Contemporary society cannot repress the urge to assign everything to a spectrum, an assumption smuggled in from scientism.
Therefore, there is much ado about metrics, graphs, and dichotomous frameworks. Of course, this effort at scientism really reverts to dualism, self-and-other thinking, and other baloney, with the fundamental result of reducing the capacity for qualitative judgments and increasing the tendency to unify things that do not belong together and, as critically, to draw associations between things where none exist.
But we cannot blame the entirety of horseshoe theory on woeful ineptitude.
In fact, it has much more of a basis in the current political situation than we would like to admit, and as a result, it holds great explanatory power.
But it’s objectively wrong as a framework for understanding the broader universe of political thought.
A Reactionary History of Political Thought
Politics is literally ancient. Barring various ersatz organizations that may not have had any more significance than “this guy is leader because he is,” we know that organized political thought goes back about three thousand years.
And, of course, we have a fairly robust and consistent tradition starting in Ancient Greece, which we can still see applied (albeit not always consistently) up to the current day.
The basic formula that the Greeks came up with is that you have three forms of government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. There’s a story that they enjoyed balancing them, and certainly that was part of the Roman political structure, but I don’t see much support for the case some of our contemporaries make that people really had a position of moderation for their chosen form of government.
The Roman Republic, for instance, was organized in a way that was functionally oligarchic, but at least nominally democratic (or at least the senatus and the populusque of the SPQR were co-rulers, making for an oligarchic democracy). They had the power to appoint a dictator temporarily, but this wasn’t a monarch, and taking up the mantle of king was a good way to be asking Brutus whether he too was stabbing you.
And later people, like the medieval Europeans—who may have been ignorant of much Greek and Roman thought but certainly were aware of Roman history—explicitly preferred monarchy and aristocratic structures of rule.
I designate as reactionary any non-democratic political movement in the current context, except for those sufficiently wacky to fall outside the norm, since what we have seen since the middle of the 1700s (though perhaps more earnestly following the French Revolution, which had a more truly democratic character than the American secession) is a shift toward near-global democracy.
I operate entirely from a framework of political realism. This means that my fundamental consideration in political systems is at looking at what they are and how they operate with relatively clear eyes.
I am a particularist in my own life, but I do not demand that everyone follow my own prescriptions for society so long as they give me my own. I am anti-democratic, but only because I believe it is incompatible with any other society existing and is basically banditry writ large. Other political systems may be petty banditry, but I’ll take petty banditry over a rabid mob.
And understanding the various political structures that have emerged over the years requires a clear-eyed understanding of the systems of power.
We can look to the elite theorists (who fall into the political tradition of realism founded by Machiavelli) for two similar but not identical methods of understanding the rules of political societies.
The first, Gaetano Mosca, sets out a theory of the ruling class. All societies have a ruling class, and this is true regardless of the political order. The monarch and his court are the ruling class. The chief merchants of a merchant republic are its ruling class. DC is our ruling class. And the people who have the most capital are the ruling class of Ancapistan.
We can assess various costs and benefits to any ruling class, of course. They are not equal, and in fact they have profoundly different values and consequences. One thing that is helpful is to look at the role that religion plays in the ruling class’s role. Here, we refer to religion as “social organization” rather than strictly “faith,” though of course the religion used by the state may be a matter of conviction and source of zeal, with oft-disastrous consequences.
While all ruling classes must create a civic religion that justifies their leadership, we can distinguish better civic religions (noblesse oblige, divine right, mandate of heaven) from worse (modern nationalism, egalitarianism, socialism). Further, all societies will have a humanitarian religion, which can be usurped by the civic religion at the cost of eroding juridical defense and corruption (as the Islamic caliphates gave into, though a better example may be the apoptosis of our own egalitarian democratic regime).
Vilfredo Pareto has a mathematical approach to the power structure. While I’m normally hesitant to suggest such models, the Pareto distribution is based on the bell curve, which seems to model events well across a broad spectrum of cases, making it more trustworthy.
The fundamental nature of the Pareto principle, which is sometimes called the 80/20 rule, is that the small minority of people have most of the effects on society because they have the distinctive traits that make that functionality possible.
In politics, we see this holds true because only a handful of people have the social skills, networking, and temperament to rise to the top of any system.
