The EPIC Campaign Story
by James Gregory
Published only months after his defeat in the November, 1934 election, Upton Sinclair's book is a detailed account of the campaign and even more detailed account of the vicious red-baiting campaign his opponents waged against EPIC.
This essay details the campaign and its consequences. It was initially published as the introduction to the reprint edition of Upton Sinclair, I Candidate for Governor of California and How I Got Licked, published by University of California Press, 1994.
For a few weeks in the fall of 1934 events in California threatened to push Adolph Hitler off the front pages of American newspapers. An extraordinary political story was unfolding. Upton Sinclair, the internationally known author and long-time socialist had captured the Democratic party nomination for governor on the strength of an audacious plan to "End Poverty in California." Riding on the hopes of hundreds of thousands of working class and unemployed Californians who had endured four years of economic depression, Sinclair's EPIC movement had stirred an equally charged conservative opposition who saw in it a threat to "sovietize California." The result was one of the angriest electoral contests in twentieth century American politics and a collision that echoed far and wide. California's distinctive multi-faction two-party political system was born in that encounter, as was the national media's fascination with California politics. In Washington President Roosevelt's New Deal administration came under new pressures as a result of EPIC, and the altered political priorities and social policies of 1935 show the impact. But more significantly, Sinclair's End Poverty movement and the Republican counter-campaign that kept him out of the California governor's mansion may have changed the tools of American electoral politics. The first election in which Hollywood money and talent figured prominently, the 1934 contest has been credited with the birth of modern media politics.
The EPIC story belongs to a pivotal year in a pivotal decade. 1934, like 1919 and 1968, was a year of exceptional turmoil and uncommon challenges to the political order, a year that convinced many Americans that society was poised on the brink of dramatic change or irreversible conflict. The early years of the Depression had been remarkably calm, particularly in comparison to Europe where the crisis had turned the continent into a battleground between Fascism, Communism, and assorted other political passions. Americans reacted differently. All through the Hoover years, as the economy declined and jobs and homes were lost, the political life of the United States had remained largely undisturbed. Organized labor quietly absorbed its losses in the early 1930s. And while the tiny Communist party and still smaller Socialist party tried to stir the unemployed to action in the major cities, the radical left remained fragmented, weak, and easy to ignore. So quiescent was the American public that in most locales it was not until 1931 that incumbent office holders began to pay a price at the polls and not until 1932 that voter dissatisfaction finally cost the Republican party its majority following.
But 1932 was no climax. The election of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic gains in Congress and in many state governments marked the beginning not the high point of political mobilization and conflict. Roosevelt's inauguration and the early New Deal plans that he announced in the spring of 1933 opened the door to all sorts of non-governmental initiatives that soon threatened to overwhelm the New Deal administration. Labor unrest was part of it. 1934 saw a massive wave of union organizing and strikes roll across the industrial heartland, touching big cities and small, climaxing in full-blown general strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis.
Paralleling conflicts at the factory gates were a variety of political movements that emerged suddenly to challenge the moderate economic policies of the New Deal. In the upper Midwest, a revived Farmer-Labor movement led by Minnesota governor Floyd Olson demanded that Washington move towards social-democratic policies of public ownership and public spending to rebuild the economy. In the South, Huey Long, the flamboyant senator from Louisiana, built a potentially potent network of "Share the Wealth" clubs with his slogan "every man a king" and a vague plan to confiscate and redistribute the fortunes of the nation's millionaires. From Detroit, the Catholic priest Charles Coughlin kept an audience of millions tuned to his weekly radio broadcasts as he railed against the conspiracy of bankers that had driven the nation into bankruptcy. And that is only part of the list. The year also witnessed the beginnings of Francis Townsend's Old Age Revolving Pension movement with its fanciful plan to end the Depression through generous pension spending. In Wisconsin, Bob La Follette's sons built a new Progressive party that soon controlled the state, and in Oregon and Washington, another left-wing political movement, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, began electing public officials. The far-right was active too, as the Silver Shirts and other fascist groups claimed headlines and growing memberships. It was, in short, a year of explosive political initiative, much of it outside the old established political parties, much of it ideologically unorthodox by standards of recent American politics, much of it as threatening to the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt as it was to the conservatives who had remained in the Republican party.
