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Beyond Obama: Could a True Socialist Actually Gain Power in America? How One Almost Did | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Beyond Obama: Could a True Socialist Actually Gain Power in America? How One Almost Did

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.

He had twice run for governor of California on the Socialist line, to little avail, but the election of FDR in 1932 encouraged him to give the Democrats a whirl. While he backed the New Deal, he saw that it did not go nearly far enough. Hugh Johnson, who ran Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, had allowed big business to subvert its codes, and a national textile strike loomed. Nearly one in four people was on relief in New York, with the numbers only slightly better in many other large cities. Adequate relief payments and some form of social security were promised but still unrealized.

So the country’s best-known member of the Socialist Party switched his affiliation to Democrat and used his pen one more time, writing and self-publishing a sixty-four-page pamphlet, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty. Then he set out to make his fantasy true.

Although Sinclair could draw thousands of votes on name recognition alone, he considered a grassroots movement his greatest hope. Thousands quickly rallied to his cause, organizing End Poverty League clubs across the state. Note to Obama (and Occupy?): a detailed, step-by-step plan—“a way out,” as Sinclair put it—and a steely will help.

Sinclair, in a nutshell, outlined a classic production-for-use plan, where all of the unemployed would be put to work in shuttered factories or on unused farms, with goods traded, providing necessities. No one would go hungry or homeless. The elderly and infirm would get relief or pensions. Co-ops would receive state aid. Another plank in the platform: open up discarded studio lots and help out-of-work movie people make their own films. Naturally, this caused most of the Hollywood studio chiefs to threaten to move their operations to Florida.

Many who sympathized with Sinclair—including his friend McWilliams, the young California writer and future Nation editor—found some devil in the details, but the candidate promised to junk what didn’t or couldn’t work.

A pen his only weapon, Sinclair led an army of crazed utopians, unemployed laborers, Dust Bowl refugees and all-purpose lefties to take on “the vested interests.” He noted, “Our opponents have told you that all of this is socialism and communism. We are not the least worried.” I, Governor became the bestselling book in the state. EPIC clubs kept popping up like mushrooms, funded largely by bake sales, rodeos and rallies; and a weekly newspaper, the EPIC News, reached a circulation of nearly 
1 million by primary day in August 1934.

Sinclair swept the Democratic primary. Dozens of EPIC candidates also won races for the party’s nod for the State Senate and Assembly, including Augustus Hawkins and Jerry Voorhis, both future Congressmen. “It is a spontaneous movement which has spread all over the state by the unpaid labor of tens of thousands of devoted workers,” Sinclair noted. “They were called amateurs but they have put all the professional politicians on the shelf.” All that stood between EPIC and the governor’s mansion was a hapless GOP hack named Frank “Old Baldy” Merriam, who had become governor after the death of “Sunny Jim” Rolph.

Where did FDR stand? A few days after winning the primary, Sinclair took a train east to meet with the president at Hyde Park, under the glare of national press coverage. The White House was torn. Sinclair was a true radical and a loose cannon. Roosevelt and his political director, Jim Farley, feared that the president, already accused by the right of being a socialist—led by Father Coughlin, the Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh of his day—could not afford this taint. Those tilting to the left, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, were far more enthusiastic about EPIC. And then there was the rather significant matter of Sinclair being the party’s nominee in a year when controlling a major statehouse was vitally important. FDR believed the greatest challenge for the head of a democracy was not to fend off reactionaries but to reconcile and unite progressives.

During the Hyde Park meeting FDR suggested that “experiments” within the overall New Deal framework could be valuable. Sinclair was elated, but the president held off any public endorsement.

Meanwhile, EPIC organizing surged in California. The number of local chapters was now more than 800, and circulation of the EPIC News reportedly hit a staggering 2 million. Black precincts that had reliably voted Republican (the legacy of Lincoln) now split down the middle. Even a few Hollywood screenwriters, such as Dorothy Parker, who normally kept their politics under wraps in the right-wing movie colony, spoke out for Sinclair. So did Charlie Chaplin.

But “the vested interests” organized the most lavish and creative dirty-tricks campaign ever seen—one that was to become a landmark in American politics. There’s far too much to describe in this limited space (it’s the focus of my book The Campaign of the Century, just published as an e-book for the first time and in a new print edition), but it involved turning over a major campaign to outside advertising, publicity, media and fundraising consultants for the first time. What was left of the official GOP campaign was chaired by a local district attorney named Earl Warren.