What Pareto and Mosca teach us is that political systems will always exist, though they can vary on account of what they are and the circumstances of society.
There are only two things which can never be truly achieved.
First, there is no such thing as equality. Talk of equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, or even equality under the law are all nonsense. They may exist on paper, but they can never exist and to pursue them as a highest goal involves the investment of time and resources cast into mud as pearls before swine. God may love all people equally from a particular Christian perspective, but He seems unwilling to change the fact that some people are less capable, connected, or fortunate than others.
We can get into more detail from philosophical or economic perspectives, but just from a raw perspective of realism, there are always going to be natural or artificial hierarchies. I openly and explicitly endorse natural hierarchies over the artificial, but if hierarchies are to be artificial, we should structure them in such a way that mimics natural incentives. This reduces the amount of resources needed to fight the flow of power back to its natural holders and also has the benefit of erasing the pretense of morality that low sorts who get power need to cultivate.
Second, leaders must accept the same laws of economics, society, and physics as everyone else.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe is a thinker who does a great deal of work to dispel the myth of democracy, including in such works as Democracy: The God That Failed, but many people forget the fact that his preference for monarchs over democrats rests on the incentives they have for low time preference behavior. The lowest time preference is always the direct property owner, and monarchs may covet the property of others (breaking one of the Ten Commandments, I might add) and consider themselves legally entitled to trespass against it.
When such offenses occur, we see a distortion of the laws that govern human action and the world.
The system which forbids and most effectively limits even the least of these violations is going to be objectively superior to others on account of minimizing disruptions of the natural order. This is an explicit value judgment, which realists may make despite what certain fedora-wearing sorts might think.
I would argue that this is anarchism, as does Hoppe, but I will not castigate those who disagree with me on this so long as their endorsement of any other system rests on this ideal of maximizing moral action.
The fundamental question of the organizations of power is about who gets to have a say in how society runs.
Monarchs argue we should invest all power in one sovereign—true monarchists are almost all absolutists, arguing for a system in which all political authority lives with the monarch.
Note that an absolute monarchist is not the same as a totalitarian. The absolutist simply argues that all those things which fall into the political sphere—which does not include arbitrary powers over all subjects—should reside in a single person.
In the European context, this usually had the context of divine right (which has equivalent but distinct alternatives, like the mandate of heaven, in other contexts). I don’t agree with the divine rights theorist, but I prefer the absolute monarchist held in check by apolitical power if I had to live under a monarchy.
Of course, we can also think of feudalism as representing contractual arrangements between groups of people, with a vertical association between social hierarchies—people would pledge allegiance to the person one level up the hierarchy from themselves, until there was a chain of union that went from an individual farmer to the ruler of a region.
Even though the monarchies under the feudal system were often absolute, we can see that the actual power of the monarch had limits. The contractual relationship between king and subject was based on reciprocity, and a breach of contract from one person to another could break off the relationship.
A hybrid form of monarchy is the constitutional monarchy, which combines a central monarch with oligarchy or democracy. Constitutional monarchy has the downside of adding in a massive expansion to political life—whereas the advantage of the absolute monarch is that his legitimacy is always in question.
Here there are more opportunities for factions and other issues, and some constitutional monarchies are better than others. Constitutional monarchies with an aristocracy may be called reactionary, while the modern constitutional monarchies that just involve a puppet leader over a democratic society (as in England or Japan) are democratic and have the monarchist bent only on paper—unless there is sufficient influence of pro-monarchist factions, but they should remove the democratic process and return to a set aristocracy.
One advantage of monarchies is that the power winds up centralized but not inherently bureaucratized. Not all monarchs had the same amount of power and the less powerful—or more virtuous—monarchs offered more freedom than we might enjoy in a democratic society, with almost no interest in interfering in the day-to-day affairs of the common people.
Most moderns think of monarchies as hereditary, but this was not always the case. Elective monarchies involved a council who would appoint a king—this was often their sole political power and would often take the form of lesser nobles choosing someone of royal blood (or, in some systems, any person of their choice) to replace a deceased, absent, or incapacitated monarch. Regency councils also existed within hereditary monarchies to serve the same purpose.
Some modern monarchist thinkers argue that a return to the contractual system of feudalism would offer more liberty than the current democratic system, since it would mean that the vast majority of people no longer would be subject to mob politics and the social issues that democracy comes with. Monarchy also neatly bypasses the many critiques of the ethical and moral foundations of democracy, though the same question of “who should be monarch” still applies.