EPIC was part of this explosion. It started as a lark, one of a limitless number of schemes and projects tested over the years by America's best known, if not always most respected, radical. Upton Sinclair was about to turn fifty-five years old in the summer of 1933 when the idea of EPIC began to take shape in his mind. Author of The Jungle and more than forty other books, his writings had fueled radical causes since 1904, and for most of that time he had carried a Socialist party card. Since 1915 he had made his home in Southern California, in the faintly bohemian but decidedly upscale suburb of Pasadena whose tranquility he managed now and then to disturb. The writer was an expert at gathering media attention. If his endless stream of books did not make the headlines, his personal crusades on behalf of such disparate causes as civil liberties and mental telepathy always did. Californians had come to know him also as a perennial Socialist party candidate for statewide office, usually the governor's office. He rarely campaigned in an active way, but his name, a speech or two, and some challenging I-dare-you-to-print this letters to the state's major newspapers had usually earned him at least 50,000 votes, far more than other Socialist party candidates had received in recent years.
The idea for EPIC, Sinclair claimed, first came to him in the mail, in a letter from a Democratic party activist urging Sinclair to run for governor once again but this time as a Democrat. But that was only part of it. He had been working on a plan, a bold, unorthodox blueprint for ending the Depression. California, along with the rest of the country, was suffering the greatest economic crisis in its history. The state's unemployment rate had stood at twenty-nine percent when FDR assumed office six months before and had changed only slightly since. The administration's emergency relief spending was finally putting some money into the hands of the unemployed, but hundreds of thousands of Californians were still jobless, tens of thousands homeless. The New Deal was not going to solve the crisis, Sinclair was sure. The National Recovery Administration's policy of supporting corporate profits while restricting production made no sense, not when people were hungry and in need. Nor did the massive relief programs which Sinclair thought were wasteful and would ultimately bankrupt the government.
His Socialist party did not seem to be coming up with answers either. The party was in the midst of a comeback in 1933. It had almost disappeared in the 1920s, shattered by the split that generated the Communist party and battered by the post-war Red Scare and the lingering climate of anti-radicalism. The Depression had re-energized the SP and Norman Thomas's 1932 Presidential campaign had brought the party almost 900,000 votes. But in truth the left was failing, Sinclair realized, despite the unprecedented opportunity at hand. With capitalism crumbling all around, the American public still feared the term socialism and remained stubbornly wedded to its two old political parties. It was time to try something new, time to see what could be done working on the inside with an "Americanized" version of socialism.
So in early September, 1933 Upton Sinclair walked into the Beverly Hills city hall and changed his voter registration to Democrat. On his desk at home was a nearly complete draft of the platform that he would bring to the California voters, his plan to end poverty in California. "I say, positively and without qualification, we can end poverty in California," it would announce. "I know exactly how to do it, and if you elect me Governor, with a Legislature to support me, I will put the job through--and I won't take more than one or two of my four years."
The plan had elements that later would appear sensible, like $50 a month pensions for the elderly and disabled. Other provisions were within the realm of political possibility, such as one to replace sales taxes with sharply graduated income and property taxes. But the heart of the platform was an elaborate project that mainstream economists and orthodox Socialists alike would denounce as unworkable and conservatives would charge was more than dangerous. The new government would establish a network of cooperative colonies for the state's 700,000 unemployed, basing them in idle factories and vacant farmland that the state would seize through powers of eminent domain or confiscatory taxes. The state would capitalize and manage these cooperatives, which would exchange their products within a giant cash-free network. Modeled, though Sinclair did not say so, after Soviet collective farms, the EPIC colonies were not envisioned as temporary projects. They were to be the seedbed of a new cooperative economy, an economy of "production for use" that would ultimately supplant the old economy of "production for profit" as workers, farmers, and even businessmen realized the efficiency and numerous personal and social advantages of cooperation.
Sinclair sketched out his vision in a booklet that became the principle organizing tool of the campaign. Bearing the remarkable title, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future, the 63 page pamphlet narrated its story backwards from the future in the style of Edward Bellamy's fifty-year old utopian novel, Looking Backward. Writing from the fictional vantage point of 1938, "Governor" Sinclair details the steps that brought California out of the depression and made it the model for recovery for the rest of the nation and the rest of the capitalist world.
The booklet also depicted the campaign that had supposedly carried Sinclair into the statehouse. It proved to be a marvelous bit of forecasting. Apart from the final vote, events happened just about as he said they would. Publication of the booklet in October 1933 set off a flurry of interest. People from around the state ordered copies, distributed them to friends, and then set up EPIC clubs to discuss the plan and organize the campaign. By December there were dozens of such clubs and Sinclair had launched a weekly newspaper, The EPIC News. By May when the number of clubs had grown into the hundreds, the old line Democratic party began to understand the implications. Though desperate to fend off "the socialist carpetbagger" the party's bitterly antagonistic factions could not unite around an alternative candidate for the upcoming primary election. One of the contenders, Sheridan Downey, saw the handwriting on the wall and signed on as Sinclair's running mate for Lieutenant Governor. That left George Creel, who had been head of President Wilson's Committee on Public Information during World War I and more recently had served as west coast chief for Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration, as the most credible opponent.
