Journal of American Studies

Research Article

Building a Left Coast: The Legacy of the California Popular Front and the Challenge to Cold War Liberalism in the Post-World War II Era

JONATHAN BELLa1

a1 Department of History, University of Reading. Email: j.w.bell@reading.ac.uk.

Abstract

The Cold War in the late 1940s blunted attempts by the Truman administration to extend the scope of government in areas such as health care and civil rights. In California, the combined weakness of the Democratic Party in electoral politics and the importance of fellow travelers and communists in state liberal politics made the problem of how to advance the left at a time of heightened Cold War tensions particularly acute. Yet by the early 1960s a new generation of liberal politicians had gained political power in the Golden State and was constructing a greatly expanded welfare system as a way of cementing their hold on power. In this article I argue that the New Politics of the 1970s, shaped nationally by Vietnam and by the social upheavals of the 1960s over questions of race, gender, sexuality, and economic rights, possessed particular power in California because many activists drew on the longer-term experiences of a liberal politics receptive to earlier anti-Cold War struggles. A desire to use political involvement as a form of social networking had given California a strong Popular Front, and in some respects the power of new liberalism was an offspring of those earlier battles.

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