How We Can Inspire People to Care About Social Change and Feel Good About Themselves in the Process

If the Wisconsin struggle between the unions and Governor Walker showed us anything, it was that the needs that animate people around progressive causes are not simply needs for money or financial security. The need for community and its accompanying feeling of belonging and the need to connect with something larger than the self, the need for meaning, were every bit as important in generating the special enthusiasm and emotional engagement seen for weeks in and around the state capitol in Madison.

This has been the experience of the Left for generations. Movements that engaged people at a deep level had the most staying power and the most impact. At this level, people are motivated by a range of needs other than those for economic security, including needs for meaning, connectedness, recognition, and agency.

Unfortunately, despite evidence that this is so, progressives are often blind to the importance of these needs.

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice. These needs interact, overlap and rise and fall in importance depending on the situation. The civil rights movement spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. But the institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, thrived on its power to provide recognition in dozens of way to its members.

The women’s movement initially based itself on the relational power of small groups, arguing that personal needs and suffering can form the basis of a political agenda. The highest periods of member engagement in the life of a labor union occur when people feel a sense of agency in standing up to a boss or during the height of a campaign. As Cesar Chavez once observed, “When a man or woman, young or old, takes a place on a picket line for even a day or two, he will never be the same again.”

And, yet, this transparent reality is hidden from view in the work of organizers and leaders of progressive organizations who too often treat their staff, members and public audiences as if most of these needs are irrelevant. Instead, members and potential members are seen as motivated only by narrow economic self-interest with staff treated as one-dimensional means to fight for that end.

Corporations have understood the crucial motivational role of so-called “soft” -- that is, non-economic -- needs apart from the paycheck for decades. Almost every book on leadership published in the last 20 years emphasizes the importance of relationships and recognition. Huge studies have been done on companies that have succeeded and failed in an attempt to come up with the secret sauce of success, and invariably, the answer involves the ways in which the culture of a company engages employees at levels above and beyond compensation. In a recent article, Arianna Huffington reports on a similar emphasis in advertising today, with more and more corporations explicitly touting their social engagement and desire to speak to a higher purpose.

Too often, the Left discovers its campaigns for economic justice and various aspects of the social safety net fall on cynical or resigned ears, even among our system’s greatest victims. Conservative groups, on the other hand, often seem better able to connect with these same "victims," even though the connection seems to progressives as patently opposed to these victims' economic self-interest. The growth of mega-churches, the rise of the evangelical movement, and the recent popularity of the Tea Party all involve people drawn to communities that support a political and economic system inimical to their own needs for material security. The reasons have little to do with anyone’s economic bottom line. They do so because they appear to address multiple levels of suffering and multiple needs.

So, what do people need? Are we saying they don’t need material security and economic justice?

Of course not. Recognition doesn’t put food on the table, and a sense of meaning won’t stop the bank from foreclosing on your house. The American Dream, an ideal in which work offers retirement security and medical benefits, and generates enough income so our kids can go to college and on to a better life, is still and always should be, central to a progressive agenda. Structural unemployment, mal-distribution of income and wealth, and the economically debilitating effects of racism and sexism are blights to the human body and spirit. A movement for social change that doesn’t target this blight will be irrelevant to a huge sector of the population.

When people’s survival needs, defined in this way, are frustrated, they suffer enormously. They get sick. In extreme cases, research shows their brains actually atrophy as the result of deprivation. Further, they often internalize their “failure,” blame themselves, and get depressed. They feel inadequate and inferior. They suffer from the meritocratic myth that one’s economic and material status is an expression of how deserving one is. A movement that doesn’t speak directly to economic suffering and deprivation, whether absolute or relative, will not only be irrelevant to millions of people, but will take its place among other pie-in-the-sky movements, usually religious ones, that offer moral or spiritual bromides to the victims of material deprivation rather than directly seeking to end that deprivation.

However, because the facts of inequality are obvious and objectively measurable, progressives tend to believe that if we rationally present these facts to people, they will endorse our progressive agenda. The narrative goes: If we could only tell our story about class privilege, Wall Street and government corruption, and economic exploitation to working people, they would see reality more clearly. This narrative is naïve and patronizing, and it’s as old as it is wrong. It suggests that if only we had enough organizers (get enough people “on the doors”) who could explain to people how the banks are screwing them, they’d want to join our movement. The implication is that “the people” are lacking knowledge or are suffering from what Marxists used to call “false consciousness.” Our job as progressives is to help people “see the light.”

This assumption is empirically false and at odds with everything we know about psychology, learning and neurobiology. Feelings matter, not facts. As political scientist Drew Westen and linguist George Lakoff have argued, the facts about inequality and injustice don’t necessarily drive people to the Left unless they are embedded in a message that speaks to deep feelings and values. Values and non-economic needs matter, not rational descriptions of economic reality. People have a range of desires and needs other than simple physical ones and unless these desires and needs are understood and addressed, logic, facts, rationality, and education will all land on deaf ears.

Thus, in our fight for economic justice, our narrow view of what people want and how they listen hoists us on our own petard. It systematically gets in the way of developing healthy organizations and strategies that have a chance of engaging people’s passions. And without engaging people’s passions, we will never create a movement that has real political power.

If we take our blinders off, we see or read about evidence of the foundational importance of non-economic needs and values every day. A terrorist commits suicide for the sake of Allah. A monk lights himself on fire to protest against a dictatorship. An Indian demonstrator at a salt mine walks directly into the violent batons of the British Army in non-violent resistance for the cause of independence. An African-American marcher sits down in front of Bull Connor’s dogs. A marine risks his life for his buddy; a parent does the same for a child. Babies who are fed but not held get sick and can even die.

People endure hardship all the time out of love for their families or partners. I’ve worked with investment bankers who have quit high-paying jobs for the benefits of working in environments that are more collegial, kinder and less fixated on the immediate bottom line. If given the choice between more money and more recognition and autonomy, most people give up the money. Many activists we’ve worked with in labor unions routinely give up higher paying jobs in the private sector to work for social change. The centrality of non-economic human needs and longings are hiding in plain sight.

To the extent that our “common sense” twists Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs to mean that we can’t gratify “higher” needs until we’ve addressed more “basic” survival needs, we’re misled and our organizations doomed to founder.

Such a bias not only ignores a mountain of psychological research, it also contradicts our own basic human experience. It’s not just they who have these five needs; it’s us. It’s not just workers who need more agency, or children who need more recognition, or members who need to have a greater sense of meaning; it's us.

Too often, the organizers, activists, and leaders on the Left frame their work as being in the service of others. We’re trying to help other people, the less advantaged, the powerless, the victimized. In so doing, we routinely leave ourselves out. We deny that we have the same economic and non-economic needs of those we’re allegedly fighting for. We fight for their right to leisure time but deny it to ourselves. We try to help them feel efficacious and inspired, but work for organizations that provide neither.

These needs are what it means to be human. They are universal. They animate us to do good things and their unhealthy frustration can lead us to do bad things. The human locomotive of motivation carries these five needs, the existence or importance of which can no longer be debated. The only question for progressives is whether we get onboard.


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