Sinclair had chosen his target well. California's primary election system permitted anyone to run for a party's nomination and the Democrats were particularly vulnerable to such a move. The junior party in the state since the 1890s, Democratic fortunes had reached an all time low in the 1920s when registration favored Republicans three to one. As late as 1931 not a single Democrat held statewide office, while Republicans claimed twelve out of the state's thirteen Congressional and Senate seats and an incredible 111 out of 120 seats in the legislature. The Republican monopoly had started to disintegrate in 1932 when Roosevelt carried the state, sweeping into office with him a sizeable contingent of Democratic congressmen and legislators. But California's Democratic party still faced major problems. The leadership could not put aside the feuds between wet and dry, Catholic and Protestant factions that had complicated the 1920s. Equally important, they had done little to shape a liberal agenda. Always responsive to the ideological leadership of William Randolph Hearst, whose five in-state newspapers had been the voice of California Democracy for more than thirty years, the party leadership remained cautious and conservative at a time when Democrats in Washington and elsewhere were shaping a politics of active liberalism.
Now it was too late. By June EPIC had nominated a slate of candidates for the legislature and had 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 fifty 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.
Even so the August 28 primary election results came as a surprise, not because Sinclair won but because of the scale of support. He had captured the Democratic nomination with more than 436,000 votes, which was more than any primary election candidate in California history, more than all of his Democratic opponents combined, and more than the Republican he would face in November, incumbent Governor Frank Merriam. Standing with him in the general election would be Sheridan Downey and forty-nine EPIC endorsed candidates for the state legislature.
Who were these voters that had turned the Democratic party over to the former Socialist? A scornful George Creel blamed Los Angeles and in a widely quoted article for the Saturday Evening Post claimed that EPIC had appealed to the same sort of disoriented Southern Californians who had previously flocked to Aimee Semple McPherson's temple and other dreamland "religious, political, and economic cults." Historians have generally concurred, echoing Carey McWilliams assessment that EPIC belonged to the desperate unemployed and the disaffected lower middle class of depression-battered Los Angeles. But a close inspection of voting patterns shows something different. Southern California provided most of the votes, but EPIC belonged solidly, almost exclusively, to working class voters.
The race had been close in many parts of California, and George Creel had actually won in the city of San Francisco, but in Los Angeles and the other counties of southern California Sinclair had buried the opposition, collecting two-thirds of all Democratic votes in Los Angeles county. Many of his voters were new Democrats (the party had added 350,000 registrants in the seven months prior to the election) and overwhelmingly they were working class. It was in the blue-collar neighborhoods of central and east Los Angeles, and even more in the industrial suburbs that stretched south to Long Beach that EPIC found its key support. In South Gate, Lynwood, and Hawthorne Sinclair won by margins of eighty percent and more amidst record-breaking turnouts. George Creel meanwhile owed what modest support he received in southern California to hillside and westside middle class neighborhoods where Sinclair's message had been badly received and where in the election to come Republicans would pile up a huge anti-EPIC vote.
Elsewhere in California the patterns were somewhat more complicated, but Sinclair's support everywhere was limited by class. With the exception of some of the activists drawn into EPIC (many of them former Socialists) he had little luck appealing to white collar or well-educated voters. In the Bay Area middle-class Democrats supported Creel in the primary then defected to the Republicans in the general election. Working class voters split between the two major Democrats: Sinclair enjoying a substantial lead among blue-collar voters in the East Bay; Creel getting a slight edge in San Francisco, thanks to the endorsement of the city's Central Labor Council. But unlike Creel's middle-class supporters, those blue-collar votes--indeed blue-collar votes nearly everywhere--would go to Sinclair in the November election. Even more than the primary, the vote in that contest would break strictly on class lines.
What EPIC had done was reshuffle the electorate. For a generation the Republican party had encompassed most of the California citizenry in a two-wing, cross-class coalition that had been remarkably stable. Now Sinclair had stolen much of the progressive wing of that organization with a program that appealed very strongly to the less privileged and modestly educated segments of the population. Finding a natural following among the unemployed, he had also struck responsive chords among employed blue-collar voters. California was returning to political alignments that it had not known for a generation. EPIC, like the Workingman's party of 1878, the Democratic party of the 1880s, and the Union Labor parties of the pre-war period, had resurrected the politics of class.
