Explaining Political Motivation: Respect, Security, & Power

The endless and usually fruitless debate about the real nature of Islamic politics suggests that a new and more basic approach is needed to shed light on what is happening in the Moslem world and how to deal with it. Rather than starting with detailed questions about specific people or groups or religions that conceal piles of unstated assumptions, consider the following basic model of human political behavior: political behavior is a function of security, respect, and power.

To simplify even further, begin without the “power” variable; it is not unreasonable to assume that most people will be quite satisfied to have security and be treated with respect. This model is parsimonious but goes a long way toward explaining behavior that public figures agonize over as “inexplicable.”

The Political Motivation model shows two basic motivations for political behavior:

  • the perceived unmet need for security;
  • the perceived unmet need for respect.

Note that “security” is defined to incorporate physical, economic, and psychological security. Note also that the values “sufficient” and “lacking” are defined from the actor’s perspective.

To facilitate discussion, the model can be represented as a set of alternative scenarios, based on making each variable bivariate and considering the resulting possibilities. Considering only the perceived unfilled need for respect and security, this generates four ideal extreme alternative responses: Outrage, where the actor is truly motivated; Satisfaction, where the actor is not motivated at all; and two intermediate alternatives.

Since many people clearly want a degree of power beyond all rational justification, including an unmet desire for power as a third variable probably buys significant additional explanatory value without making the model of motivations too complicated. Adding Power generates a total of eight extreme alternatives. The blue or gray octants represent exactly the same choices as in the 2-D version; the red/brown/yellow/green octants represent the newly added alternatives in which a desire for more power adds motivation.

By extension, you can expect frustration and, in some cases, protest—perhaps violent protest—to result when a political actor fails to obtain the desired degree of security, respect, or power. That gets us to the concept of political behavior – namely, what influences the type of behavior (e.g., peaceful or violent, rigid or compromising); preliminary to that, however, is the question of what motivates an actor to get involved in politics in the first place. Any number of other factors may in fact affect behavior, but to start analyzing behavior, forget individuals, forget religions, forget ideology, forget nationality. Just ask three questions:

  • Does the actor (person, group, government, country) have the desired degree of security?
  • Does the actor have the desired degree of respect?
  • Does the actor have the desired degree of power?

If the answer to any of the three questions is no, then you will probably already have identified the primary cause of that actor’s dissatisfaction. Rather than agonizing over whether or not the actor is “evil” or the religion a “religion of peace,” focus on these basic sources of dissatisfaction. It follows that such a focus also shows the way to resolving the issue: instead of dreaming that getting a new leader, changing a party’s platform, replacing a regime, modifying an educational system, or preventing some action from occurring will lead to the desired outcome, this focus on fundamentals leads one to think about changing the underlying conditions that actually gave rise to the problem. Give people the respect they feel they deserve and they will be less likely to support a flag-waving politician. Give people basic security and they will be less likely to support a war of aggression. Power is a different sort of thing, but the lust for power on the part of a few is not likely to cause others nearly as much difficulty as it otherwise might if the many perceive themselves to be secure and respected.

Try it. Apply this model to whatever international political problem you want. Do the answers to those three questions help to understand why “they” behave the way they do?

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