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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 weren’t Republican states then. They were the states of the
Democratic, Dixiecratic South, and in 1938, they brought the New Deal to a shrieking
halt.

Roosevelt’s plan to increase the size of the Supreme Court so
that its reactionary justices wouldn’t 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 FDR’s “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 South’s 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
Carolina’s “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
isn’t quite big enough to ensure Democratic successes at the ballot box. They
don’t need to be dominant in the South to carry the White House, but they can’t
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 isn’t
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 America’s largest
and most dynamic unions are looking South — and to battleground states — for
their next organizing targets. If they can succeed — and they’ve never yet succeeded
in the South in a big or enduring way — they could indeed help change the region’s
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.

America’s 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 won’t 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.

The South, of course, is not a battleground region in presidential
politics — not in George W. Bush’s 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 they’re going to find presidential candidates who won’t 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 labor’s 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 Nevada’s and New Jersey’s).

Beyond these lies the union movement’s holy grail — Wal-Mart,
America’s 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 don’t
have Franklin Roosevelt in their corner anymore. But for a movement, and a party,
looking to change those red states to blue ones, it’s a challenge that ultimately
can’t be ducked.