Nearly two years after a Democrat promising hope and change entered the White House, amid an economic crisis left behind by an unpopular Republican, unemployment remained at century-high levels. Despite new stimulus programs, recovery seemed far off. Opponents in the GOP (and even some in the president’s own party) called for cutting spending to reduce the budget deficit. Democrats were split: Was the president acting as boldly as possible—or was he not nearly bold enough? Pundits on the left accused him of dithering and caving in to "big business." Yet as a midterm election approached—one that might decide whether the president and his programs had much of a future—right-wing demagogues on the stump and in the media accused the White House of imposing socialism on America.
The year was 1934; the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The economic crisis FDR faced was far worse than what President Obama confronts today, but many similarities exist.
Among the major differences: the grassroots activism getting all the attention this year comes from the right, not the left. And that’s one reason the outcome of the 2010 midterms will be quite different from the 1934 results, when Democrats gained seats in Congress, emboldening Roosevelt to propose landmark legislation establishing Social Security and other safety nets.
Of all the left-wing mass movements that year, 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 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 later 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.
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."
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. And where are the EPIC-style mass movements today? (My book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published in new print and e-book 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.