Fear had also been resurrected. The road to the primary had been easy; the next two months had a different momentum. While national media turned up the spotlight, the campaign met one obstacle after another. The first disappointment came from the White House. Fresh from his primary triumph, Sinclair had left for a cross-country speaking tour to capitalize on the headlines and seek an audience with the President. Roosevelt met with him but would offer no endorsement, despite Sinclair's efforts to tone down some aspects of the plan. That rejection cleared the way for many California's established Democratic party leaders to defect to the Republican camp.
Of equal import was the new role of the state's major newspapers, many of which were linked to the conservative wing of the Republican party. The press had been relatively quiet during the primary campaign, suspecting that Sinclair would be easier to defeat than a moderate like Creel. But the huge vote for the former Socialist raised the stakes; now it seemed that he might actually win. Joining in the panic that gripped conservatives throughout the state in that summer and fall of 1934, the state's major newspapers pounced on the Democratic candidate in a display of partisan viciousness almost without parallel. Sinclair details the distortions and slanders in the account you are about to read.
Several missteps also hurt the EPIC cause. Sinclair's careless comment about the unemployed flooding into California if he won gave the opposition some of its best ammunition, while awkward attempts to soften the EPIC program to appeal to New Dealers and moderates pleased no one and cut into the campaign's credibility. To make matters worse, a third party candidate, Raymond Haight, running under the banner of the old Progressive party, was now making a claim to the ideological middle ground and picking up disaffected Democrats and moderate Republicans. By October EPIC was in trouble. And the record-breaking voter turnout on November 6 confirmed it. Sinclair doubled his primary tally, but his 879,537 votes were well behind Frank Merriam's 1,138,620. The Republican however had not received an electoral majority. Raymond Haight had collected 302,519 votes.
The election did not finish EPIC. Though his supporters were devastated and Sinclair himself exhausted, the year-long campaign had accomplished too much to be considered a loss. The idea that almost 900,000 Californians had voted for EPIC was electrifying: Sinclair had received almost exactly the number of votes in that one state that Norman Thomas had gained in his nationwide Socialist party campaign two years earlier. Those same California voters had also just elected thirty-eight Democrats to the eighty seat Assembly, twenty-four of them EPIC nominees. Several EPIC endorsed state senators and U.S. Congressmen would also be taking office. In addition EPIC candidates had captured Democratic central committee posts around the state, giving the movement effective control of the party machinery. Sinclair saw in this a beginning not an end to the EPIC story. Now, he decided, the time was ripe to take the message of "production for use" outside of California.
I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked was written as Sinclair contemplated that new campaign. Dashed off in three weeks of feverish writing, it was intended to spread the End Poverty plan far and wide. Offered as a daily series to newspapers that had been clamoring for Sinclair's story, the account was published in more than fifty newspapers across the country, representing millions of readers. But EPIC as a national movement did not live up to its creator's dreams. Clubs sprang up in many states but only in the Pacific Northwest did the movement catch on. End Poverty campaigns in Oregon and Washington in some cases surpassed the successes of California. In Washington an EPIC spinoff called the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation elected Congressmen and a U.S. Senator in addition to a variety of state office holders and went on to influence Democratic party affairs for the next decade.
Elsewhere EPIC ran into too much competition. By 1935 the spectrum of radical reform proposals had become impossibly wide as political movements of various descriptions jockeyed for members and headlines. Just as important, both the labor movement and the Democratic party were on the move, providing options for activists eager to push for comprehensive change. The 1934 elections had sent a message, as left-wing Democrats won election to legislatures and Congress from a number of states, and now the machinery of formal politics was grinding out new New Deals in capitals throughout the land. While EPIC ideas about cooperative production surfaced frequently in the year or two after the campaign, the movement itself got lost in the commotion and outside of the West never gained much of a foothold.
The organization faced difficulties in its home base as well. The campaign over, EPIC almost immediately began to fragment. Jealousies were part of it. The movement lost some of its ablest organizers in battles over Sinclair's excessive authority. Difficulties with the Communist party also took a toll. After viciously condemning EPIC during the 1934 campaign, the CP then tried to join and influence the organization, triggering a bitter expulsion struggle. Most damaging of all was the battle that erupted between EPIC headquarters and some of newly elected legislators over the proper role of each. State Senator Culbert Olson, leader of the EPIC legislative caucus and new chair of the state Democratic party, wanted EPIC to move to the background and fold most of its functions into the party. Sinclair and most of the activists resisted, arguing that EPIC had to remain an independent movement with its own agenda. The organization continued and had some success sponsoring candidates in the 1935 municipal elections in Los Angeles but with Olson and the new Democrats taking a separate course EPIC could not maintain its influence. A final miscalculation all but finished the movement in mid 1936. Still hoping to send a message to Washington, EPIC entered its own "production for use" slate in the California presidential primary in opposition to the official Roosevelt slate of delegates, though pledged to back the President on the second ballot. The gambit failed badly. California Democrats had had enough of Sinclair and perhaps of EPIC. They voted seven to one for Roosevelt. Sinclair himself lost interest shortly afterwards and though the End Poverty League continued to exist for another decade, it very quickly became a small political sect.
