Donald Trump’s inauguration promise to build an “America First” agenda proved hopeful to some, terrifying to others, and left the world unsure about the future of the prevailing neoliberal world order. As we push into the new decade, an acceptance of globalization and neoliberalism’s decline has grown, leaving an opportunity to construct a new global economic system. In his article “After Globalization,” Paolo Gerbaudo calls our current period a “Polanyi Moment,” an allusion to the post-1929 reforms that saw a radical transformation in how the U.S and global economies functioned. Gerbaudo’s piece succinctly describes globalization’s flaws and the recent decline of its political popularity. For him, the failure of the left to take a more protectionist stance and concentrate on the “left behind” has allowed the economic right to become the flag bearers of those disenfranchised by the existing system. He then suggests that the left promote a protectionist political agenda coupled with a campaign for increased ‘economic control.’ This suggestion aims to build a fairer capitalist system that could eventually be reformed into a socialist/leftist vision.
Gerbaudo’s vision is admirable, but his strategy is flawed. As was shown in the Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, marketing a protectionist agenda and social-democratic platform can only go so far. Although they were two of the American left’s most successful campaigns in recent memory, they often did not reach the “left behind” voters of the Rust Belt that they needed to succeed (especially in 2020). These elections showed that the American left needs more than another mildly successful political campaign to grow; it requires an entire reformulation of its organizing strategy and target audience.
The proliferation of social media has made it much easier to reach, organize, and disseminate progressive politics to millions worldwide. Despite this, the left has focused
specifically on convincing a small group in its election strategy, the white, unionized, ex-industrial working class. Meanwhile, it has not adequately targeted the working-class group that makes up most of the American populous: service workers.
Gerbaudo correctly notes that “only by regaining economic control will workers be able to harness the political power necessary to achieve greater social protection.” However, the left has been organizing only a sliver of their potential base to this goal for too long. This pivot in audience would not entail abandoning the white working class, as much American liberalism has already done. Instead, it should work to incorporate it into a more comprehensive movement with service at its core.
In many ways, this process is already underway. Union drives at Starbucks and Amazon are striking fear into corporate offices across the country, showing signs that there is a foundation ready to be built upon. The left should harness this budding movement, building a new service-based politics with unions serving as its chief method of organization. In the past, this industrial approach has recruited an overwhelmingly white and youthful base. By branching out specifically to service, the left can be led by a group that looks more like the country it is trying to represent. The left should also let this new vanguard take the reins with a diverse, union-led, and worker-focused leadership and agenda, forming a bottom-up political model oriented for a new, diverse, and interconnected America.