep. Madison Cawthorn; Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance; Fox News personalities, such as Laura Ingraham; and conservative influencers, such as Candace Owens—have all broken from the party line to heap scorn on Ukraine and U.S. efforts to assist it.
A number of tropes that recur in this right-wing critique is the claim that NATO expansion forced Putin’s hand and led to the invasion as well as that money spent on military aid to Ukraine would be better spent on domestic issues, even if those issues include the continued militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, as suggested by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.
Meanwhile, many on the progressive left—including members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the politicians they support, left-wing academics and essayists, and swaths of self-proclaimed online “anti-imperialists”—have tended to side with the aggressor, Russia (or at least not side with the victim, Ukraine) in one of the clearest examples of colonial aggression in recent memory. Their primary arguments mirror those of the right—NATO expansion and Russia’s legitimate security concerns as a trigger for the war as well as the misuse of funds that could be used to solve domestic problems—but they also express opposition to war full stop and, sometimes, espouse outright support for Russia, all wrapped in language of opposition to U.S. intervention abroad, often construed as “U.S. imperialism.”
There has always been a fringe minority of voices on the far left that have been pejoratively labeled “tankies.” Often self-identified as Marxist-Leninists, they have been apologists for the repressive actions of authoritarian communist governments, such as those of the Soviet Union or China. The insult was originally hurled by fellow leftists at the Western communists who cheered as the Soviet Union rolled tanks into Budapest to repress a popular anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary in 1956. Today, the term is mostly tossed around in online circles, referring to supporters of repressive regimes and applying primarily to the opinions held by fringe journalists working for opaquely funded alternative news sources who praise dictators, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
When it comes to Ukraine, many tankies have embraced a pro-Moscow position and parroted Kremlin talking points, perhaps failing to disambiguate between Russia, an authoritarian capitalist-oligarchic state, and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, an authoritarian communist state. These positions include the false claim that Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan protest movement was a U.S.-backed coup, which has been shared directly by elected officials like DSA-backed New York City council member Kristin Richardson Jordan in the form of links to online tankie disinformation. But similar claims have also been made by QAnon-boosting GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and seemingly serious leading scholars, including Chomsky and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer.
Indeed, what has pulled the ends of the horseshoe together when it comes to Ukraine is not simply opposition to the conflict or cheerleading for Russia but a ready embrace of ideas from across the political spectrum that suits these positions. In other words, contrary to what critics of horseshoe theory claim, we see not only superficial political similarities on Ukraine but a far deeper, if opportunistic, ideological alignment.
Mearsheimer’s work is instructive here. A highly influential scholar of international relations, Mearsheimer is known as one of the leading proponents of the “offensive realism” school of analysis of world affairs. This school argues that states, especially great powers, will act rationally to maximize their military power in an anarchic world system, meaning that they are likely to react violently to perceived threats to their security.
Mearsheimer’s most influential contribution to the debate about Ukraine—other than his musings that U.S. support for the 2014 Euromaidan protests constituted a coup—is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was directly caused by NATO’s expansion into Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, including its overtures to Ukraine. According to offensive realist analysis, Russia’s attack heads off this U.S.-led expansion. Despite the fact that this theory has been widely challenged since the conflict’s first day, Mearsheimer’s explanation has traveled widely.
He has aired his ideas in a guest column for the Economist and in an interview with the New Yorker, and his work has been mentioned by critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine from think tanks such as the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, whose funding sources include both billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Koch Foundation, and the Koch-funded and Sen. Rand Paul-backed Defense Priorities as well as leftist publications, such as the openly socialist Monthly Review, the tweedy Current Affairs, and the trusty social democratic standby the Nation. Mearsheimer has also been retweeted by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Usually, Mearsheimer’s ideas about Ukraine have been discussed separately from his broader theories about offensive realism because these might prove unappetizing to the very people championing Mearsheimer as the éminence grise on Russian strategic logic. To take a historical example, it’s hard to imagine the United States’ progressive elite championing its attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961 because the country was a Soviet staging ground within the U.S. sphere of influence. But this “red in tooth and claw” realism is exactly what offensive realism implies.
A similar citational fate has befallen both Chomsky, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy and brutal international interventionism, and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of much of that foreign policy and brutal international interventionism. The ends of the horseshoe virtually kiss when these two men’s theories about the end of the conflict in Ukraine overlap. Recently, both men called for the West and Ukraine not to escalate the conflict with Russia and to instead seek “peace.”
