Upton Sinclair and the Democrats’ dirty tricks

April 25, 2016

Lance Selfa tells the story of the socialist writer's dramatic 1934 campaign to become governor of California--and considers the lessons it holds for the left today.

AFTER DECADES of asserting his independence from the two capitalist parties in the U.S., one of the best-known socialists in the country registers as a Democrat to run in the party primaries. He campaigns on a program of pro-working class policies, taxing the rich and putting the unemployed to work. He wins mass support, with thousands of first-time voters coming out to cast a ballot for him.

No, this article isn't about Bernie Sanders. It's about Upton Sinclair, the famed muckraking author of The Jungle, The Flivver King and Oil!, who ran for governor of California as a Democrat in 1934 and won nearly 1 million votes. His frank left-wing message resonated amid the Great Depression, and he easily won the Democratic nomination to run for governor.

But what happened next is a telling example of how the Democratic Party actually works--and of the lengths its leaders will go to keep the party from becoming a vehicle for a radical political program.

FOR MORE than three decades, Sinclair had been a best-selling author of such books as The Jungle, The Flivver King, The Brass Check and Oil! (the inspiration for the 2007 film There Will Be Blood). He was well known as a proponent of socialism and a member of the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs--he ran for elected office as a Socialist several times, including a 1930 campaign for California governor that won him 60,000 votes.

Upton Sinclair stands before a crowd during his campaign for governor of California
Upton Sinclair stands before a crowd during his campaign for governor of California

For the next campaign, Sinclair decided to run as a Democrat. In September 1933, he walked into City Hall in Beverly Hills, changed his party registration to Democrat and filed to run for governor of the state in the 1934 election. The next month, he published I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty, a short book that stated his plan to "End Poverty in California"--a program that came to be known by its acronym EPIC.

The EPIC program called for the state to take over closed factories and idle farmland, and turn them into cooperatives that would employ jobless workers and destitute farmers. Sinclair conceived of this network of cooperatives as the underpinning of a new economy based on "production for use." Other aspects of the EPIC program advanced more traditional reforms such as a guaranteed income and old-age pensions.

Sinclair's campaign came as the U.S. was near the low point of the Great Depression. Extreme class polarization and working-class militancy--shown dramatically in the 1934 San Francisco general strike--would shake the state's political system as well.

At the time, the Democratic Party in California was clearly the minority party. In the 1920s, the Republicans held a three-to-one voter registration advantage over the Democrats. As late as 1931, the Republicans held 12 of the state's 13 congressional and Senate seats and 111 of 120 seats in the legislature. In large parts of the state, the Democratic Party barely existed.

That began to change in 1932, when the national landslide election put Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the White House. The Democrats swept the Golden State. The House delegation flipped from 10-to-1 Republican to 11-to-9 Democrat, including nine new seats apportioned after the 1930 Census. Californians even elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate: William Gibbs McAdoo, a transplanted Southerner and corporate lawyer who had been U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Woodrow Wilson.

STILL, THE Democrats were institutionally weak and divided. Though first dismissing Sinclair's chances for 1934, party leaders realized too late that the socialist writer was serious. While they were still trying to figure out who among the Democratic regulars would run against him, the EPIC movement was signing up a slate of state legislative candidates to run with Sinclair.

Sinclair's I, Governor of California became the best-selling book in the state, and by the summer of 1934, as many as 800 EPIC clubs had sprung up around California. As James Gregory's introduction to a 1994 reprint of I, Governor described, Sinclair's EPIC campaign:

built up a political organization the likes of which California had never seen, before or since. Operating out of a huge headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, scores of volunteers coordinated the network of over 50 district organizations and nearly 800 EPIC clubs. In addition to the weekly newspaper, which in localized editions was distributed by the hundreds of thousands, the campaign operated speakers bureaus, research units, women's clubs, youth clubs and drama groups. It put on radio broadcasts, plays, rodeos, was making a film, and drew big crowds to a lavishly staged EPIC pageant that depicted the lessons of production for use. All this in addition to a heavy schedule of campaign speeches and rallies.

Sinclair himself described his campaign as "a spontaneous movement which has spread all over the state by the unpaid labor of tens of thousands of devoted workers. They were called amateurs, but they have put all the professional politicians on the shelf."

Eventually, Democratic leaders settled on George Creel, an uninspiring party apparatchik who had headed the office of wartime propaganda under Woodrow Wilson and more recently served as West Coast director for FDR's National Recovery Administration. Creel mocked Sinclair's supporters as followers of a cult, like that of the Southern California religious revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson.

