On hills and why we die on them

If you take the world of journalists too seriously, you will come away with the false impression that every citizen is born with a mark on their forehead which binds them to a political party for life. Fortunately, the population is not split into blindly loyal liberals and conservatives. Often, those who prefer to characterise voters as such simple beings are intentionally obfuscating expressions of nuance or dissent for their own reasons.

Of course, we sometimes act as though these wholly distinct camps exist. Insomuch as there is any truth to these kinds of political labels, the illusion can only be maintained when viewed through the prism of the dominant opinion as enforced by the media and the political establishment.

This is all to say that going into an election, voters don’t often have the luxury of having a party which represents their values or beliefs in full. This does not mean that most voters are swing voters. In fact, most voters don’t vote on the basis of much substance at all. Usually, they pick a party by following the example set by their parents—or just as often picking a candidate on the whimsical basis of charisma or charm.

But among those who do vote for (or at least against) something, you’ll rarely meet anyone truly loyal to their party on all core issues. This may some remarkable to some. After all, if voters are not truly represented by their parties, why do they vote for them at all? The reason behind voters’ behaviour is inherent to the nature of parties and their origins.

From the perspective of a world dominated by parliaments and republics, it can be easy to lose touch with the fact that this state of affairs is relatively new. And even within the paradigm of widespread democracy, there are unique attributes which are entirely recent to the past century; namely, a vast engine of politics and special interests determine all issues to be addressed and an eager centralised media system starves all other issues of oxygen: It is a structure where all politics occurs at the highest point and then trickles down to the voters—having already been thoroughly digested by cultural elites.

Political parties originated in a time where politics was a diffuse arrangement. Those directly concerned with an issue would mobilise political forces from the ground up in order to enact change directly. Rather than a monstrous, centralised machine which enforced opinion and predetermined issues, change came from various associations of guilds and clubs and churches and single-issue political organisations.

The catalyst for this system to evolve was the abolition of monarchies across Europe. As parliaments became the most important arenas of policy, it became necessary as a pragmatic point to form coalitions of at least half of the parliament who shared a consensus viewpoint on a sufficient number of major issues. Although not unprecedented, a parliament filled with dozens of organisations representing the dozens of interest groups of society was not seen as a suitable body to run a nation.

The solution was that the disperse interest groups and political organisations self-sorted themselves into larger organisations on the basis of broad values and perspectives on the most pressing issues of the day. In fact, this is where the terms “left” and “right” originated. During the French Revolution, those interest groups who defended the traditions of the monarchy organised together and became known as the right, and those who supported the revolution organised together as the left.

Since then, democracies have organised themselves on basis of this rough model. Parties representing change take on the nebulous label of left-wing, and any parties that oppose them take on the equally meaningless title of right-wing. And voters, who still hold the same disperse interests and views they did before the rise of parties, are expected to sort all of this out and simply pick a side.

The public has for the most part devised a system to navigate this mess. There are two tools for selecting a party available to the modern voter. Firstly, they could approximate the party which most closely matches their broadest possible values and side with them out of a preference for the lesser of two evils. Or, they could become a single or narrow-issue voter on the basis of their most closely held values and interests, and follow the party which defends them directly.

The challenge comes when the first method conflicts with the second. In other words, what is a voter to do when their particular interests are represented by one side of the political divide and their broad values by the other?

That is when it is time to pick a hill and die on it.

This is the basis for some of the most interesting aspects of political demography. This is how conservative, white and working class used to be a reliable base for the political left despite their seemingly right-wing demography—this was thanks to trade unions and the workers’ movement. And this is also why, in the interest of banning abortions and regulating morality, a religious lobby has emerged to support a party of godless capitalists and warmongers.

For me, this is where the rubber hits the road, and why I chose to write this post. In recent elections I have found myself unable to vote for ‘my side’ of the political debate. I instead go down fighting for narrow causes which are most strongly defended by the other side. In fact, I am on the verge of doing it again.

In Australia, there is an election scheduled for the middle of this year. And I am a left-wing guy. Despite this, I am going to once again place the right-wing Coalition above the Australian Labor Party. This is because they have failed to defend these hills that I am willing to die on.

But this is just the dirty reality of democracy. A single vote matters so little and so many of the issues are fixed from the start. Sometimes having standards means holding your nose, diving into the mud and coming awfully close to having no standards at all.


For those curious, this is the portion of the ALP’s national platform which I am unable to support at the next election. Explaining and defending why something which reads so innocuously offends me to my core would be too tangential to this post for me to go into right now. Perhaps I can revisit it soon in light of this Milo nonsense.

“Australia’s anti-vilification laws strike an appropriate balance between the right to free speech and protection from the harm of hate speech. Labor has successfully stood and will continue to stand with the community against attempts to weaken the longstanding protections against racial hatespeech in the Racial Discrimination Act.

“Homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic harassment by the written or spoken word causes actual harm, not simple mere offence, to people who have suffered discrimination and prejudice, and causes particular harm to young same-sex attracted, or gender-questioning and intersex people, and considers such harmful harassment is an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions.”

— Australian Labor Party 2018 National Policy Platform, Chapter 10, Policies 121 and 122

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