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EPIC's legacy was more impressive than its organizational halflife. The movement, the campaign, and the election each made a profound impact, certainly on California, very likely on the rest of the United States as well. Sinclair liked to believe that his movement strongly influenced the direction of federal policy after 1934, providing the ideas and impetus behind the creation of the Works Progress Administration which in 1935 replaced the patchwork of emergency relief programs that Sinclair had loudly attacked. The WPA did not embrace production for use but it was a massive program of work relief, designed to put the unemployed to work at jobs that would contribute to societal needs. Federal policy might well have taken this turn without EPIC. The idea of work relief was far from new and both Harry Hopkins and Franklin Roosevelt favored the principle, but events in California certainly helped push it forward. So too the New Deal's expanded support for producer and consumer cooperatives can be at least partly attributed to EPIC. The new agenda was evident in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration which began to issue grants to cooperative projects for the unemployed in 1934. The Farm Security Administration kept the dream alive much longer, experimenting repeatedly with rural cooperative projects, and as late as 1940 setting up a pair of collective farms in California and Arizona that in the planning stages bore striking resemblance to EPIC's proposed land colonies.
Much more significant were the ways that EPIC transformed California, especially its politics and policy. A divided Democratic party was one of the legacies of the 1934 election. Political alignments were changing in many states in the early 1930s as Democrats built winning coalitions of working-class, ethnic, and urban middle-class voters. California followed the broad trend up to a point, joining other western states in developing a balanced two-party system for the first time in the twentieth century. But the Democrats never built the kind of stable coalition that became politically dominant in many other states.
EPIC had fixed a deep fault-line within the Democratic party, one that would remain for the next twenty years. Sinclair's campaign marked the beginning of a powerful left presence in the party. Though EPIC itself melted away, veterans of that campaign formed the nucleus of a Democratic party faction that was ideologically very liberal and soon closely tied to organized labor, especially the left-wing CIO. Powerful enough to win primaries and nominate candidates, that faction faced almost constant warfare from the anti-radical wing of the party, a loose coalition that like the left had originated in the 1934 contest.
Several hundred thousand Democrats, including many of the traditionalists who had been with the party during the lean 1920s, bolted in 1934 rather than vote for Sinclair, costing him the election. They would do so again repeatedly over the next two decades. Able to turn out impressive majorities for Franklin Roosevelt in presidential elections, the new majority party could not function on a statewide level.
The election of 1938 almost proved otherwise. Culbert Olson, leader of what had been the EPIC legislative caucus and the favorite of left and liberal Democrats, won the nomination and swept on to victory over a tired Frank Merriam. But the intra-party warfare resumed almost immediately in the legislature, as conservative Democrats joined Republicans to bloc Olson's legislative program and undermine his administration. Defeated when he ran for re-election four years later, Olson would remain California's only twentieth century Democratic governor until Edmund G. "Pat" Brown won the office in 1958.
A revitalized Republican party was another legacy of 1934. Despite an electorate that became more and more Democratic in registration, in state politics the Republicans managed to hold onto power nearly continuously through the New Deal period. This made California unique among states with sizeable metropolitan populations. Merriam's victory was one of the few GOP triumphs of 1934, a year that sent the Republicans reeling towards oblivion in most parts of the country.
Sinclair's incursion into the Democratic party had given the Republicans a rare chance to move to the middle, a strategy that paid off not only in that election but throughout the next two decades. Frank Merriam inaugurated the strategy with his belated and clumsy endorsement of the New Deal midway through the 1934 campaign. He more or less maintained that course during his next four years in office, supporting tax and relief programs much resented by conservative Republicans while maintaining good relations with Washington. But even more than Merriam it was a young Republican District Attorney of Alameda county named Earl Warren who best understood the lessons and opportunities of 1934. An advisor to Merriam and successful candidate for Attorney General in 1938, Warren crafted a politics of liberal Republicanism that carried him into the governor's mansion in 1942 and kept him there for three terms.
In one sense then EPIC changed the course of California politics by returning things to their old channel: the Republican channel that so dominates the state's twentieth century experience. In another sense, all the channels were new. California would never again be a one party state and rarely would its political life be contained within two cohesive parties. 1934 had given birth to the pattern of politics that still prevails, a politics of party factions and extreme variation that ultimately became standard for Republicans as well as Democrats. The political system that later in the century would alternate liberal democrats and conservative Republicans through the governor's mansion while bringing still more extreme differences into Congressional and legislative delegations had its origins in the turbulent campaign of that year.
