The most important influence in the presidential election of 2008 may be long-dead psychologist Abraham Maslow. Famous in the world of psychology for his “Hierarchy of Need”, Maslow held that human beings exhibit a set of basic needs—but they can be met only in a strict sequential order. One cannot seek to satisfy Need #4, say, unless Needs #1, 2, and 3 have already been met.
Need #1 on Maslow’s Hierarchy is, of course, resources for physiological survival (air, water, food). But close behind it at #2 is safety. Until we feel safe, we are not free to proceed to satisfying the next level of need—“social affiliation”—or the next—“self-esteem”—or the ultimate “self-actualization”. The sequence makes sense, of course. Nobody focuses on becoming part of the community or finding a mate or making a name for themselves if their safety is imminently being threatened.
The horrific events of 9/11 handed President Bush a curious “bully pulpit”—the “safety” rung on Maslow’s ladder. Our sense of safety was shattered, and we were all plunged headfirst back down to this basic need. Could such things really happen to us, here in our comfortable homeland? Bush properly responded to the immediate threat—driving Osama Bin Laden to ground in Afghanistan and possibly deterring an equally awful follow-on horror.
But the American electorate’s grateful response to Bush’s mounting that posse (even though it failed—Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda are still alive and well seven years later) taught the administration and the Republicans one monstrous lesson. Karl Rove, long the President’s chief strategist, put it succinctly in describing their re-election plan for 2004: “It’s safety, stupid.”
Now John McCain seems to have picked up the cudgel of fear and is using it to beat the American people once again. He clearly appreciates that the dominant motif of the Bush re-election strategy was “safety”—or, more accurately, the articulation and exaggeration of danger. Sadly, it seems that he is determined to outdo Bush at worrying the American people.
He seems to be aping Bush’s highly effective Scare the Union speech of January, 2003, when Bush fixated on finding some way—any way—to justify attacking Saddam Hussein. After repeated failures to find verifiable terror-related reasons to attack Iraq, he used his Presidential air time to spin fantasies of what Hussein might do. If Saddam has anthrax, he might give it to people who’d poison millions in the subways. Or if he has nuclear weapons, he might put one on a freighter into New York harbor and blow the metropolis to smithereens. Bush went on endlessly with his catastrophic fantasies, playing U.S.-President-as-Stephen-King, chilling Americans with fear. “Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein,” he wailed. “It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.” Then he promised us that he, by God, would not let that happen on his watch.
The failed oilman hit a gusher. Approval ratings soared, proving Maslow’s theory that, politically anyhow, our most basic yearning is to believe that we are led by a Commander-in-Chief who will not let harm befall us. Or, if it somehow does, that he will certainly retaliate in a dramatic, gun-slinging fashion sure to rouse inner cheering of the sort not felt since we saw the cavalry charging across the silver screen to rescue embattled white folks from redskins. Never mind that both Bush’s and the moviemakers’ depictions of peril were fictional. They moved us. Fiction has always roused our feelings more than fact. Few have ever wept or shuddered over a newspaper story the way we routinely do over a tear-jerking movie or a goose-bumpy novel.
What does all this mean for the Democrats for 2008? The lesson is very simple, but perhaps counterintuitive. They must compete for Maslow’s “safety” rung and win it. Period. That’s the strategy. The Democrats must make the American people understand that they are less safe with McCain carrying on the Bush point-of-view—or his own—in the White House than they will be with Barack Obama as President.
This focus will be exceptionally hard for Democrats to develop and sustain. They have always been more comfortable operating on the higher rungs of Maslow’s ladder where they can talk about building inclusive communities and supporting programs of education and jobs that offer self-actualization. Their instinct is for the aspirational, not the confrontational.
Heaven knows we need visions of hope, and Barack Obama has made that a consistent theme. But if they go only there in 2008, conceding the turf of danger to McCain and his Swift Boat buddies, they are doomed. Maslow’s hierarchy of need is nearly as immutable as the laws of physics.
Fortunately for the Democrats, the record of bungling initiated by Bush and supported by McCain is long and dismaying. Now it is their job to make explicit how continuation of these policies and mindsets endangers Americans and all-too-many others around the world.