And they have both, often in tandem, been used by both the left- and right-wing commentariat to support their claims about Ukraine, including in a recent piece in New York magazine that managed to both claim that the United States does not have the right to intervene in the conflict and has both the power and right to bring Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the bargaining table.
Of course, there is no reason why people from diverse political leanings shouldn’t draw on the same experts’ political analysis, but the willy-nilly embrace of scholars and statesmen simply because they share one’s predisposition shows a paucity of real political analysis on the far left and far right alike. Both agree on Ukraine, so both draw on the experts (mostly big-name Anglo-Saxon ones and few, if any, Ukrainian ones) that confirm their position.
To see leftists conceding that Kissinger has a point and Republicans handing it to Chomsky has been quite something. But, the argument goes, if Chomsky and Kissinger (and Mearsheimer) agree, then they must be right. But they’re not. Putin said so himself when he recently compared himself to Peter the Great, claiming Russia’s right to expand into its previous colonies and dropping the pretense that Western provocations had much to do with his decision to invade Ukraine. And there went the strongest argument of both ends of the horseshoe: that this was the West’s fault, driven by the United States. In fact, maybe what explains the horseshoe regarding Ukraine is that it has little to do with Ukraine after all.
For all their disparate political goals and motivations, what unites the far left and far right is their relationship to U.S. politics. What unites them is an opposition to what they perceive as the faults of the status quo, a distrust of the establishment, and crude anti-Americanism.
On the political right, the actions of legislators like Greene, Cawthorn, Rep. Paul Gosar, or Rep. Matt Gaetz—all of whom oppose U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia—seem to be driven by a profound dislike of the United States as an ethnically and racially diverse democracy, a country where Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, is the law of the land (at least, for now).
Many on the far right despise that reality and recognize the ideological proximity of their political goals to what they see as Putin’s accomplishments, including making life extremely difficult for Russia’s LGBTQ community. His general anti-wokeness has been lauded by former Trump advisor and current MAGA influencer Steve Bannon. The Russian propaganda machine has been remarkably well versed in the language of U.S. culture wars, and there is a widespread perception that Putin and Russia are allies to the MAGA wing of the GOP on that culture war front.
The other aspect is the simple fact that in the polarized landscape of U.S. politics, partisanship trumps national interest and lending any support to Biden is simply unacceptable. If Biden and the Democrats take a position (any position), it must simply be wrong and be viciously opposed. That dynamic has been captured by a viral photo from a Trump rally in 2018 that shows two men proudly wearing “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat” T-shirts. Unfortunately, as we have highlighted, many MAGA politicians are not just talking the talk; they’re walking the walk on that front.
On the progressive left, the motivation is less any perceived alignment with Putin’s policies and more just plain distrust of U.S. foreign policy. Many Americans in these political circles are very invested in the narrative that the United States is a bad international actor that has caused a lot of pain abroad through various wars (most notably, but not exclusively: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam). As a result, they reflexively default to the viewpoint that whatever the U.S. policy is toward a foreign conflict, it must be self-interested or even imperialist. This is why many leftists end up repeating the pro-Kremlin framing of NATO expansion as unilateral American imperialism and, even more bizarrely, citing figures like Mearsheimer—and even Kissinger, a traditional enemy of the American left—to support their point.
This framing, of course, misses years of lobbying that countries such as Poland have engaged in to join NATO or the reasons these countries had for pursuing this political course and implicitly deprives these states of any agency in charting their own futures. This is not just cultural chauvinism aimed at the post-Soviet Slavic states that might be explained by a Cold War analytical hangover or plain racism—given that a similar set of arguments is being deployed against Sweden and Finland, which are both on track to join NATO.
If anything, this approach leads (or, one might say, reveals) progressives to be exactly what they profess not to be: U.S.-centered. By treating the United States as the de facto global power, even though it is a great power they oppose, they inadvertently repeat great-power tropes, such as that the United States should (and can) achieve a cease-fire in Ukraine and dictate the terms of that cease-fire to both Russia and Ukraine. This includes the idea that the United States should convince Ukraine to cede territory and the people who live there to Russia.