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Although EPIC has been the subject of numerous articles, chapters, dissertations, and most recently a fine book, I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked remains arguably the best source for understanding the campaign. Written immediately after the November 6 defeat, it captures the intensity of the moment as no secondary account can. Its narrative of the events of the campaign is full if a bit disjointed and needs little annotation despite the passage of six decades. Most importantly, I, Candidate reveals the personality at the center of these events. Filled, as nearly all of his books were, with autobiographical detail, the book introduces the many sides of Upton Sinclair.
There is Sinclair the political wizard, concocting a program out of bits and pieces of earlier radical strategies. He borrowed much of the program's gradualist, consensus spirit and softened socialist terminology ("production for use") from Edward Bellamy who fifty years earlier had invented an "Americanized" socialism. The key electoral strategy of invading one of the old parties was also taken from the past, principally from the experience of the radical Non-Partisan Leagues that during and after World War I briefly captured Republican parties in several midwestern states. Inspiration also came from more recent projects. The Technocracy movement had generated great enthusiasm in Los Angeles in 1932 and 1933 with its plans for a non-monetary economy of abundance based on efficiency planning. Echoes of that efficiency ethos would appear in EPIC. The barter clubs that had sprung up by the score in southern California in the early depression were a still more important source of ideas, for it was there that Sinclair saw the basic model for the cooperative network that would be EPIC's answer to unemployment and California's gateway to socialism.
The wizard was also a brilliant publicist. The genius of EPIC was as much in the packaging as in the plan. Sinclair worked the media better than anyone on the left; he knew how to attract publicity. But what was ultimately more important was his ability to directly address the working-class audience that became EPIC's primary constituency. His writings had never aimed at high-brow readers. Having started off in the pulp trades writing adventure serials while still in high school, one of Sinclair's special gifts was story telling, he could build drama into any scene. The other was pedagogy, he would turn the same scene into a lesson in radical politics. No one did it better. His books had educated two generations of radicals and were prized especially by the young and the modestly educated. In an age that had been inventing popular media, his books had been the readers digests of American radicalism.
That special skill is evident in I, Candidate as it was throughout the campaign. Master of the clever phrase and powerful slogan, unmatched in his ability to bring ideas down to the level of common sense while convincing his audience that no other level was valid, his didactic style was a key reason for the explosive popularity of EPIC. The intellectuals of his day found his style annoyingly egocentric, but for hundreds of thousands of modestly educated Californians his self-presentation as teacher-with-all-the-answers was powerful and self-affirming. He was the teacher but he taught that they were the experts, insisting that the so-called economists were fools and that the only kind of economics that made sense had to be based on common sense. Thus he set up his appealing equations: that cooperation was more efficient than competition; that capitalism begot overproduction which in turn begot unemployment; that putting people to work made more sense than giving them handouts; that state management and planning would balance production and consumption; that "production for use" would end the Depression. It was all so straightforward. "I have spent my whole life studying the idea of production for use," he would assure his audiences. "It is to me as obvious as arithmetic, as certain as sunrise. If you give hungry men tools and access to land, they will grow food; if you give them access to factories, they will turn out goods. Who but a lunatic--or a hireling--would question it?"
But was the teacher perhaps the real fool, or worse, a charlatan? The plan made no sense to most economists, including many on the left. How would he finance enterprises employing half a million workers? Could the products really be distributed in such a way as to make them self-sufficient? Would the unemployed really join the cooperatives? What would keep private capital from fleeing the state, worsening the crisis? How would they acquire the land and factories? How would they handle the unemployed from other states sure to come west? The plan seemed to many analysts, of various political persuasions, a prescription for state bankruptcy, for social chaos, and worse.
Did Sinclair really believe it would work? That is hard to say. Privately he admitted after the election that he was relieved to have lost. He knew that he had none of the administrative talents necessary to government and after a year of campaigning was dying to return to his writing. But it is also clear that he was thinking about and probably troubled by some of the criticisms of his plan. Indeed during the campaign he had modified quite a few provisions, making the document found at the back of this book substantially different than the original program. The difference is in the details, many of which had disappeared by the end of the campaign. In the version published here there is no longer a calculation of what the plan will cost or how it will be funded. There is less detail too about his tax reform measures, which earlier had promised to raise millions through steep taxes on wealthy estates and large incomes. More significantly, he dropped the idea of confiscating idle factories and farm land, the state will rent them. Also eliminated was the severely criticized proposal for separate monetary system, the California Authority for Money, that under the original plan would issue scrip as a medium of exchange within the co-op system. By the end of the campaign it had become the California Authority for Barter, charged with working out the procedures for distribution and exchange of goods. There were sound political reasons for these modifications, most of which were hammered out at the statewide Democratic party convention after Sinclair won the nomination. But they probably also represent some second thoughts on the part of the plan's original architect who at precisely that moment was confronting the possibility that he might actually win and get a chance to try EPIC.
