As we all know, President Barack Obama hardly deserves the epithet “socialist” tossed at him by right-wing commentators and candidates. There is one prominent Socialist in Washington, DC, but Senator Bernie Sanders comes from a very small state and acts as a true voice in the wilderness. Looking abroad, French voters this year elected a Socialist, François Hollande, to head their government, the first time that has happened in two decades. Could this happen some time soon in America, or ever?
Progressives, with our without the capital P, have occasionally taken the reins in a major city or small state. But for perhaps the leading example of a near-takeover in a giant state one has to go back nearly eighty years.
Of all the left-wing mass movements that arose in the early years of the Great Depression, Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) crusade proved most influential, and not just in helping to push the New Deal to the left. The Sinclair threat—after he easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary—so profoundly alarmed conservatives that, seventy-eight years ago this month, it sparked the creation of the modern political campaign, with its reliance on hired guns, advertising and media tricks, national fundraising, attack ads on the screen and more.
Profiling two of the creators of the anti-Sinclair campaign, Carey McWilliams would call this (in The Nation) “a new era in American politics—government by public relations.” It also provoked Hollywood’s first all-out plunge into politics, which, in turn, inspired the leftward tilt in the movie colony that endures to this day. (UPDATE: Jill Lepore has a major piece in The New Yorker this week on the birth of modern politics, opening with the Sinclair campaign–although without crediting my work on this. There are at least two errors in her article.)
Back in the autumn of 1934, political analysts, financial columnists and White House aides for once agreed: Sinclair’s victory in the primary marked the high tide of electoral radicalism in the United States. Left-wing novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a piece for Esquire declaring EPIC “the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced.” The New York Times called it “the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States.” Here is an overview:
Sinclair lost in November, but the inspiring success of his mass movement—among other things, it basically created the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic Party, which also endures to this day—and its powerful influence on a wavering new President deserves close study. (Note: My book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, was recently published in new e-book and print editions.)
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Nearly three decades after his classic novel The Jungle (1906) exposed dangerous and abusive conditions in the meatpacking industry, Sinclair decided, “You have written enough. What the world needs is a deed.” Sinclair, who had moved to California in 1916, had written dozens of influential books while finding time to spark numerous civil liberties and literary controversies, get arrested and become perhaps the best-known American leftist abroad.