The Populist Horseshoe?

Owen Billo

Comparing left and right populism this week immediately brought to mind the horseshoe theory. Essentially, the idea is that the far left and far right are closer to each other than they are to centrism, as illustrated above. Specifically, this is the gist that I got from the Fieschi and Rooduijn/Akkerman articles. Fieschi brings up the same question we’ve had in discussions for a few weeks now, which is how xenophobia plays into definitions of populism. She argues that it should be included in the definition of populism because both create an ‘other,’ but tries to include left populism in there. Rooduijn and Akkerman similarly argue (although via a study) that the radical left uses populist tactics as much as the radical right. However, I found their definitions problematic. They define “radical” left as no longer being communist, no longer celebrating the proletariat, and no longer rejecting liberal democracy. That just doesn’t sound very radical to me. Yet in their study they look at nominal communist parties, which contradicts their definition.

The Mudde/Kaltwasser, March, and Vampa articles, on the other hand, seem to disagree with the horseshoe theory – and their arguments are much more persuasive to me. None of them deny that the populist left exists (because it’s undeniable), but they do greatly distinguish the two kinds of populism while linking them with that common label of “populist.” They also define populism the same way as the first authors we read in this course did, that is, as being vessels for ideology. Therefore, we can greatly distinguish populisms by the ‘pilot’ ideology. Mudde and Kaltwasser primarily distinguish them as left populism = inclusionary while right populism = exclusionary. Vampa distinguishes them (specifically in Spain) as being left populism = regionalist while right populism = centralist. Overall, I think that understanding populism as a vessel in this way works very well to overturn the horseshoe theory.

3 Replies to “The Populist Horseshoe?”

  1. I absolutely agree with the umbrage you take with the use of the term “radical”, Owen. I kept waiting for a definition, and not getting one, and being mad.

  2. Hello Owen,

    I think that challenging the idea of the Left-Right horseshoe is extremely important. I agree that some comparative analyses of populism on the Left and populism on the Right seem to problematically argue that the two are closer to one another than other ideologies and thus almost become ‘one in the same’. In addition to the points that you raised, I think that these horseshoe theories are not helpful in addressing and combatting populism as they imply that responses can be applied to both equally, despite the unique origins and expressions, and goals of each populism.

  3. Yes, that is amazing the “horseshoe” theory, I have never heard of that, but it is very similar to what I was thinking this week. How both sides want to be so far apart but so many similarities bring them that much closer.

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