Contemporary Politics is Much Better Understood Using Maslow Pyramid Than The Economic Left-to-Right Scale

In the ever-evolving landscape of politics, we often find ourselves confined to the traditional left-right spectrum. This binary view, with its emphasis on economic and social policies, sometimes obscures deeper motivations driving voter behavior and political trends. As a result, we might miss crucial insights that could enhance our understanding of why people vote the way they do, why political movements gain momentum, and why some ideas resonate while others falter. I have found an alternative framework to be far more helpful: the Maslow Pyramid.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, typically illustrated as a pyramid, categorizes human needs into five levels: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow famously hypothesized, that a lower-level need must be satisfied before we start attempting to fulfill the needs of the next level — as an example, while we’re starving and live in fear of being robbed (level one), we’re not so much concerned with having the respect of the community (level four). By examining political trends through this lens, we can gain a richer, more nuanced perspective on what drives societal shifts and voter preferences.

Physiological Needs and the Politics of Survival

At the base of Maslow’s pyramid are physiological needs: food, water, warmth, and rest — as well as immediate physical safety. In times of economic crisis, political discourse often gravitates towards these fundamental concerns. Populist movements frequently gain traction by promising to address the immediate needs of the people. For instance, during the Great Recession, there was a surge in support for policies focused on job creation, healthcare access, and basic economic security. Politicians who can convincingly address these basic needs often see significant support from constituencies facing hardship just getting from one day to the next without getting beaten, robbed, or starved. Fear of getting to this state (fear of getting robbed on your way to/from work, school, etc.) will also suffice to place oneself at this level.

However, if established parties fail to address these concerns, voters will inevitably turn to whomever offers a solution, even if it’s an atrocious one. It’s like choosing Comcast for your Internet connection when no other provider is available—you know the service is subpar, but having some connection is better than none. Similarly, in politics, when mainstream parties neglect the foundational needs of the populace, fringe or extremist parties can gain support by simply acknowledging and addressing these unmet needs — and that is regardless of how flawed their solutions to said problems may be.

Safety Needs and the Demand for Stability

Moving up the pyramid, once the physical needs are met, then safety needs encompass longer-term personal security, employment, and health. Political rhetoric around law and order, immigration control, and national security taps into these safety concerns. When people feel their safety is threatened, whether by crime, terrorism, or economic instability, they are more likely to support policies and leaders who promise to restore stability and protect them from perceived threats. The post-9/11 era (just after 2001), with its heightened focus on national security, is a prime example of how safety needs can dominate the political agenda.

Yet again, if traditional parties fail to provide a sense of security, voters may gravitate towards any party that promises to deliver it, even if their methods are draconian and/or frankly ridiculous.

Love and Belonging: The Politics of Identity

The middle tier of the pyramid addresses social needs: relationships, friendships, and a sense of belonging. Identity politics, which includes movements advocating for the rights of specific social groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and more, finds its roots here. Political movements that foster a sense of community and belonging can galvanize supporters by addressing these intrinsic needs. The LGBPQRST+ rights movement, for instance, not only fights for legal rights but also seeks to create a supportive community for its members.

When mainstream parties overlook these social needs, people will seek out any group or party that offers them a sense of belonging, even if that party’s overall agenda is problematic. It’s a matter of seeking connection where it’s available.

Esteem: The Quest for Recognition

Esteem needs encompass respect, self-esteem, status, and recognition. Political leaders who can validate the contributions and worth of their supporters often build strong, loyal followings. This is evident in political campaigns that emphasize the dignity of work, the importance of patriotism, and the recognition of personal achievements. Policies aimed at rewarding hard work and providing opportunities for personal advancement resonate deeply with voters seeking validation and respect.

Self-Actualization: The Pursuit of Fulfillment

At the peak of the pyramid is self-actualization — the realization of one’s potential and the pursuit of personal growth and fulfillment. Politics at this level involves visionary thinking and appeals to higher ideals. Environmental movements with or without solutions based in reality, space exploration initiatives, and educational reforms often engage this need. Leaders who inspire through their vision of a better future, who challenge citizens to think beyond their immediate concerns and contribute to something greater than themselves, tap into this highest level of human motivation.

It’s rather telling that the biggest telltale sign for voters (and media), who are personally at this level of human needs, is that they often and happily paint the political parties and movements answering to level-one and level-two human needs as brutish, uneducated, simpleton and backwards — when in reality, what such name-calling voters who pretend to hold themselves to some sort of higher standard are really doing, is disacknowledging that other people’s most basic needs are simply not being met. Talk about being overprivileged in ivory towers! “Let them eat cake”, anyone?

If mainstream political parties neglect to engage voters at this level, people will align with any party that inspires them, even if the broader agenda is not entirely sound. It can be somewhat like signing up for a self-help seminar led by a guy who lives in his mom’s basement because he speaks so passionately about “unlocking your potential.”

A Holistic Approach to Political Analysis

By applying the Maslow Pyramid to our understanding of political trends, we gain a multi-dimensional view that goes beyond the simplicity of left versus right. This approach allows us to see how different policies and political messages resonate with various segments of the population based on their current needs and aspirations.

For instance, a comprehensive healthcare reform policy can address physiological needs by ensuring access to medical care, safety needs by providing financial security, love and belonging by reducing social disparities, esteem by recognizing healthcare as a right, and self-actualization by promoting a healthier society capable of achieving its full potential.

It’s further important to realize that an individual voter would vote for completely different parties, even at opposite ends of the traditional spectrum, depending on where they feel the most urgency in their personal needs at the moment, and that this is not a contradiction or uncertainty on policies.

In conclusion, the Maslow Pyramid provides a valuable framework for understanding the complex and dynamic nature of political trends. It reminds us that politics is fundamentally about people and their needs. By considering these needs in our political analysis, we can develop more empathetic, effective, and inclusive strategies that resonate deeply with the human condition. And crucially, we must remember that when these needs are ignored, voters will turn to any party that promises to meet them, even if it means accepting a deeply flawed solution. After all, in the absence of better options, you might just end up with Comcast.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Since I'm not a robot spammer I'm also answering this easy question:


  1. Rick Falkvinge

    (The body text was drafted by ChatGPT from my notes and bullets and key points, after which I edited the text quite a bit, for transparency.)

  2. David Collier-Brown

    Cool! linked to from Mastadon,