Party leaders met at the Hollywood studios of the Warner brothers and subsequently told Roosevelt's (and the national Democratic Party's) patronage chief, Postmaster James Farley, what they wanted from the president. "Everyone out there wants you to come out against Sinclair," Farley told FDR. But Roosevelt officially (and shrewdly) refused to take sides in the party primary.

The result, delivered in August 1934, was an overwhelming victory for Sinclair. With more than 436,000 votes, he got more than all of his Democratic opponents combined, and more than the Republican incumbent Gov. Frank Merriam won in his primary. In fact, Sinclair's total was the highest ever attained in a primary election in California to that point.

Sinclair had profited from an EPIC-spearheaded voter registration drive that had added 350,000 voters to the Democratic rolls. By the time of the general election in November, registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans for the first time in California history.

While Republicans and regular Democrats tried to belittle Sinclair's support as coming from bohemians and drifters, voting patterns showed that voting for the socialist came overwhelmingly from blue-collar areas, according to an analysis by University of Washington historian James Gregory.

Sinclair's strongest bases were the working-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and industrial suburbs like Lynwood, South Gate near LA, and the East Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area. Creel's core support lay in the middle-class "hill" areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

FACED WITH this popular outpouring for Sinclair, the politicians who were used to running the state of California as they pleased recoiled in horror.

At a three-day meeting in September in Los Angeles, leading Republican businessmen--convened by the movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, C.C. Teague of Sunkist and Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times--mapped out a scorched-earth slander campaign against Sinclair. Hiring an advertising firm and mobilizing Hollywood behind them, they embarked on the first modern negative media campaign.

The anti-Sinclair smears knew no bounds. All but a few state newspapers became organs of anti-EPIC propaganda, running cartoons and editorials depicting a Sinclair government as either fascism or Russian-style collectivism. The Los Angeles Times ran a daily front-page feature highlighting decades-old Sinclair quotes--many of them plucked from the dialogue of characters in his novels--intended to show Sinclair as an enemy of God, family and country.

But the most effective propaganda in the campaign--estimated by some to have cost as much as $10 million, a huge sum at the time--were newsreels shown in movie theaters around the state. Mayer and his Hollywood friends, using actors and selectively edited interviews with "real people," created a series of these short films. Purporting to be objective reporting, they were, in fact, anti-EPIC propaganda.

The most effective showed "hoboes" and "bums" riding the rails to California, where they looked forward to living high off the hog in Sinclair's California. While complete fiction in every respect, the newsreels played into a standard attack line on EPIC--that it would bring a deluge of the unemployed from across the country into the state.

While the right geared up its fear-and-smear campaign, the institutional Democratic Party deserted the man who had won its nomination fair and square. The businessmen and corporate lawyers who ran the state party decided they would rather lose the governorship than win it with a socialist heading the ticket--so behind the scenes, they looked for any way they could to undermine Sinclair.

At the party's state convention in October, Sinclair, Democratic leaders staged a lovefest to emphasize party unity. Sinclair and his chief rival for the nomination, George Creel collaborated on a party platform, in which Sinclair dropped his plans for old-age pensions and repeal of the sales tax. As New York Times reporter George P. West wrote, "[Sinclair] has abandoned his plan to establish communal farms...and his project of state-owned and operated factories is now little more than a plan to aid the barter groups of unemployed."

Sinclair agreed to accept a regular Democrat, Sheridan Downey, as his running mate for lieutenant governor--creating a ticket of "Uppie and Downey."

"WE HAVE put life into the old donkey," Sinclair told reporters after the convention.

Unfortunately, Sinclair was right about this. Democratic Party officials were happy to take the new voters and the enthusiasm that the Sinclair and EPIC had generated--as long as they could sideline Sinclair and EPIC themselves, at least for the future, if not before the coming election.

Looking back more than 80 years, it's hard to say if Sinclair's campaign was so innocent about the ways of down-and-dirty politics that it didn't recognize what was happening. But in some way, that question is immaterial. Sinclair's campaign was forced into the same situation as other liberal Democratic insurgents--as "true believers" championing the "party of the people," while the real leaders of the party actually have contempt for "the people."

While Sinclair and his supporters bent over backward to show their loyalty to the Democrats and the New Deal, the party leadership and apparatus--at both the state level and the national level--were willing to throw the election rather than let Sinclair win.