Although not fully satisfying for an anarchist like myself, this form of monarchy is certainly superior to democracy, if only for Hoppe’s analysis that the monarch has a better incentive structure and would face more limits on power (since their propaganda would have to convince people to follow them and not make the stupid “we owe it to ourselves” argument)
Oligarchy runs on different founding principles, and unlike the more codified forms of monarchy, there are different methods and styles to it.
The fundamental nature of oligarchy is that power is not absolutely centralized, but also is not equitably distributed. The post-colonial United States started out with an oligarchic structure, with a presidency modeled loosely after the monarchy but without absolute authority and a senate that was more explicitly aristocratic (at least in the Jeffersonian conception).
Of course, this closely resembled the British constitutional monarchy, which had a closer resemblance to the post-Magna Carta arrangement with aristocrats explicitly keeping the king in check as opposed to a democracy with a monarch as a figurehead.
Over time, these eroded and became more directly democratic (e.g. the election of senators rather than their appointment).
And, of course, the Roman Republic was an example of a de facto oligarchy, both by granting a political elite class greater rights and because only a small portion of the population was expected to take part in any state decision-making (whether or not they had the right to).
Oligarchies have fundamental issues because of their nature.
For instance, in a representative oligarchy, as with the Roman Republic, one still needs to come to grips with the origin of power and its philosophical foundation. They used familial representation, with politically influential families having the right to send members to decide on political matters.
This sort of aristocracy remained common in the middle levels of feudal society, even if the monarch technically had all the authority, as those who had some power over others, but not a massive amount of power overall.
One distinction here is that in a true oligarchy, like some of the smaller city-states enjoyed or the Roman Republic, there is no right of appeal. Under a monarchist system, the king had the final say in the law—and could accept petitions from various underlings against each other.
Oligarchies give way to political factions because power belongs to multiple individuals who can wield it in various ways.
However, they are still preferable to democracy because they naturally seek the aristocratic element (e.g. power by merit) as opposed to the egalitarian framework that democracy aims for—if nothing else the democrat desires to form a coalition of mediocrities that they can rule over as a demagogue, whereas the natural power that inheres to an aristocrat does not rely on popular approval.
However, oligarchies are unstable because they lack the clear power of the monarch. They may be justified using the mandate of heaven. A polycentric order (i.e. in which different oligarchs wield various powers non-exclusively) may form under an oligarchy, which is the most stable form because it minimizes the tendency to power struggles, but also the least functional because such polycentrism gives way to democracy or anarchism.
The de facto functioning of all societies has been oligarchic. Whether this represents a natural hierarchy—acting as private individuals instead of relying on legal authority—or whether this is a political legitimization of an illegitimate hierarchy depends on the law and ideals of the land.
The monarch has advisors and democrats have representatives or demagogues (and what is the difference?), but even in an anarchic society the natural oligarchy still functions without an explicit legal justification for any actions that violate the rights of others.
Democracy is the system that most of us live under, and I will not waste much time going into the details.
Democracy may be direct or representational. These are facades. As Mosca points out, the ballot will be formed by someone who at best attempts to represent the will of the people, but in practice is usually just an interested party seeking political gain.
And, of course, as Ernst Jünger explores at length in The Forest Passage, democracies are rarely truly democratic because of the ability to rig elections or intimidate contrarian thinkers.
This does not even need to be a top-down effort. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn discuss in their writing, there are social and psychological forces at work in a democracy to ostracize, belittle, and otherwise repress political minorities, if only because the inherently majoritarian nature of most democracies must exclude the preferences of minorities.
Of course, it is theoretically possible for minorities to hold the full power in democracies—for instance, the number of Americans fully on board with the platform of any major party is likely below thirty percent for any platform. Here, either a sleight-of-hand will save the day, such as open party membership in self-interested factions with a corrupt elite who are unaccountable to the voter and use propaganda and deception to maintain their reign, or an argument will emerge for the merits and virtues of these minoritarians over the majority.
Of course, the second argument quickly transforms into oligarchy. As we mentioned previously, all societies become de facto oligarchies, regardless of their de jure government.
