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California Crucible

The Forging of Modern American Liberalism

By Jonathan Bell

Publication Year: 2012

In the three decades following World War II, the Golden State was not only the fastest-growing state in the Union but also the site of significant political change. From the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, a generation of liberal activists transformed the political landscape of California, ending Republican dominance of state politics and eventually setting the tone for the Democratic Party nationwide.

In California Crucible, Jonathan Bell chronicles this dramatic story of postwar liberalism—from early grassroots organizing and the election of Pat Brown as governor in 1958 to the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and the campaigns against the New Right in the 1970s. As Bell argues, the emergent "California liberalism" was a distinctly post-New Deal phenomenon that drew on the ambitious ideals of the New Deal but adapted them to a diverse population. The result was a broad coalition that sought to extend social democracy to marginalized groups—such as gay rights and civil rights organizations—that had not been well served by the Democratic Party in earlier decades. In building this coalition, liberal activists forged an ideology capable of bringing Latino farm workers, African American civil rights activists, and wealthy suburban homemakers into a shared political project.

By exploring California Democrats' largely successful attempts to link economic rights to civil rights and serve the needs of diverse groups, Bell challenges common assumptions about the rise of the New Right and the decline of American liberalism in the postwar era. As Bell shows, by the end of the 1970s California had become the spiritual home of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party as much as that of the Reagan Revolution.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America


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Table of Contents

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Introduction: Placing California in Post-World War II American Politics

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pp. 1-9

In April 1959, Cricket Levering, legislative chairwoman of Democratic clubs in the suburb of Claremont and the surrounding neighborhoods of the Forty- Ninth Assembly District in the northeastern corner of Los Angeles County, wrote a memo to fellow club organizers. Giddy from the landslide victories of gubernatorial candidate Pat Brown and other Democratic legislative...

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1. Politics and Party in California at Mid-Century

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pp. 11-30

The social and economic changes of the Depression and World War II had affected California at least as manifestly as anywhere else in the Union. Whether we think of the mass of displaced Okies in the 1930s or the millions who descended on the Golden State to seek employment in war industries in the 1940s, there was no question that California was...

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2. Building the Democratic Party in the 1940s

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pp. 31-54

The California Democratic Party needed a message and a program in order to unite all left-of-center interests in the state behind its banner and thus establish a genuine political choice for the public and set up the terms of debate in the postwar years. The difficulties it faced in achieving this task also point up reasons why it would become one of the most radical in reshaping its political...

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3. The Stevenson Effect

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pp. 55-82

When Helen Myers, delegate to the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1952, landed back home in Los Angeles after watching the nomination of Adlai Stevenson, she found that events had not gone unnoticed in California. “As soon as I got back,” she recalled, “there was a stack of phone calls on my desk—people calling in wanting to know if they could work for Adlai...

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4. A Democratic Order

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pp. 83-104

The aftermath of Stevenson’s defeat witnessed a dizzying period of political organizing and intellectual soul-searching among those wishing to use the still enfeebled Democratic Party as a vehicle for major social reform in California. Exhilarated from their experience in Stevenson clubs and on the campaign trail, his supporters on the West Coast had learned valuable...

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5. Turning Point: California Politics in the 1950s

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pp. 105-122

Democrats were assisted in their efforts to become the majority party in California by the Republican Party’s self-immolating lurch to the right in the landmark 1958 elections; placing anti-union shop “right to work” initiatives at the center of William Knowland’s campaign for governor had the immediate effect of rallying the whole of organized labor behind the Democrats. Yet...

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6. The Liberal Moment

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pp. 123-154

The midterm elections of 1958 transformed the electoral landscape of the United States in ways that would resonate for decades to come. After the disaster of 1946 that had swept aside the New Deal coalition of the cities, suburbs, and the South in Congress the Democratic Party had become beholden to its still monolithic southern base, which had provided the margin of victory in its...

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7. Democratic Politics and the Brown Administration

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pp. 155-182

At the end of the 1959 session of the California legislature, the state AFL-CIO leadership looked back on the achievements of the preceding year. “Undoubtedly,” wrote C. J. Haggerty in his foreword to labor’s guide to events in Sacramento, “1959 will go down in state history as the year in which California undertook the protection and extension of equal rights of its citizens.” Pointing...

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8. Welfare Reform and the Idea of the Family

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pp. 183-204

“This is indeed a crucial time in public assistance,” reported assistant secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and long-time federal Social Security administrator Wilbur Cohen in a speech in Boston in November 1961. “I can venture to say that the welfare programs have never been so thoroughly studied as they are being studied under this administration. And they have never...

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9. Culture Wars, Politics, and Power

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pp. 205-238

California has always been a political outlier. As most of the United States was waking up in November 1964 to a Johnson landslide and massive majorities for Democrats in Congress and in statehouses across the land, Californians awoke to a new Republican senator, the repeal of the state’s fair housing law by way of Proposition 14 on the state ballot, and the spectacle of a state...

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10. The Legacy of the Democratic Party Renaissance

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pp. 239-268

“California,” wrote political analysts Michael Barone, Grant Ujifusa, and Doug Matthews in 1975, “just a few years ago the most noticeably right-wing major state, has now become a leftish state politically.” In fact, California remained as unpredictable as ever in political terms, electing Ronald Reagan governor in a landslide in 1966 and a Republican assembly and senate in 1968, but...

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Epilogue: Liberal Politics in California in an “Era of Limits”

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pp. 269-280

“In the age of anti-politics,” said CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite in a March 1976 interview with the governor of California, “Jerry Brown is the consummate anti-politician. He’s impossible to classify—a mixture of liberalism, conservatism, populism, existentialism, Zen Buddhism, Puritanism.” Brown’s policy legacy added to this image of the contradictory politician...


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pp. 281-331


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pp. 333-340

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pp. 341-343

I have benefited from the professional and personal help of a wealth of individuals and organizations in completing this book. I am forever indebted to the assistance and guidance of archivists in repositories across the United States (and not just in California, where I had imagined I would be spending all my time when I started the project). In particular, I would like to...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206241
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243871

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Politics and Culture in Modern America

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • California -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • Liberalism -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Liberalism -- California -- History -- 20th century.
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