Sinclair did not yet realize it, and in fact would never realize it, but the campaign had changed him. By the time he wrote I, Candidate he was on his way to becoming a New Dealer. Years more would pass before he would feel completely comfortable with Roosevelt and he would go to his grave three decades later still proclaiming his socialist faith, but those months of trying to end poverty in California in 1934 had begun to erode the clarity of his radicalism. The plan that he had devised in late 1933 as an alternative to the weak medicine of the New Deal was by the end of the campaign losing its visionary force and becoming an extension or refinement of the general thrust of New Deal reform.
It had always had that potential. Part of the political genius of the plan was its susceptibility to multiple readings. Putting the unemployed to work was an idea that mixed nicely with some very traditional values and read narrowly the plan for cooperative work projects was not particularly radical, especially if they turned out to be self-sufficient as Sinclair promised. Barter clubs and self-help groups had been functioning in California's major cities since 1932, sometimes modestly assisted with public funds. Was EPIC merely proposing a larger, better funded version of that primitive cooperative network? Sinclair cleverly played both answers from the start, encouraging both radical and narrow interpretations of the plan. Just so he encouraged multiple readings of his relationship to the New Deal, early on claiming affinity and trading on the legitimacy of the Roosevelt administration even while severely criticizing much of the New Deal program. But what began as a pair of strategic positions designed to lure moderate voters led ultimately towards more genuine ambiguity. By the time he wrote I, Candidate Sinclair was seeing the New Deal in an increasingly positive light. He was still critical and still promoting his End Poverty plan as the solution but now it was production for use within the framework of the New Deal instead of EPIC as the replacement for the New Deal.
This subtle transformation in political values was not his alone; indeed it was one of the big stories of the 1930s, shared by millions of Americans. Through the EPIC movement and in other states through a variety of other political experiences great numbers of Americans came to embrace the Democratic party and the welfare state liberalism that had become its creed. The converted came from various backgrounds, conservative as well as progressive, and among them was much of Sinclair's generation of radicals, former Socialists and Progressives who discovered in the unfolding policies of an activist government major portions of what they had long fought for -- rights for labor, sustenance for the poor, controls on the economy, a language of collective good and public authority. Some on the left remained very clear that welfarism was not socialism, but what Roosevelt offered was enough for many. As it opened wide over the course of its first four years, the New Deal became an ever larger tent drawing converts of many political faiths. EPIC had helped make that happen. Pushing the New Deal from the left, the various political movements of 1934 led large numbers of activists into the Democratic coalition, effectively bringing to a close the story of democratic socialism and electoral radicalism in the United States, leaving the Communist party as the only important voice of the left.
There is another side of Sinclair that fairly leaps from the pages of I, Candidate: the competitor, the pugilist, the warrior. He loved combat, or at least political combat, and the meaner the better. He had waged crusades all of his adult life, beginning with his stunningly successful expose of the meat-packing business in 1906. For almost thirty years he had practiced the art of muckraking journalism in dozens of books that exposed the insidious corruptions of capitalism. His targets were almost too many to list: journalism in The Brass Check; universities in The Goose Step; public schools in The Goslings; organized religion, The Profits of Religion; art and literature, Money Writes and Mammonart; banks, The Moneylenders; the courts, Boston and Singing Jailbirds; Hollywood, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox; and we could go on. Each had been an exercise in literary combat.
So is I, Candidate. From the opening paragraph Sinclair is on the attack, setting up to tell "the inside story" of the campaign, a story that reveals "what money can do in American politics." Actually two inside stories. A narrative of his own campaign structures the book and dominates the first hundred pages. But intertwined and gradually becoming the dominant story is his account of the malicious counter-campaign, the "Lie Factory," as he calls it, that pulled out all of the stops to save the "Plutocracy" and smash EPIC. This is where the book gains its power and its significance. And it is where Sinclair exacts his revenge. He may have lost the election but through I, Candidate he won the battle for history, insuring the EPIC would be remembered by future generations less for what it tried to do than for what was done to it, insuring that his opponents would be remembered as the architects of modern American "dirty" politics.