The Republican who argues that they need to save America from the Democrats (or vice versa) is simply making their opponents less palatable than themselves and offering little to voters in return but self-defense from opposing political interests, as Lysander Spooner observed.
Democracy typically relies on some form of egalitarianism through a broad franchise as its claim to legitimacy.
Universal suffrage is not a mandatory component of democracy, and, as we will discuss in more detail later, much confusion stems from the modern presumption that democracy is when people vote. Regimes can use voting under other systems of government, albeit less regularly and usually as a practical measure, and voting is a means to bolster democracy’s legitimacy rather than a process that the ruling elite are fond of.
Of course, in an oligarchy or monarchy the amount of voting is largely restricted, and in anarchism the only acceptable votes would be unanimous. Democracy strikes a middle ground—everyone votes, but not everyone counts.
This is important because, contrary to the claims of many contemporary critics, a society can be autocratic and democratic simultaneously. Many strongman dictatorships are democratic, and often have higher approval ratings than Western democracies, despite the nit-picks that social democrats make about method and outcome.
Further, democracies do not have to care equally about all their citizens. The ruling elite never considers its subjects equal to itself and rarely does it consider all of its subjects equal to each other either.
Anarchism is the rejection of political structures entirely.
While some who call themselves anarchists are just democrats with daddy issues, the more philosophically developed anarchists have reached a distinctly different system than the classical three options of governance.
We can consider the following groups of anarchists as philosophically sound and not mere democracy in disguise.
The right-anarchists, and variants within right-anarchism such as the anarcho-monarchists and Austro-libertarian anarcho-capitalists like myself, accurately see that individuals can make the state obsolete through voluntary social interactions.
With anarcho-monarchists, the system is functionally archaic, with the king serving as a designated chieftain in times of war or a voluntarily followed guide. This is essentially a tribal (philosophically, not legally) outlook.
Note that the slogan “every man a king” is not an anarcho-monarchist slogan (and is instead one of many stupidities spouted by many democratic “anarchists”), and that some anarcho-monarchists are more pure anarchists who seek to distinguish themselves from egalitarians by pointing out that their secondary preference would be for a monarch, as did Tolkien. No serious anarcho-monarchist would argue that every individual ought to be considered a monarch.
Most anarcho-capitalists are right-anarchists, but some followers of David Friedman or unaffiliated sorts within the movement are philosophically weaker and make utilitarian arguments and come to anarchism only as a second to capitalism.
Fortunately, in either case anarcho-capitalism is specifically of the right, since those capitalists who simply see the state as obsolete and unnecessary still reject the egalitarianism of democracy. Many of these would not properly be understood as reactionaries, however.
The Austro-libertarian movement, associated with Murray Rothbard and the Mises Institute, has a specific affiliation with the reactionary movement through connections to Old Right thinkers in the American tradition, thinkers like Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and Christian religious thought.
And, of course, Hoppe is explicitly anti-democratic, though Rothbard’s musings on democracy in Man, Economy, and State are also enough to reveal the errors of egalitarian thought as a basis for political action.
Christian anarchists may be properly anarchist, since they embrace the slogan of “No king but Christ” and apply this equally to democratic governments. Unfortunately, most Christian anarchists are not right-wing, despite their Christian affiliation, because of the influences of figures like Tolstoy. There are those who are pleasantly reactionary in character, in part because certain religious traditions rightly pick up on the satanic underpinnings of democracy.
Further, outside the few extreme Christian anarchists, many have limited political development, instead focusing on applying their convictions to the prevailing political dialogue (e.g. “no war”) and not any sense of political realism.
Although egoists, market anarchists, and agorists are not right-wing in disposition, they are often anti-democratic and would reflect an actual anarchist approach to politics, refusing any de jure hierarchies. Many of them also desire to tear down natural hierarchies, however, by falsely conflating them with de jure hierarchies.
This contrast helps us understand that the “anarcho-communists” and “anarcho-syndicalists” are democratic rather than anarchist and who would also advocate for ending natural hierarchies as an explicit part of their platform to empower the mass of people—whereas true anarchists simply consider artificial hierarchies abhorrent.
All true anarchists (and even the more ideological communists and syndicalists playing at anarchism) are openly intolerant of governments. When people retort “you would wind up with warlords” they overlook the anarchist responses to these people, which is to shoot them in the face.
