It's NOT the Economy, Stupid!
Why Political Progressives Need to Better Understand Psychology
Posted Sep 16, 2015
When I was studying psychology, I learned about the work of Abraham Maslow, who argued that human needs could be arranged and understood hierarchically—later visualized as a pyramid—with survival needs at the bottom and needs for love, self-esteem and self-actualization resting and dependent on these more basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. The satisfaction of more basic needs is seen as necessary for people to then experience strong desires for so-called "higher-order" satisfactions.
The problem is that this view of human motivation is wrong. Economic survival needs are not necessarily more important than all others. The political consequences are important: Only a movement or political party that speaks to the widest range of aspirations in people will win enough hearts and minds and build enough power to sustain its victories.
Liberals, unfortunately, haven't gotten the message.
When James Carville told his operatives in 1992 in the Clinton campaign to remember, "it's the economy, stupid," he was telling them to remember the universal validity of the Maslow hierarchy, that people care more about bread and butter issues than anything else. Liberals still think that that's the case. Once the media covering the 2016 presidential campaign gets over its preoccupation with Donald Trump, Democrats will remind us again of the important issues of income inequality, health care, the minimum wage and the power of money in politics, issues most clearly articulated today by the Bernie Sanders campaign.
A progressive activist recently told me that if progressives could put enough organizers "on the doors" in enough neighborhoods around the country and educate people about the ways they were being screwed by the big banks and hedge funds, people would break free of their cynical resignation and join a movement for social change.
The core of this progressive belief is that, given enough education about economic reality, people will primarily vote their economic self-interest. The unspoken assumption is that, following Maslow, people are driven by their survival needs, first and foremost, and unless a political party or movement can address these needs first, other programs and agendas will fall on deaf ears.
While promoting good policies, liberals will never build a movement capable of winning a permanent progressive majority if they continue to misunderstand the nature of the psyche and what motivates it. Economic self-interest is not, in fact, the foundation of the human psyche. It coexists and interacts with multiple other needs and interests, themselves every bit as important as Maslow's survival needs. The failure to understand the complexity of human motivation is a blind spot for liberals and progressives, making it exceedingly difficult to inspire and move people at levels deep enough to create sustaining institutions and a movement based on people's deepest passions.
So, how is Maslow's hierarchy wrong? The evidence is all around us. The Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about why people work, citing a huge amount of research to argue that people want meaning, purpose and a sense of personal efficacy in their work as much as a big paycheck. Schwartz showed that the need for meaning and purpose is at least as powerful as the need for money. As he and many researchers have demonstrated, companies that offer employees a wider scope of agency in their jobs, more control and especially a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, something nobler one might say, are cultures in which people will work harder, stay longer and settle for smaller paychecks. This need for significance lies at the heart of the sacrifices parents are willing to make to create opportunity for their children. In so doing, parents feel connected to the future. And certainly people active in social change movements will often give up individual gains and material rewards for a chance to be part of history, to contribute to creating a better future for others.
People have many other, non-economic needs that can be every bit as powerful as those expressing their bottom-line financial self-interest. For example, people need to be part of communities, to be connected to others in relationships of mutuality and reciprocity. We are wired from birth to seek connection to others. A cartoon in the New Yorker on 6/14/93 captured this inborn reflex, depicting two birds sitting together, one saying to the other, "Of course I love you. I'm programmed to love you. I'm a goddamn lovebird!"
All we need to do is look around us, and inside ourselves, for evidence of the power of the longing for relationships. Soldiers report that they fight and take risks not for their country but for their small squad of brothers and sisters with whom they feel a deep interdependence. Children opt to remain with abusive parents rather than sever relationships they know for the unknown. One mechanism through which 12-step groups help addicts is by providing a sense of belonging to an accepting community. Even right-wing fantasies about protecting "us"("real" Americans) from "them" (e.g. immigrants, gays, Muslims, etc.) mirror this need by establishing an imaginary experience of collective solidarity in which we "insiders" are threatened by those "outsiders." Such fantasies attract adherents precisely because everyone wants to belong to some form of "us."
In addition to a feeling of meaning and connectedness, people also crave recognition, a sense that they are valued for who they are and what is special about them. Employees stay longer with and work harder for companies that provide high levels of recognition. Most people can remember a special teacher or mentor whose attention nourished their talents and ambitions.
Liberals need to learn that institutions capable of inspiring passion and loyalty mange to speak to and satisfy multiple human needs. When the journalist Malcolm Gladwell studied Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, he found that its success lay in the ways that it intentionally met the widest range of needs and motivations—most of them non-economic—of congregants. Members met in small groups, providing experiences of personal connection, as well as spiritual community. Members are given meaningful roles and encouraged to learn and teach, and a vibrant church-based adult educational program was started. People who did well were recognized publicly and given other opportunities to serve the congregation.
Liberals continue to focus on economics, however, and frame their vision of "the good life" primarily in terms of material security, opportunity and justice. It would be naïve, of course, to say that these goals and values shouldn't be indisputably vital planks in a progressive platform. Struggling to make ends meet while the top 1 percent get away with economic murder is a blight on our society and offensive to the values of equality and fairness embedded in the hearts and minds of most Americans, and a social change movement that doesn't stress economic justice will be seen as irrelevant to the real lives of most Americans.
Nevertheless, liberals are sorely mistaken when they assume that Maslow's hierarchy of needs is universal and that programs primarily promoting economic redistribution are going to speak to what people most deeply care about. Such a blind spot is self-defeating for advocates of progressive politics.
Instead, progressives need to be addressing other values and speaking to other needs like those for meaning and purpose, connection and community, recognition and agency and learning. We shouldn't simply be calling for universal access to health care but for caring relationships with health care providers. We shouldn't just be defending the separation of church and state against threats from the Christian right but embracing the need people have for some type of spiritual experience and articulating the radical social visions that lay within Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologies, visions that promote mutual recognition, community and a feeling of sacred responsibility for those with less than us. We should be militantly supporting unions and their organizing efforts, not simply because such efforts seek to redress economic inequalities, but because unions are one of the few institutions left that can counteract the toxic effects of the extreme dog-eat-dog individualism so often lying behind feelings of failure and loneliness in our culture today.
We can't reduce politics to psychology, but our politics have to be consistent with what psychology has shown to be true about the human psyche. Any movement—or political party—that doesn't understand this might occasionally get some votes, but never the passionate engagement of the people it needs to truly realize its aims.