Updated: Feb 21
Voters vote for politicians to help them fill their needs. Individuals strategically spend their scarce and valuable resources, like time and money and energy, on satisfying their needs. Instead of speaking to voters needs, however, politicians often focus on values they share with their voters. Common values do not motivate voters. Needs motivate voters: bread on their table, clothes on their children, and clean water in their taps. By explaining how they will meet voters’ needs, politicians and parties can increase the number of voters who vote and who vote for them.
Needs motivate action.
The world naturally motivates individuals to act by generating needs in the individual.
People only act when something motivates them. One of the original economists, Thomas Malthus, described the state of humanity without motivation: “[t]he savage would slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold, and the exertions that he makes to avoid these evils, by procuring food, and building himself a covering, are the exercises which form and keep in motion his faculties, which otherwise would sink into listless inactivity.”1 In other words, the world naturally motivates individuals to act by generating needs in the individual.
In 1954, psychologist Abraham Maslow literally wrote the book on motivating people: Motivation and Personality. There, he described a hierarchy of five levels of needs that drive people.
First, initially, individuals seek physiological needs like food, shelter, water, and clothing. Physical exercise likely fits within this level.Second, when individuals have filled some of those physiological needs, they seek security,2 which is having the ability to fill the first-level needs not just today, but also tomorrow.Third, with some security, individuals work toward filling social needs of love and belonging.Fourth, one seeks to satisfy self-esteem needs.Fifth, and finally, individuals seek self-actualization, or full humanness.3
Maslow’s theory creates a hierarchy because one cannot fill a higher level to a greater degree than one has filled a lower level.4 For example, one cannot satisfy his social needs by seventy percent if she has satisfied only sixty percent of her survival needs. By pursuing the goals in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an individual pursues his happiness.5
Clinton relied solely on values to prevail in 2016.
Politicians often seek to turn out or persuade voters either (a) by convincing them that the politician shares the voters’ values or (b) by convincing them to share the politician’s values. To the extent that tactic had any credibility before 2016, it has none anymore.
Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton lost the presidency by focusing too much on Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s repulsive values. Instead of focusing on her own ideas for growing resources for filling people’s needs, she berated Trump for devaluing women, minorities, and people with disabilities. Clinton expected Trump’s repulsive values would repulse voters and leave her victory. It did not.
Trump ignored values. He argued that he would negotiate better trade agreements to bring back United States manufacturing jobs,Dissolve regulations to create more jobs like coal and steel jobs,Build a wall to keep out immigrants who are taking American jobs,Build infrastructure to generate jobs, andReduce taxes to leave more money in voters’ pockets.6
Clinton promised more of the policies President Barack Obama advocated. To the people who wanted to fill more needs, she promised nothing additional. Her opponent promised to fill more needs.
Jobs enable individuals to fill several needs.
Trump leveraged voters’ needs for jobs to persuade them to vote for him. Jobs can help fill every level of needs. They provide the laborer money for food, water, clothing, shelter, and security in filling those needs tomorrow (first- and second-level needs). Jobs fill social needs by giving the laborer colleagues with whom to work toward a common goal. For many people in the United States especially, jobs provide self-esteem and self-worth because the laborer has value to the company and the nation and his family. And if the job uses the laborer’s signature strengths and a laborer can find creativity in that job, the laborer can self-actualize while working. Promising jobs translates to promising to enable individuals to help fill all of those needs.
Trump’s message on jobs lead him to beat Mitt Romney’s vote totals from among white, working-class voters.7 Although his poll number sank, 62,979,636 voters voted for Trump. Those votes brought him victory in the Electoral College over the 65,844,610 voters who voted for Clinton.8 The victory surprised most pollsters and the entire Democratic Party because they expected Trump’s values would drive voters from the polls.
Values do not motivate like needs motivate.
Modern political analysis sees the parties as differing in values. For example, some characterize the left as valuing fairness and the right as valuing self-determination.9 George Lakoff perceives a battle over “framing” issues within those value systems.10 While framing according to values may help understand the reason for policy positions, and may help understand the parties’ or individuals’ underlying policy objectives, frames or new understandings motivate no one to do anything. Values reflect weights on competing policy priorities. But different weights on priorities do not inform voters concretely how the politician will fill their needs.
For an example of a value, parents often stress repeat the mantra “math is important.” That statement has never persuaded any high schooler to learn algebra or trigonometry. Instead, high schoolers learn mathematics solely when it affects a need: grades that lead to grounding (loss of social need); meeting parents’ definitions of worth (self-esteem); or insight into the wonders of math (self-actualization). No value has any abstract, inherent worth except inasmuch as it satisfies a need.
Learn the lesson from the 2016 election: values motivate no one; needs motivate everyone. Politicians and parties will motivate more voters if they seek to satisfy needs and not to describe values.
1 Essay on the Principle of Population 203.
2 A. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality 84 (1st ed. 1954).
3 Id. 83-92; The Farther Reaches of Human Nature 316.
4 Motivation and Personality 100.
5 Malthus also described a less sophisticated model like this. He contended that “[t]he first object of the mind is to act as a purveyor to the wants of the body. When these wants are completely satisfied, an active mind is indeed apt to wander further, to range over the fields of science, or sport in the regions of imagination . . . .” Essay on the Principle of Population 153. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith similarly recognized that, “[w]hen man has satisfied his physical needs, then psychologically grounded desires take over.” Affluent Society 117 (40th Anniversary ed.). Galbraith called that phenomenon a “declining urgency of need.” Id. at 121.
6 Donald Trump, Speech to Detroit Economic Club (Aug. 8, 2017), available at www.npr.org/2016/08/08/488816816/donald-trump-looks-to-turn-the-page-on-bad-week-with-economic-speech.
7 Nate Cohn, How the Obama Coalition Crumbled, Leaving an Opening for Trump, New York Times, (Dec. 23, 2016), available at www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/upshot/how-the-obama-coalition-crumbled-leaving-an-opening-for-trump.html.
8 James Barrett, How Many Votes Did Trump and Clinton Get? The Final Vote Count, at www.dailywire.com/news/11777/how-many-votes-did-trump-and-clinton-get-final-james-barrett (Dec. 21, 2016).
9 Brian Resnick, 7 psychological concepts that explain the Trump era of politics, Vox (Mar. 20, 2017), at http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/20/14915076/7-psychological-concepts-explain-trump-politics.
According to a psychological theory called ‘moral foundations,’ it’s no surprise that these arguments fail spectacularly at changing minds.”).
10 See George Lakoff, New Book! – The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, at https://georgelakoff.com/2014/08/18/new-book-the-all-new-dont-think-of-an-elephant-know-your-values-and-frame-the-debate.