Reviving a Yalta Conference mindset, but from the left, these ostensible progressives refuse Ukrainians agency, oppose U.S. armed involvement, and yet believe that the United States has the power and right to parcel out Ukrainian land in exchange for peace in Ukraine. In the heart of this perverse leftist anti-imperialism lies the un-imperial impulse to wield imperial power but only, ostensibly, in the name of peace—no matter the will of the locals.
It is not that the U.S. far right and far left share a unified foreign-policy vision, but they do share a vision for Ukraine: naive anti-interventionism. But perhaps rather than simply confirming horseshoe theory, the existence of these strange bedfellows should make us question a simplistic vision of the political spectrum as a unidimensional left-right political space.
After all, there are many on the left—understood as those supporting internationalism, social justice, and redistributive policies—including Sanders, who have thrown their support behind Ukraine for reasons consistent with their broader politics, including opposition to previous U.S. military involvement abroad. So too have many on the right—understood as those who believe in free markets or hold generally conservative sociopolitical positions—supported arming Ukraine, also for reasons consistent with their politics, including a vision of a strong role for the United States in world politics. The center (broadly construed) is also on board—hence the relative consensus on actual policy.
So what accounts for why the ends of the horseshoe are magnetically attracted to each other, pulled away from the rest of the spectrum?
That magnetic force does not come from the political content of the sides of the spectrum. As political scientist Philip Converse demonstrated back in 1964, and as other scholars have subsequently shown, an overwhelming majority of Americans do not hold coherent ideological views. People who do are, in many ways, outliers. The force behind the horseshoe, then, is another dimension of politics without which it is impossible to understand, among other things, why on earth Chomsky and Kissinger would be embraced by people who would never otherwise agree with them both on much of anything. This is the populist, anti-establishment dimension of U.S. politics.
Populism as a term has become something of an empty signifier and, for many, a pejorative. It has been associated with nativist right-wing leaders—such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Trump—but also with Sanders’s presidential campaign. If anything, in the United States, populism was historically associated with the egalitarian politics of the Populist Party and the subsequent left-wing progressive movement.
But here, what we mean by populism is simply a worldview that pits average citizens, “the people,” against “the elites,” whom populists view as corrupt. This can mean different things for conservative and progressive populists.
On the right, for example, it manifests in “America First” nationalism, isolationism, and the distrust of experts and the news media. On the left, it manifests in the distrust of the traditional party establishment as well as of business interests and mainstream commentators. That is why populists on both sides of the horseshoe generally distrust the traditional mainstream press and its elite talking heads and frequently seek out information from more ostensibly independent and explicitly ideologically aligned sources. It also pushes people inward, toward an isolationism rooted in the belief that when the United States gets involved abroad, it does so in the interests of the country’s political or business elite.
In both cases, it foments a contrarianism that is perhaps most visible on issues where there is a rare national consensus, such as support for Ukraine. In this case, the contrasting motivations of left and right populists lead both sides to reach the same position: one that “both-sides” the war in Ukraine, denies Ukrainians agency, and plays right into Putin’s hands. And this, despite the fact that there is nothing inherent in either far-right or far-left thought that leads to support for Russia or opposition to the plight of Ukrainians.
So perhaps, horseshoe theory as Faye conceptualized it isn’t entirely correct. It is not that the ends of the political spectrum inherently bend toward each other—in other words, that communists and fascists inherently align. If anything, the ends of the political spectrum tend toward broad heterogeneity in opinions. Rather, it is that the populist, anti-establishment impulse on both ends breaks off slivers of adherents who find themselves brought into agreement despite their ideologies.
It doesn’t, of course, help that the traditional, unidimensional political spectrum is itself a flawed heuristic for understanding the totality of people’s political commitments, especially in a country like the United States, where asking for a modicum of welfare state expansion toward an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development standard marks one as a leftist and denying the results of democratic elections makes one a fairly mainstream right winger.
Yet the prevalence of a certain populism on both the left and right, which shapes debates online and in the media as well as the political messaging and policy priorities of Democratic and Republican politicians alike show that not just the political landscape but the nature of political discourse is deeply fractured. This is not simply a question of polarization but of something deeper: the increasing nonexistence of a shared understanding of political reality. Ukraine, rather than a protagonist in this trend, is just a bellwether of things to come.
Jan Dutkiewicz is a policy fellow at the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School. Twitter: @jan_dutkiewicz
Dominik Stecuła is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. Twitter: @decustecu