Let's Get Progressives to Make Better Emotional Connections When They Organize


Excerpted from 'More than Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World,' by Michael Bader.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. —Martin Luther King Jr.

As progressives, we have a huge job in front of us in the fight for economic justice. But our leaders are trying to do their work with one hand tied behind their backs. The better ones may often do quite well fighting with one hand; many cannot. The problem and solution are more obvious than they think: People become active in social-change movements because these movements speak to deep longings for meaning, recognition, relationship, and agency, as well as for economic survival and justice.

The civil rights movement demanded basic economic and political equality. But it also spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. The institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, grew and thrived on its power to provide meaning and recognition in dozens of way to its members. It provided meaning, in part, through the intense spirituality of its congregations, but also because it was wedded to a vision of social justice; recognition was afforded through the extensive social life in and around church life. The four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 were on their way to give a performance, one of the many public ways that the church honored and recognized people in its community.

The women’s movement initially based itself on the relational power of small groups. Pay equity and glass ceilings were important, yes; but second-wave feminism argued that personal relationships, and the needs, pleasures, and suffering they embodied, should also 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 observed, “The picket line is the best place to train organizers. One day on the picket line is where a man makes his commitment. … The picket line is a beautiful thing because it makes a man more human.”

Survival needs aren’t always primary

The power of human needs that go beyond the material would seem obvious. But progressive organizations instinctively and implicitly operate according to a “common sense” notion—one supported by researchers like Abraham Maslow, famous for his hierarchy or pyramid of human needs—that physical survival precedes those nonmaterial needs. This logic is simple: Without satisfying the basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, people can't effectively address and gratify “higher” emotional, social, and spiritual needs. The strategic result is that we count on economic grievances and bread-and-butter issues like wages and benefits alone to move people to action.

But the compelling noneconomic needs for recognition, meaning, relationships, and agency can be sources of motivation every bit as powerful as survival needs. We see evidence of this every day. A terrorist commits suicide for the sake of Allah. An Indian demonstrator at a salt mine walks directly into the violent batons of the British Army in nonviolent 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.

Everyone wants to earn money. But a great deal of research shows that people value meaning, connection, recognition, and agency as much as a bigger paycheck, and sometimes more. Many activists we’ve worked with in progressive organizations routinely give up higher-paying jobs in the private sector to work for social change. Even a lot of money can’t always cure the deficit of other unmet needs. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is currently worth $13 billion. Yet his autobiography prominently features his bitterness about being exploited by co-founder Bill Gates. Thirteen billion dollars did not make him feel good enough about the emotional conditions of his work.

Corporations and the Tea Party know more than we think

Bill Gates may not have gotten the message. But corporations have for decades understood the crucial motivational role of so-called soft needs apart from the paycheck. 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 their attempts to come up with the secret sauce of success and, invariably, these studies have found that success involves the ways that the culture of a company engages employees at levels above and beyond compensation. Soon after his retirement, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, said, “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people.” Welch understood that personal development, not simply money, was the key to a successful company.

Even the exploitative world of advertising is increasingly recognizing that people aspire to more than just sex, money, and self-interest. The cutting edge of today’s marketing strategies involve using “cause marketing” to appeal to consumers, often appearing first on social networking sites. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, is fond of citing an ad for Chivas Regal Scotch that begins with somber piano music, followed soon by the voice-over saying, “Millions of people, everyone out for themselves … can this really be the only way?” “No,” the voice answers. “Here’s to honor … and to gallantry.” The commercial goes on to depict people helping someone push-start a broken-down car and tired firefighters after battling a blaze. “Here’s to doing the right thing,” the voice says, and to the “true meaning of wealth.”

Blindness to these obvious needs is an important reason why the progressive movement is struggling today. So while the Left decries economic injustice and tries to organize campaigns against it, the response from the victims of injustice can be tepid. The Left helplessly watches as conservative megachurches, the evangelical movement, and the Tea Party draw people to communities that support a political and economic system that we see as inimical to their needs for material security. The reasons, though, have little to do with anyone’s economic bottom line: These organizations and movements appear to address multiple levels of suffering and multiple needs.