Some Democratic leaders and their money defected openly to the Republican, Frank Merriam. Others breathed life into the candidacy of Raymond L. Haight, the runner-up in the Republican primary who ran a third-party campaign in the general election as the nominee of the Commonwealth-Progressive parties.

In general, Democratic Party officials kept their distance from Sinclair. As Carey McWilliams reported in the New Republic:

Sinclair headquarters have announced speeches by Secretary [of the Interior Harold] Ickes and [liberal Republican] Senator [George W.] Norris, only to be embarrassed by subsequent refusals. [California's Democratic Sen. William Gibbs] McAdoo, the gallant, hides in Mexico while his law partner campaigns for Merriam; long before George Creel repudiated Sinclair his organization, to a man, was supporting the Republicans.

The anti-EPIC campaign even plastered McAdoo's description of EPIC as "utter and hopeless impracticality" on billboards across the state.

SINCLAIR THOUGHT he had one ace in the hole--the popularity of President Roosevelt, then in the midst of putting in place New Deal social program.

Sinclair's campaign tried multiple times to win FDR's endorsement. In response to one request, Roosevelt's appointment secretary said the president would meet with Sinclair if Sinclair happened to come east--but the condition for the meeting was that Sinclair not discuss politics or current events in California!

In September, Sinclair did get an audience with FDR at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt, the master politician, met with Sinclair for two hours. Apparently convinced that he had the president's support for not only his campaign but his "production for use" plans, Sinclair emerged from the meeting "all smiles" for the press--but he had agreed not to disclose what he and Roosevelt had discussed.

As it turned out, Roosevelt never endorsed Sinclair. And he never mentioned "production for use" during one of his radio "fireside chats"--though Sinclair was convinced he'd won a promise from FDR to do just that. As leader of the Democrats, Roosevelt deployed the party's money and resources in support of other candidates around the country. Sinclair got a well-wishing form letter from James Farley.

Yet FDR's aloofness wasn't an indication of indifference toward the California election. On the contrary, FDR and his political operation were very much engaged--in opposition to Sinclair.

A few weeks before the November election, a Democratic Party official, J.F.T. O'Connor, acting as an emissary from Roosevelt, visited Sinclair. O'Connor delivered the president's message: Sinclair should drop out of the race and support Haight. Sinclair refused. The next day, O'Connor met with Republican Gov. Merriam and promised him Democratic support in exchange for Merriam's endorsement of the New Deal.

The official rationale for this deal was protecting FDR's push to get a broad package of reforms, like the Social Security Act, through Congress. FDR couldn't afford the possibility that Sinclair would cost the Democrats seats in Congress, so he negotiated with Sinclair's Republican opponent.

At a time when all signs pointed toward a historic Democratic landslide in the midterm election, producing filibuster-proof majorities for the New Deal in both houses of Congress, this explanation stretched credibility. But it illustrated how the Democratic Party acts to police the boundaries of the "possible" in the American political system.

IN THE end, Merriam won the November election with 1.1 million votes. Sinclair got more than 879,000, and Haight won a little over 300,000--more than the margin of difference between the two main candidates.

Voters chose 27 pro-EPIC, pro-New Deal state legislators, including Augustus Hawkins and Jerry Voorhees, two future fixtures among liberal Democrats in Congress. That was certainly an achievement in a state that had been reliably Republican a few years before, but the sad fact is that a few years after 1934, EPIC was dismantled, and Sinclair had returned to writing.

As Greg Mitchell--whose The Campaign of the Century is the definitive work on the anti-Sinclair campaign--explained in a Nation magazine article:

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.

It does indeed. One of those liberals, Culbert Olson, defeated Merriam in 1938 to become the first Democratic governor of the state in four decades. After compiling a record as a pro-labor reformer, Olson became a reluctant--and then a committed--supporter of FDR's policy of interning Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks of 1941 and the U.S. entry in the Second World War.

The EPIC campaign provided one of the more dramatic examples of the time-honored role of the Democratic Party: absorbing and taming populist movements. Watered-down pieces of EPIC's program found their way into the New Deal Democratic canon, but the political figures elected to state office in the fervor of the 1934 campaign later acclimated themselves to decades of work as loyal members of the party that had betrayed their leader.

As the Nation concluded after the 1934 election, Sinclair's loss showed "what will happen to any radical who attempts to challenge the existing order through the medium of an old-party machine." That's a lesson that the left will do well to remember today.

An essential source for this article was the website dedicated to EPIC as part of the "Mapping American Social Movements" project at the University of Washington.

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