The facts are clear enough. Almost the entire established media in California lined up against his candidacy in what the Nation labeled "the worst press conspiracy we have ever witnessed." Balance and fairness disappeared entirely from many of the leading newspapers as they pummeled Sinclair mercilessly from front page to back. This was to be expected from the Los Angeles Times, whose ultra-conservative owner Harry Chandler had passionately fought reds and liberals for decades. The surprise came when the powerful Hearst newspapers and the usually progressive McClatchy Bee newspapers joined the cause. Among the metropolitan dailies only the San Francisco News and the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News gave Sinclair anything like reasonable coverage, but there was some compensation from the small newspapers that served the blue-collar suburbs where EPIC thrived.
Historians have found greater historical significance in two other aspects of the anti-Sinclair campaign. One is the role of Hollywood, discussed briefly in the account that follows. When studio head Louis B. Mayer dove into politics to save California from the threat of "Sinclairism" in 1934, he started a pattern of filmland involvement that would reshape American political life. Not that the heavy-handed perversions of media power of that year would become routine. As far as we know the faked newsreels have not been repeated, nor the extortionist fund-raising tactics. But Hollywood and politics discovered each other in 1934 and have been married ever since. In the years to come Democrats as well as Republicans would turn to the film community for money and celebrity power. Indeed it was not long before Washington greeted its first actor-politician. Like the rest of Hollywood, Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, Democratic representative from Los Angeles from 1944-50, would trace her political awakening back to the EPIC campaign. Her political demise at the hands of Richard Nixon in the 1950 senate campaign would be remembered as California's second encounter with the "Lie Factory."
The other innovation is extensively explored in Greg Mitchell's recent book, Campaign of the Century. The anti-Sinclair campaign was orchestrated by media professionals. Hired by the prominent Los Angeles advertizing agency, Lord and Thomas, Clem Whitaker and Leona Baxter went into business as the first ever professional campaign managers and quickly designed a strategy that became a model for modern "hit campaigns." Ignoring the colorless Merriam, whose record and personality offered little voter appeal, they built a campaign entirely out of negatives, exclusively around Sinclair and EPIC.
Sinclair makes reference to Lord and Thomas in the account that follows and in one important passage refers to "political chemists at work preparing poisons" to be delivered to the press and public, but may not have been fully aware of the dimensions of their work. He certainly knew the end product. It was Whitaker and Baxter who devised the devastating tactic of using Sinclair against himself. Combing his massive bibliography for politically embarrassing quotations, they fed the press a stream of excerpts from his earlier writings that purported to show his extremist views. Featured in the famous front page "boxes" of the Los Angeles Times these quotations, bearing headlines like "Sinclair on Marriage," "Sinclair on the Soviet Union," "Sinclair on Christ," also appeared as pamphlets that were mailed to voters by Whitaker and Baxter under various phony organizational names.
And what was the effect of these and all the other opposition tactics? Sinclair asserts loudly that the election was stolen, that voters were tricked into rejecting EPIC by a cabal of powerful interests. Trickery and deceit there was but it is by no means clear that Sinclair would have won a clean election. Even without the malicious embellishment his background and his program would have seemed very radical, and not just to a tiny business elite. Many Californians feared drastic change during the 1930s especially those retaining middle class jobs and social standing. Depressions, it must be remembered, distribute economic distress unevenly--and even in the Great Depression it was only a minority of Americans who suffered significant unemployment. Political instincts polarized accordingly and with or without media manipulation Sinclair would have had trouble assembling an electoral majority. Too many people felt they had too much to lose, too much to fear. In the end his 879,000 votes was no small accomplishment. They testify to the remarkable capacities of the grass-roots political movement that the writer-politician had built. Even more that vote reminds us of the extraordinary fluidity of American politics in that pivotal year, 1934.
--James Gregory 1994
Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics (New York: Random House, 1992)
Clarence Fredric McIntosh, "Upton Sinclair and the EPIC Movement, 1933-1936" (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1955)
James Gregory and Nancy Quam-Wickham, "Who Voted for Upton Sinclair? The EPIC Campaign of 1934" paper delivered at the Southwest Labor Studies Association meeting in San Francisco, April 29, 1989
Fay M. Blake and H. Morton Newman, "Upton Sinclair's EPIC Campaign," California History (Fall 1984)
Charles E. Larsen, "The Epic Campaign of 1934" Pacific Historical Review (May 1958)
Donald L. Singer, "Upton Sinclair and the California Gubernatorial Campaign of 1934" Southern California Quarterly (Winter 1974)
Leonard Leader "Upton Sinclair's EPIC Switch: A Dilemma for American Socialists" Southern California Quarterly (Winter 1980)