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What does Maslow’s pyramid have in common with the upcoming parliamentary elections?

Less than a year ago I expressed the belief that as the parliamentary elections approached, it would become increasingly important to what extent a party’s offer, along with its vision of the country and its narrative about it, would be perceived as a response to the current needs of voters. Today, with less than a month left until the elections, I would like to revisit this issue, using Maslow’s pyramid, also known as the hierarchy of human needs (Fig. 1).

According to Maslow, the first two categories of needs – physiological and safety – are basic needs, crucial from the perspective of survival, and therefore have a fundamental character. The next three categories are psychological needs that activate when basic needs are satisfied.

There are some doubts about what in Maslow’s pyramid is truly his, and what has been added later, and the pyramid itself, like most theories, has its opponents and proponents. Nevertheless, this concept is quite commonly used today not only in psychology but also in sociology, including explaining social processes. In my opinion, it is particularly useful if we allow for some relaxation of hierarchical criteria – assuming that satisfying (certain) higher-order needs can be significant for an individual, even if they do not have all lower-order needs satisfied.

Another significant modification of the original concept relates to the fact that under certain conditions, satisfying higher-order needs – especially the need for belongingness – can be a path to satisfying lower-order needs, such as safety. In other words, functioning within a family (both narrowly and broadly defined), a religious community, among a group of close friends, within a political party, or even within a wide networking circle can contribute to our ability to build stability.

However, let’s return to the upcoming elections. In my opinion, one of the significant reasons for strong social polarization is the divergence of needs among different groups. Over the past 30 years, a portion of society has managed to satisfy its basic needs and is now focusing on fulfilling higher-order needs. They aspire to have a civil society, Poland’s prestigious position in Europe and the world, and the construction of an open and tolerant Poland. One that, on one hand, creates opportunities for self-realization and, on the other hand, actively engages in solving global (environmental/climate) issues. This often includes residents of large cities (though certainly not all), but not exclusively. It also includes selected classes of “those who have succeeded” in smaller towns and rural areas.

On the other hand, for many residents of Poland, satisfying basic needs is still crucial. Data illustrating the distribution of wealth in our country are telling in this regard. Although there is a lack of fresh data (apparently the National Bank of Poland withdrew from conducting the necessary surveys), even the available data from 2016 (Fig. 2) show a lot. It is worth noting that even the wealth of households in the middle of the range (264,000 PLN) is hard to consider significant, especially since it consists almost entirely of tangible assets (property, car). The average value of financial assets in this group is only 15,000 PLN – it is hard to see this as a significant safety buffer. Similarly, the level of annual net income (46,600 thousand PLN) is very low; for a 3-person family, it amounts to just under 1,300 PLN per person on a monthly basis.

In my opinion, the currently ruling coalition came to power 8 years ago because it managed to convince a significant portion of the population that it would help them satisfy their basic needs. The subsequent elections in 2019 were won based on the credibility built within its electorate that it could genuinely take care of their needs. However, after the 2020 presidential elections, I wrote that the biggest threat for the ruling party is that some of its current electorate may aim to move up to higher levels of aspiration, corresponding to higher levels of needs in the Maslow’s pyramid.

In this context, recent events such as the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and inflation have led to a paradoxical increase in concerns about satisfying basic needs despite the country’s continued development – which should generally favor the upward movement in the hierarchy of needs. For the ruling party – which has more credibility than the opposition in terms of social policies – this could be good news as long as their electorate does not come to believe that current deterioration is due to the government’s incompetence. In this context, it becomes clear why the main effort of public media is focused on creating the belief that any deterioration is solely the result of external factors: Putin, the pandemic, the European Union, and if nothing else, “it is a Tusk’s fault.”

To conclude, although opposition politicians try to present the upcoming elections as a clash of two visions for Poland, in my opinion, the outcome will be decided in a very practical dimension: the ability of individual programs to respond to the challenges faced by households whose priority remains the satisfaction of basic needs. This does not only – perhaps not even primarily – concern “who offers more in the form of social transfers”, but also who has good ideas related to crucial issues such as the future of pensions or ensuring job security (through the adequacy of skills) in a world of accelerating automation and digitization. It also involves proposals for a wise immigration policy, reconciling evident demographic needs with cultural aspects and the need for a sense of security.

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