California’s newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst and Harry Chandler, covered only Merriam’s activities, while mocking Sinclair day after day with quotes from books and novels taken out of context. (Chandler’s Los Angeles Times referred to Sinclair’s “maggot-like horde” of supporters.) Hollywood moguls, besides threatening the move to Florida, docked most employees a day’s pay, giving the proceeds directly to Merriam’s coffers. Millions of dollars to defeat Sinclair poured in from business interests across the country, all off the books. And then there were the attack ads (i.e., newsreels) shown in movie theaters around the state, created by the saintly film producer Irving Thalberg, causing near-riots in some places—the precursor of today’s negative TV spots. You can watch excerpts from the historic newsreels—which I uncovered in researching my book—the first use of the screen to defeat a candidate, here:

 

FDR, displaying an Obama-like tendency, waited, refusing to make a bold move to help Sinclair ward off the savagely unfair assaults. As a result, Sinclair fell behind in the polls—and then the president was advised to not endorse a probable loser. Farley sent an emissary to California to strike a deal with Merriam: if the GOP governor promised to back the New Deal down the road, the White House would remain silent on Sinclair.

The EPIC fervor continued right up to election day. Activists, looking at their numbers and energy, were certain their candidate would prevail. Sinclair, in fact, would receive almost 900,000 votes, twice the total ever for a Democrat in the state, but would still finish about 200,000 votes behind Merriam. Revealing the true strength of the grassroots movement, however, two dozen EPICs won election to the state legislature, including Hawkins and Culbert Olson.

The Nation concluded that Sinclair’s defeat “shows what will happen to any radical who attempts to challenge the existing order through the medium of an old-party machine.” Decades later, we might say that Barack Obama is no radical, but his reliance on the “old party” after taking the White House damaged, maybe even doomed, the chances of his presidency becoming a true instrument of change.

* * *

The legacy of the EPIC campaign? Merriam did embrace much of the New Deal, providing at least some fresh help for suffering Californians. Responding to the Hollywood moguls’ outrages during the campaign, actors and writers turned left and feverishly bolstered their fledgling unions.

On the national scene, Sinclair’s strong showing encouraged Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson to predict an agrarian revolt that would bring down “the profit system,” and five left-wing Congressmen called a conference to explore a third-party bid. Lewis Schwellenbach won a Senate contest in the Northwest on the End Poverty in Washington platform. The La Follettes and their Progressive Party pretty much took over Wisconsin

Emboldened by the results of the midterm elections and Sinclair’s strong showing, Harry Hopkins near the end of 1934 proposed a comprehensive program, dubbed End Poverty in America, which the New York Times said “differs from Mr. Sinclair’s in detail, but not in principle.” Along with other popular movements—from the Townsend Plan pension crusaders to Huey Long in Louisiana—but more so, EPIC exerted a leftward pressure on the New Deal, strongly influencing FDR’s groundbreaking legislation on Social Security and public works. The “Second New Deal,” which also included the Works Progress Administration and National Labor Relations Act, would be more prolabor and antibusiness than the first.

A few lessons for today and the Occupy movement as it debates how to move forward? Mobilizing electorally to prove grassroots support for a “radical” option usually produces positive results, even if that’s not certain immediately, and even if candidates are defeated.

Revealing another typical result, the EPIC campaign split over whether to remain in the election business or align with the co-op movement and other groups outside the party system. When Sinclair returned to writing books, the End Poverty League and the EPIC News slowly declined, revealing the dangers of depending too much on one inspiring figure to lead a mass movement (a prime Occupy warning). Of course, we saw this years later with Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, not to mention with Ross Perot and his “movement.”

Still, a backlash against the GOP tactics in the ’34 campaign helped push Culbert Olson to election in 1938 as the state’s first Democratic governor in decades—defeating Merriam by 200,000 votes. Olson hired Sinclair’s pal McWilliams to direct the state immigration and housing agency.

Many years after the Sinclair race, McWilliams remarked that he still came across EPIC cafes “in the most remote and inaccessible communities of California” and EPIC slogans “painted on rocks in the desert, carved on trees in the forest and scrawled on the walls of labor camps.” While he questioned Sinclair’s ability to govern, he hailed his “conviction that poverty was man-made, that you didn’t need it.”

But the eternal debate—work within or outside the two-party system?—continues, as well it should.

Greg Mitchell writes a daily blog for The Nation. His 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. Mitchell’s other books include Atomic Cover-up, The Age of WikiLeaks, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, So Wrong for So Long, Why Obama Won and, with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America. Contact: epic1934@aol.com

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