If you had to select a date for the beginning of modern liberalism in a recognizable form, you might well go for 1937. The two measures that were the centerpiece of the New Deal Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act had been enacted in 1935. The following year, Franklin Roosevelt had been re-elected by the largest margin a presidential candidate has ever received. And in early 1937, in a wave of sit-down strikes that swept the nation, a mass-based union movement emerged as the linchpin of the liberal forces in America a role that it has played, most of the time, until this very day.
I mention this because the first year that the modern liberal movement began to fret about the red states was 1938 just one year after its birth. Only, they werent Republican states then. They were the states of the Democratic, Dixiecratic South, and in 1938, they brought the New Deal to a shrieking halt.
Roosevelts plan to increase the size of the Supreme Court so that its reactionary justices wouldnt have the votes to overturn the key New Deal legislation had created a backlash on Capitol Hill. Conservative Southern Democrats, who disproportionately chaired key committees in both the Senate and the House, made common cause with congressional Republicans not only to block FDRs "court-packing" plan but to bottle up all further progressive legislation. Roosevelt, the new union movement and the liberal coalition generally responded with a three-pronged assault to change the politics of the South. First, they prodded Congress to enact the first federal minimum wage, in part to end the Souths status as the mecca for cheap labor. Second, the unions embarked on a massive drive to organize Southern workers, particularly in the textile industry. And third, Roosevelt backed primary-election challenges to some of the most powerful, and reactionary, Southern Democratic senators, such as South Carolinas "Cotton" Ed Smith.
All did not go well. A federal minimum wage was indeed enacted (the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938), but at a very low level and with crippling exemptions. The campaign to organize textile workers was a massive flop. And Roosevelt, for all his clout and charm and guile, was unable to persuade working-class Southern voters to dump their reactionary senators. The South would not be transformed until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enfranchised African-Americans, but which also began the conversion of Southern whites from conservative Democrats to conservative Republicans.
Fast-forward two-thirds of a century, and lo and behold, the Democrats are confronting a similar problem, and beginning to come up with similar approaches to change. Metropolitan America is solidly in their camp, but Metropolitan America isnt quite big enough to ensure Democratic successes at the ballot box. They dont need to be dominant in the South to carry the White House, but they cant afford to be non-competitive there, since that frees the Republicans to focus all their resources in such swing regions as the industrial Midwest. And at the congressional level, the transformation of the South from solidly Democratic to a swing region to solidly Republican has been a disaster. Today, 18 of the 22 senators from the 11 states of the old Confederacy are Republican. That not only means that the South is represented in the Senate by some far-right lulus, but that the Republicans have a structural advantage in keeping control of the legislative branch.
So the Democrats need to put more of a Southern face on the party particularly in light of the fact that the only Democrats elected president in the four decades since John Kennedy was president have all been Southerners. But is there some way Democrats can change the South so that turning South isnt just a euphemism for betraying the Democrats core principles? Were the liberals of 1938 engaging in sheer fantasy when they sought to change Southern politics? Would the liberals of 2005 be chasing rainbows if they undertook a similar quest?
Over the next several years, we may begin to find out. Seeking to rebuild both their own strength and the Democrats, some of Americas largest and most dynamic unions are looking South and to battleground states for their next organizing targets. If they can succeed and theyve never yet succeeded in the South in a big or enduring way they could indeed help change the regions politics.
The numbers are unassailable: The exit polling from every presidential election going back to 1968 shows that union members tend to vote Democratic by roughly 20 percent more than non-members, and that the disparity is even greater in the South. Problem is, unions are all but nonexistent in Southern states, all of which are "right-to-work" states for private-sector workers, and none of which have laws permitting public employees to bargain collectively with state agencies.
Americas union members tend to be concentrated in the Northeast, the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Coast. The largest union, and the most successful at organizing, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has more than 500,000 members in California, and, as one SEIU leader told me last spring, "It wont increase our power all that much if we add another 100,000 there. But if we added 30,000 in Colorado, it could change the politics of the state."
In the current union-reform debate that is sweeping the AFL-CIO, the most widely quoted reform manifesto which, believe it or not, comes from the Teamsters calls for focusing union organizing efforts in battleground states. This is one of the few proposals of the many that have been advanced since November that seem to be winning almost universal support.
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The South, of course, is not a battleground region in presidential politics not in George W. Bushs America, in any event. But it is very much a battleground region in congressional and gubernatorial politics, and if past presidential elections are any guide, the Democrats need Southern governors if theyre going to find presidential candidates who wont get wiped out in such areas as rural Ohio.
So the SEIU is embarking on major organizing campaigns among janitors and health-care employees in the cities of the South and Southwest. It has assigned two of labors best organizers executive vice presidents Tom Woodruff and Eliseo Medina to the South and Southwest, respectively, and directed, as only SEIU can, millions of dollars to these campaigns. UNITE-HERE, the union of clothing and hotel workers, has its sights set on the gambling industry in Mississippi (which is the third largest in the land, after Nevadas and New Jerseys).
Beyond these lies the union movements holy grail Wal-Mart, Americas largest employer, which is still located disproportionately in the South, and which is vehemently anti-union. Labor has demonstrated that it has enough strength to keep Wal-Mart out of its strongholds in the cities of the North and West, but a number of unions the United Food and Commercial Workers, the SEIU, and the AFL-CIO itself are looking at ways to soften up the chain for what would be an epochal organizing campaign down South.
Organizing the South is a daunting challenge, and the unions dont have Franklin Roosevelt in their corner anymore. But for a movement, and a party, looking to change those red states to blue ones, its a challenge that ultimately cant be ducked.