How this happens differs. Anarcho-capitalists, of course, would pay for private security forces and encourage individual self-defense, though this is a topic for discussion at a later date. Entire books on this subject exist, such as Gustave de Molinari’s The Production of Security, a laissez-faire economic approach that helped inspire anarcho-capitalism, for those who think that they have debunked anarchism by pointing out that you’d wind up with warlords the moment the state disappeared. However, given that this is a suitable description of the status quo, perhaps some pessimism has earned its place.
Other anarchists would point to similar systems of mutual aid, insurgency, private security, and alliances with varying degrees of practicality.
The important thing here is that all social organizations under anarchy are voluntary (barring the “you need to work with people to survive” element, which is natural and not socially imposed), and as a result there are no leaders.
The ruling class, in this case, simply comprises the people most capable of competing under anarchist conditions, and does not have any special privileges (but still has more power than outsiders). The best capitalists run Ancapistan, but that’s an outcome we’re happy with.
Legitimacy and the Political Systems
The reason why I have drawn out the four systems here—the three classical systems plus anarchism—is to talk about legitimacy.
The monarch’s legitimacy is absolute in sovereignty, usually on account of some form of divine right, and the only limits are to prevent him from using this power in ways that are too undesirable (for instance, to keep him from plundering everyone).
Therefore we can have the concept of “good” and “bad” monarchs. Nero and Caligula are on history’s naughty list, while Alfred the Great goes down as pretty swell.
The oligarchy has shakier grounds for legitimacy. Divine right almost works, but when any two oligarchs contradict each other it throws the system into confusion. Traditional reasons for a small ruling elite, hereditary or not, have been used as a basis, such as the Scottish clan system or the merchant republics.
The reasons we see oligarchies at all stem from the natural propensity of ruling elites to form. Their members are too common to be centralized in one person in a large system, but too rare to make up a voting block. Practical oligarchies almost always reign where de jure systems may seem to suggest a different structure, and their legitimacy comes from their ability to parasitize the official structure’s claim to legitimacy.
Democracy has various arguments in favor of its existence, which all boil down to the idea of having a government that represents its people. Again, there is a necessary caution here—not all democracies consider everyone within their borders as the people they represent.
Democracy can look very different from what we think of when we say “democracy,” because the contemporary meaning of the term has been reduced to “that which is good” in the same way that fascism has been reduced to “that which is bad” in many peoples’ lexicons.
Anarchism rejects the idea of political legitimacy. In an anarchist framework, there is no legitimate structure for arbitrary power. This is distinct from rejecting law (for instance, anarcho-capitalists believe in private law), and also distinct from lacking all social hierarchies.
Anarchism is also not a belief that each individual has the right to a system of their choosing. This may be part of an anarchist’s ideas but is also a logical conclusion of the liberal tradition as it finds expression in other systems. Anarchists such as myself, who lack this belief, consider all governments criminal de jure, though we may tolerate them for various reasons (such as avoiding getting shot).
Why Does Horseshoe Theory Work?
But this was supposed to be about horseshoe theory, as astute readers may recall.
There is a reason why I have diverged so broadly from my main topic. Horseshoe theory requires an understanding of political systems. The argument that it makes is that all political extremes tend to look the same—although it does not mandate this, advocates for horseshoe theory point to extreme factions’ totalitarian lust for power over society.
Horseshoe theory proponents may also remark that the United States, for instance, has a one-party system—in which two or more nominally distinct factions compete, but largely provide the same system to their voters. For instance, every election from 2004 to 2012 in the US came down to choosing a unique flavor of John McCain (may his brain tumor rest in peace), and you could extend that window wider if you will build a bigger case for it.
There are, therefore, two horseshoe theories, and I will address them separately: the horseshoe theory on the extremes and the horseshoe theory in the middle.
Quantities and Qualities
Before we delve in, it’s important to distinguish quanta from qualia.
Quanta are the plight of the modern world. They’re measurable things, for lack of a better word.
Any time you hear spectrum, it’s almost always going to be a sign that you’re working with some quantity. A “democracy index,” for instance, is someone’s made-up guess (and don’t underestimate the degree to which people will lie about their made-up guesses being scientific) or a decision made to assign numbers to a bunch of values.
