Why the “solid South” of midcentury U.S. politics was not so solid

In 1938, an ambitious young Texas congressman named Lyndon Johnson voted for a bill called the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the minimum wage. Most of Johnson’s Democratic Party colleagues joined him.

In 1947, however, Johnson, now a seasoned representative, voted for another bill, the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the power of labor unions. Passing through a Republican-controlled congress with the help of Southern Democrats, the Taft-Hartley Act helped put the brakes on years of progressive momentum established by the Democratic Party.

“It was an incredibly consequential shift that basically set the limits of the New Deal,” says MIT political scientist Devin Caughey. “It was a critical turning point in American political development.”

It’s fair to say Johnson — later the 36th president of the U.S. — was inconsistent with regard to the interests of labor, as well as his own party. But why? For what reason would a popular Democratic Party politician, in a region controlled by the Democrats, have to zigzag on policy matters? This was the famous “solid South” of the mid-20th century, after all.

To Caughey, there is a clear explanation for why Johnson, and many of his Southern colleagues, reversed course: public pressure. In 1947, Johnson was on the eve of his first U.S. Senate campaign in Texas (which he barely won), and he moved back toward the right politically to help his chances. The strategy seemed necessary because Southern politics had shifted over the previous decade. In the 1930s, the region supported economically progressive legislation, but by the 1940s, much of the South had soured on the New Deal.

“The consequences of this transformation were momentous at the time and continue to reverberate today,” Caughey writes in his new book, “The Unsolid South: Mass Politics and National Representation in a One-Party Enclave,” published this month by Princeton University Press.

As the title suggests, Caughey believes the supposedly “solid South” was not a unitary bloc: Battles within the Democratic Party in the region served as a proxy for for national battles between the two major parties.

“Even though there was no partisan competition in the South, there was intraparty competition,” Caughey says, noting that “once members of Congress were elected, they would divide in ways that aligned either with the Democrats or Republicans nationally.”

But while other interpretations of the Democratic Party in the South at the time depict it as being controlled by elites who ignored the masses, Caughey contends that Southern politicians backed away from their party’s program because voters would not have kept electing them otherwise.

“What really hasn’t been looked at is…

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