…whether or not you can see it, and how clearly, depends almost entirely on where you stand.
In a fascinating paper (subscription required) on the similarities between left- and right-wing radicals, Herbert McClosky and Dennis Chong argue that if one drifts far enough, the political left-right continuum becomes more like a ring, rather than a straight number line. If this concept seems counterintuitive, imagine the wariness of ‘the male gaze’ that a women’s studies major and a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist might share. Other, similar attitudes spring to mind where the extremes on the left and right share a common stance (natural child birth, maintaining your family’s food supply, other expressions of dissatisfaction with the mainstream status quo).
But crucially, it’s the zealotry, inflexibility, intolerance of dissent, and affection for conspiracy theories – the frameworks for political thought and action – that truly unite the fringes of both sides. The self-image as a “persecuted minority” who are disrespected, passed over and mistreated on the individual level is shared by both sides of the political divide. So too is a lack trust in electoral outcomes generally, and in other individuals specifically. It is funny that this generalized distrust of institutions, characterized as corporations (including the media) and the wealthy by the left, and the “entrenched liberal establishment” (academia, the media, and government bureaucracy) by the right, leaves both ends of the spectrum so susceptible to the conspiratorial fantasies that thrive in the fever swamps.
Thus, you end up with both sides certain that our once-great, beloved nation is hurtling towards a political extreme which is anathema to their views. According to Chong,
“…the radicals of the left and right insist on the more dire conclusion that America is approaching the abyss represented by either communism or fascism – depending on the ideological vantage point of the doomsayer. Such apocalyptic forebodings symbolize the crude and indiscriminate political analysis habitual among extremists of both sides.”
Translating for the truthers, birthers, occupiers and tea partiers: your belief in the takeover of America by hostile forces says quite a bit more about you, than it does about the state of the nation. Also, please stop forwarding me emails.