Of course, in practice, this may be an entirely irrelevant exercise, because what really matters are the qualities of a society. It doesn’t matter that one hundred percent of the population can vote or if two percent of the population can vote. The former may be a monarchy (in which the vote is for a successor to a deceased monarch), and the latter may be a democracy (in which we randomly scattered the voters across the total population and occur yearly). For instance, only soldiers may have earned the franchise, but we may consider them to be the in-group of citizens a democracy seeks to represent.
Nobody would argue that the United States represented all its citizens before it banned slavery, but nobody’s arguing that it wasn’t a democracy (at least, nobody who is worth taking seriously).
The fundamental error in the horseshoe theory is that it focuses on placing things on a spectrum. If the fascists and the communists believe in voting with just one person on the ballot, this would nominally make them the same.
Do All Extremes Look The Same?
Let’s first examine the case of extremists. Do all extremists have the same ideas and prescriptions for society?
This is patently absurd.
In the first place, the two political systems used for the most typical horseshoe theory explanation are the fascists and the communists.
But the fascists and communists read a lot of the same books. They may differ on the use of Marx, but common trends like Sorel and the syndicalist origins of fascism need to be considered here. Peron, who certainly would tick the boxes for what the illiterate left calls “fascist,” billed himself as a left-nationalist.
And communist regimes are less socially progressive than the out-of-power communists elsewhere. Of course, this difference is strategic—anyone who has read the literature of either Lenin or the postmodern left would understand that Bezmenov’s formula of sowing dissent by agitating various minorities is still in operation.
The communists use a national, racial, economic, cultural, or sexual minority (or majority, if the oppression narrative works at that scale) as the foundation for explaining the oppression people face.
And the fascists largely do the same. They rise to power by claiming that a particular group is oppressed by (or controlling) society. Whether this is true is—as with the communists—irrelevant.
The reason the two biggest factions used as opposite extremes look so alike is because they are essentially the same movement, philosophically speaking. They have different beneficiaries and sometimes different aesthetics, but the methodology is the same and the intellectual tradition has the same roots.
The Middle of the Horseshoe
There are also those who would argue that all systems under a particular social order will look identical, and the factions competing for influence will by necessity always have essentially the same platform. Here, multi-party democracy is really little more than a focus group for the regime, with some turnover of individuals in power.
From a political realist’s perspective, this is actually close to the truth. Any democratic ruling elite would, by necessity, have to function more or less similar to any other democratic ruling elite of the same country.
But in practice, we actually see this disproven more often than not. Factions like the Republicans and Democrats took the US to war once before, and in the UK there were similar examples of experiments with nationalization and socialism under Labour and an end to these policies after their ouster.
These radical shifts in economic policy are just the tip of the ice-berg. Of course, we should be cynical about how much of the political platform is a lie to get elected, how much is propaganda to mold public opinion, and how much is authentic.
But a realist should also consider idealism, not because it is how society works, but because it motivates people to act.
And the idea that there is any such thing as a moderate is little more than an attempt to frame different things on a spectrum. As much as we may point to the similarities of the fascists and communists, there may actually be more differences between a mainstream progressive and mainstream conservative faction than there are between the fascists and communists, given that both are (philosophically, though not necessarily aesthetically) progressive social movements that seek to mold society.
We should also not take this as an assumption that political factions are labeled accurately. The United States has the Democrats, a progressive faction essentially indistinguishable from fascists except for their aesthetics, and the Republicans, a progressive faction essentially indistinguishable from fascists except for being out of date.
Both of them have an appalling lack of Hugo Boss uniforms, which is the only upside I can think of for living under a fascist system.
However, both would argue that everything should be under the state (except those things which they consider more efficient to leave to private hands), nothing should stand against the state, and they are generally willing to use power cynically to get what they want.
The Republicans have more difficulty here, because they have more intra-party conflict, especially between neocons, who the population correctly considers as too akin to the Democrats, and populist right factions, who the population falsely considers as too distant from the Democrats.
But the same thing has happened to Democrats in the past, though they use superdelegates and crooked dealings to prevent outsiders from actually messing up their system the same way Trump left the Republicans shattered.
It may be fashionable to snidely regard the DPRK’s claims to be democratic as a coping mechanism, but I believe wicked people when they admit moral failings.
There are two things that make this case better than any argument against the DPRK being a democracy.
