May 2012, Week 1


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Sun, 6 May 2012 23:58:46 -0400
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France, Okay: But Could a Socialist Gain Power in the 
U.S.? Here's How It Almost Happened
Greg Mitchell
The Nation
May 6, 2012

French voters today elected a Socialist, Francois
Hollande, to head their government, the first time that
has happened in two decades. Could this happen some time
soon in America, or ever? A stray Socialist might get
elected to Congress--see Sanders, Bernie--and strong
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 80
years. It's an important example, too, as a new debate
simmers over whether Occupy Wall Street activists should
throw some of their energy into electing allies to

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 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." Here is an

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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, where a modern maverick, Senator Russ
Feingold, faces a tough re-election fight this year.

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-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

A few lessons for today and the Occupy movement as it
debates how to move forward? Mobilizing to prove
grassroots support for a "radical" option usually
produces positive results, even if that's not certain
immediately. It wasn't exactly an EPIC movement, but as
Ari Berman shows in his new book Herding Donkeys, Howard
Dean's 2004 race for president-and the once-mocked
"fifty-state strategy" he carried out as Democratic
Party chief two years later-led to Obama's election in
2008. Berman also points out that part of Obama's
problem is that as president he has ignored much of his
grassroots operation, until recently.

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. 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."

This is perhaps the greatest message of the EPIC
campaign, but are Democrats listening today in
Washington? Lawrence Lessig called for a "Neo-
Progressive Movement" to emerge for the 2012 election
and beyond. But as the Sinclair campaign showed, the
Republican reaction to a popular grassroots campaign
would be truly frightening. And the eternal debate-work
within or outside the two-party system?-continues,
within and outside Occupy, 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, has just been
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: [log in to unmask]


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