Local Tea Party events honor the contributions of their organizers and encourage their creativity. Chapters often begin in someone’s home and gradually include neighbors. Training and education are emphasized over and over. Further, their “us-against-them” mentality creates a (temporary) sense of community by scapegoating Obama, immigrants, liberals, and, as Mitt Romney so compassionately put it, the “47 percent.” Megachurches engage their members in ways that speak to needs for recognition, connectedness, learning, and agency. They’re growing. The progressive movement is struggling or even shrinking. It would be the height of denial to imagine that this is a coincidence.

You can’t win hearts with “just the facts, ma’am”

In 2004, Republican strategist Karl Rove famously dismissed liberals as living in the “reality-based community,” fuddy-duddies steeped in the delusion “that solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality.” Declared Rove: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” Was he ever right.

Because the facts of inequality are obvious and objectively measurable, we progressives believe that if we rationally present them, people will endorse our agenda. If we only had enough organizers and media to tell our story about class privilege, Wall Street and government corruption, and economic exploitation to working people, they’d see reality more clearly and want to join our movement. The implication is that “the people” are lacking knowledge or are suffering from what Marxists have called “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. Progressive strategists Anne Bartley and Al Yates have made this point by showing how progressive beliefs are grounded in American values, not simply intellectual beliefs. So has psychologist Drew Westen. Feelings matter, not facts. Values and noneconomic 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.

Experts from other fields have also weighed in on this debate. University of California, Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff argues that people respond positively only to those messages that fit into deeply ingrained and pre-existing metaphors or frames through which everyone understands reality. These frames tend to refract experience. For example, the “facts” of economic suffering might, to the conservative, be interpreted as the moral failing of the victims, while to the liberal, it would reflect the failure of society and government to take care of them.

I recently had an email exchange with a conservative friend about the role of government spending and taxation in the current recession. I showed him lengthy analyses by economists Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong, who demonstrated that cutting taxes on corporate profits and on the incomes of the wealthy was a weak or even ineffective way of stimulating economic growth. My friend responded, “Krugman and DeLong are liberals ... of course they would say that!” For my friend, it was “case closed,” not because of the facts, but because of his own values. Such biases trump objective truth every time.

Rather than walking around bewildered and frustrated that our apathetic or conservative fellow citizens are so stupid, progressives need to understand that the factual inequities of economic suffering are not adequate either to explain or change someone’s potential for progressive political action. We have to see people’s views in the context of their human needs and desires.

We are organizing the whole person—not just his or her pocketbook

This book seeks to change attitudes, not propose specific tactics. Its aim is to free us from our single-minded focus on the outrageous tragedy and crime of income inequality, as important as that issue might be, in order to begin to appreciate the whole person who works with and for us and whom we seek to engage.

It asks those of us in the progressive movement to re-examine our assumptions about what makes people tick, about what really matters to them and why. We need to examine our organizations and strategies in order to answer this question: Can we build progressive organizations around what people really need, thereby creating an institutional base with power, spirit, and energy? Does our movement—our visions, organizational structures, leadership styles, staff culture, political and growth strategies, public personas—embody a systematic appreciation of the full range of human needs?

Perhaps it is this instinct to see the whole person that has always accounted for the successes of great organizers. Our own hope is that a deeper understanding of human motivation will help create more great organizers and more success.


  1. People become active in social-change movements because these movements speak to deep longings for meaning, recognition, relationship, and agency.

  2. The common-sense notion that we need to satisfy people’s material needs before we can speak to their psychological, social, and spiritual needs is wrong.

  3. Both the private sector and the Right are better than progressives in speaking to people’s noneconomic needs.

  4. Feelings matter more than facts.

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