One of the big questions that Democrats have been asking themselves is, “Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump?”
If his base is about 30% of the American people – a scary thought in itself – how do you explain the almost 20% of other people who voted for him? Some number of those could be explained by people who have always voted Republican and were showing party loyalty. But how do you explain the rest of the people who voted for him? Why would Black people and Latinos increase their vote for someone so obviously incompetent?
I read an article over the weekend that has me wondering if Maslow’s hierarchy of needs could provide an explanation.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s theory seeks to explain how people prioritize things in their lives. If you’re not familiar with this theory, you can think of it as the plot of Tom Hank’s Cast Away.
First, and most importantly, Tom’s character, Chuck, needed to find food and water.
Once he had food and water, he needed to create shelter. Shelter is a stand-in for safety.
The next rung on the hierarchy is love and belonging – which Chuck found when he adopted the volleyball and named it Wilson. He was living alone, they didn’t give him even an animal he could adopt, so he adopted and inanimate object.
After building relationships, people then focus on esteem. You can see this in the movie when Chuck began to seek to be good at things. There is a scene where he strives to master the art of fishing – he catches a fish and celebrates. He has achieved something.
The top of the pyramid is self-actualization. This is where you achieve your higher purpose in life. In the movie, Chuck manages to escape from the island but then he is still wandering, at odds with the world around him. His romantic partner, the thought of whom kept him going while he was on the island, has moved on. He finally achieves his higher purpose when he delivers the package to the farm in the middle of nowhere.
Maslow’s theory posits that people must resolve their physical needs – food, shelter – before they can focus on their relationship needs – relationships, esteem – and only then can they focus on self-actualization.
What This Has to do With the Election
Right now, in the US, there is a huge economic divide. There are people who are wealthy and people who have nothing, with very few people in the middle. This is a dangerous place to be.
The people who are wealthy are at the top of the pyramid. They have food, they have shelter, they have jobs and feel like they are part of a larger community, they feel good about themselves. They are seeking to make the world a better place, by fixing global warming, by improving human rights; they are focused on self-actualization.
The people at the bottom of the pyramid are suffering. They are struggling for food, waiting in line at food banks, unable to find healthy food in food deserts, barely scraping by. They are in danger of losing their homes; their jobs are in peril, their health care is in peril. They cannot take care of their families. They don’t feel like anyone cares about them and, while they may be part of their immediate community, they don’t feel like they are part of a larger American community that cares about them. They don’t feel good about where they are or about their children’s future. They don’t have the luxury of worrying about Democracy or the national conversation or climate change; they are too busy worrying about where their next meal will come from, whether they will get evicted or killed by the police.
Shouldn’t they then be voting Democratic? Don’t they see that Trump and the Republicans are causing their suffering through social and economic policies that disproportionately impact the poor?
The problem is that the Democrats have promised these people so much over the years. You may disagree with us about abortion, or gay rights, Democrats tell them, but you agree with us about healthcare and housing policy. Vote for us for the things you agree with.
So they did.
And they got abortion rights and gay rights. But healthcare and housing policies and a living wage remain elusive. So nothing feels like it changed for them. They are still working multiple thankless jobs with no job security and bad health insurance. They are still in danger of losing their homes. They still feel no one in America understands or appreciates their point of view. They still don’t feel good about where they are or have hope that their children will have a healthier, safer life, with more opportunities.
At least Trump sounds certain (although it is all a lie). At least they know where they stand with him. And he did send them a big check earlier this year – it came with a letter with his big signature on it. The same signature that he insisted be on letters enclosed with food packages provided by organizations that accepted food donations from the USDA. They’re not stupid – they know it’s politics. But they also know they’re hungry.
I’ve heard more and more people say to Democrats, if you want to win people back, get things done for them. Make it easier for people who are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to look up, to step up to the next rung, to fill their bellies and relax under a roof, to feel safe in the streets, to find a job, to feel like they are part of the American community, to feel good about themselves. If you want to fix the other problems, ok, but do it as part of the other work. Or wait until the other work is further along.
Your actions are your only true possessions; you cannot escape the consequences of your actions. Your actions are the path on which you walk.