First, the entire legitimacy of the system rests on the idea that the government serves its people. Sure, they may pull up some ancient Epic of Gilgamesh-style deification of whichever Kim is currently sitting on a throne, but the whole point isn’t that the Kim’s some superhuman (though, of course, this is a core part of North Korea’s brainwashing efforts). Instead, to the degree that the Kim is anything special, he’s simply the purest representation of North Korea’s people, as well as the revolutionary spirit it embodies.
This is the distinction between a Napoleon and a Louis. The founding myth of Emperor Napoleon never says “this is a man sent from God as a divine ruler.” Instead, he was a key leader in the French Republic that followed their revolution, and, as Madame de Rémusant mused, that he would exert his authority to serve the people.
God chose King Louis, and had the divine right of kings at his side.
The Kim is a Napoleon, not a Louis. He’s not chosen by blood or by the divine (though Hegel’s geist may have had a role to play), but by the class and race of the North Korean people. Because the Korean variant of communism claims to only hate the bourgeoise merchants and not intellectuals, much like the vanguardist Leninism and Stalinism, the class question is less important and it is merely his role as a representative of race and nation that matters.
The Kim’s approval rating is likely quite high, though accurate statistics on this are hard to come by. This is, of course, a result of brainwashing, but even if “democracy is stuff I like” the Kims have an excellent track record of winding up on the right side of public approval.
Note that, of course, there are doubtless many people who hate the Kim with a burning passion. But they do not matter, unless they are in the ruling elite or get a clear shot at the Kim and pull the trigger. And, because democracy doesn’t actually care about a handful of elites so much as the mass of the people, we can limit the amount of people who make this regime undemocratic to the people rotting away in prison camps.
If you held an election, even a fair election, in North Korea, the Kim would win. Sure, we could complain that it doesn’t align with our values, but brainwashed people still have values.
Those who consider themselves enlightened in the West were stupid enough to cover their faces with cloth that couldn’t stop an ornery flea because they thought it would save them from a very small virus particle. Further, a good chunk of them didn’t even have their mask up over their nose, and were rubbing their eyes in case they hadn’t left enough vulnerabilities in their protective scheme.
The people of North Korea would vote for the Kim, because he saves them from the evil imperialist West and the “Japanese bastards” who are just waiting to invade them and tear them to pieces.
And make no mistake—the North Korean society is enforced horizontally, which Kuehnelt-Leddihn points to as a key symptom of democracy. It’s not the Kim who looks down from above and knows what you’re doing. He’s not actually a god-emperor, and most people in North Korea are lucky to have food, much less surveillance cameras.
Instead, it is the people who perpetuate the regime, just as it is anywhere else in the world. Pawns of the ruling elite or not, they chose the system, and there’s not much we can do about it (at least, not that democrats could pull off).
Sampling Bias and the Horseshoe Theory
The greatest flaw of all, however, is that horseshoe theory only applies within the framework of a handful of governments that have a very distinct character.
They look at various forms of democracy. They may argue that you see similar traits in all illiberal democracies, but that’s because they’re looking at illiberal ideologies like fascism or communism (or our own progressivism, but that’s neither here nor there) and how they merge with democracy.
Actual extreme politics, like Islamism, are only intelligible to most democrats on minor policy points. Of course the Islamists are “homophobic,” but they do not oppose gay marriage in the same sense that the Nazis persecuted homosexuals as “degenerates.”
There is a distinction between the in-group out-group process of fascism and the theocratic order of Islamism.
Nazism operates in a fashion characteristic of all democracies, though some reserve the distinctions for foreigners or wrong thinkers. In fact, they actually considered most of the people who did things they didn’t like as foreigners, given their idea of German racial purity.
When you think something’s a sin and the penalty is death, that’s a very different thing. The Islamists may have the idea of infidel that sounds like the democratic exclusion of interior enemies, but it’s a whole different animal—the person who commits a crime has a price to pay Allah.
And it’s totally possible to have an extreme that’s the opposite way. The Tolstoyans also believe in a God-ordained vision of society and are actually much closer to Islamists in their origins on account of that, but they would probably act entirely differently (not the least because they’re anarchists compared to the monarchist Islamists).
In short, when someone describes the horseshoe theory and claims it’s relevant, they’re looking at one of the examples of democracy that they don’t like, or trying to treat something else like a democracy, and saying that it’s like something else they don’t like.