Friday, October 22, 2010

"'Fear and Loathing' in California Politics, 1934: Upton Sinclair's Uphill Battle for Governor

(Upton Sinclair, author of the American literary classic, "The Jungle", and dozens of other books on political, media, and corporate corruption campaigns for governor of California on the radio as the Democratic Candidate.)

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) was a rare bird in American politics--a literary writer by trade. He had risen to fame as the author of a damning indictment of the Chicago meat-packing industry.  "The Jungle" became a huge success and help push through the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907--the first time that the federal government began inspecting meat and poultry products to guard the public health. The Act created the United States Food and Drug Administration, much to the howls of protest by the meat-packing  industry, whose incredibly unsanitary conditions were previously brushed aside despite consumers being poisoned and workers in the  plants themselves testifying to all sorts of food contamination from using sick animals or mixing inedible substances into canned meat. 

President Theodore Roosevelt, whose "Rough Rider" troops had suffered from disease and even death from tainted meat shipped to them in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, met with Sinclair in the White House after reading his book.  He redoubled his efforts and sent Department of Agriculture officials to Chicago to check out the claims in the novel. Sinclair--who earlier gained access to the giant slaughter pens run by Armour Meats and other corporations, took careful and copious notes and interviewed workers and sympathetic managers--was vindicated.

Although Sinclair's main reason for writing the book was to call attention to the plight of over taxed and seemingly disposable workers in the meat-packing industry, his book troubled the average person in America more for its depiction of rotten beef and sausage in the stores. Nevertheless it was a victory for the progressive movement of that time.      
Our story now shifts to 1934.  Franklin Roosevelt (Teddy's fifth cousin) has been elected President two years earlier. The national mood was ready for  another round of reform and regulations, if anything more so. Sinclair has been a prolific writer for the past quarter-century, literally churning out dozens of articles for his own and other magazines, as well as novels and book-length pamphlets attacking all the major institutions of the United States, from the churches to the press to big business and even higher education.  (Sinclair himself had worked his way through City College of New York,  writing pulp novels of little political content.)     He was living as a celebrity with his wife in Pasadena and Beverly Hills, a Socialist Party member making friends with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein (the latter was a visiting professor at Cal Tech in Pasadena).   

Sensing that the high unemployment numbers (and the lack of concern among many business leaders satisfied to invest in the jobless)  was creating a void  the regular political candidates in the state capital,  Sacramento, weren't filling, Lewis entered the race.  


      He lost the race, after a very promising start where he received more votes in a primary than any candidate in state history, due in no small part to a concerted effort by big money interests in Southern California's agriculture, manufacturing and movie business.  Their efforts, which featured unlimited money and secretive organizations sending out often fabricated and out-of-context negative attacks on Sinclair, were highly effective. 

 Some historians see the 1934 race in California as the model for the modern "dirty" mass-media campaigning we see today, and will likely see more of now that corporations and billionaires can spend whatever they like against a candidate and the public will not likely know whom these purveyors of"free speech"--speech monopolized on radio and television and the main Internet ads--really are.       
Big business was not Sinclair's only enemy.  The Communist Party of California denounced the EPIC program as "social fascism", especially after the candidate began to modify and moderate it. The Socialist Party also aimed fire at  Sinclair's reputation for switching political parties. And FDR was wary of supporting a candidate who was further left than he was on economic issues. Even Lewis' son David thought he was wasting his time.  But the big blows came from business leaders, with MGM Studios boss Louis B. Mayer--the highest paid executive in the USA in 1934-- and the heads of major Otis Chandler and W.R. Hearst newspapers in California.        

For more on how the anti-Sinclair/EPIC campaign happened see the first comment in this blog.  And thanks for stopping by and forgive me this rather long blog.   


  1. I was not aware that Upton Sinclair had a political career.
    Fascinating stuff!

  2. Three little words, Will. And they say a lot.

  3. I didn't know either, Adri Anna, and I grew up in California! it was only in college that the full history of this era was taught to us.

  4. very informative Doug's sounds a lot like our upcoming mid-term elections.

  5. You're welcome Mike. Recent events in America I need not mention brought this campaign and its under-handedness to my mind.

  6. yes I knew very interesting thanks doug great piece

  7. Glad you enjoyed this one Heidi :-)

  8. Thanks for posting this very interesting article on Upton Sinclair Doug, I was not previously aware of his campaign for the California governorship.

    It is the old story though isn't it?

    The weight of capitalist propaganda and all the resources that people like Louis Mayer could bring to the disinformation and character assassination campaign prevented the EPIC programme from being implemented, no doubt to the great disadvantage of many of those who voted against it.

    It was a self defeating ploy by the California Communist Party to declare Sinclair's movement 'social fascism' this was a term adopted by the Comintern during the early 30s to refer to all social democratic parties (they referred to the British Labour Party in the same way) which did much to split the anti-fascist forces with obvious results. Interestingly Trotsky opposed the notion of social fascism and called for broad anti-fascist/ anti-capitalist alliances and this was one of the reasons he and others broke away to establish the Fourth International in Paris in 1938 (moving at the outbreak of war to New York in 1939).

    It is therefore ironic that in the second anti-Sinclair clip one of the actors says he will be voting for him because it 'worked in Russia' .....a pretty simplistic propaganda ploy worthy of the Tea Party today, but it was Moscow that had ensured that Sinclair would lose support from sections of the political left in California.

    Probably his biggest mistake however was to leave the Socialist Party to join the Democrats, this I think was an error that eroded other left wing support and left him isolated with only a propaganda war to fight and few friends in his newly adopted party.

    The lessons for today are I believe first 'be an anarchist'....don't even try to oppose the propaganda industry on its own terms, build organic alternatives and fight the real 'social fascism' by for example establishing 'private buying clubs' as a strategy in the wider War On Shopping.

    I believe there is NO possibility of effecting positive change through established political structures which are completely compromised and saturated by vested interests and corruption.

    The political right in America has realised this and hence the Tea Party movement Rand Paul et al....such "grassroots" movements cannot be opposed by traditional political parties and this is equally true for progressive 'green' and communalistic politics.

    It would appear that Sinclair was a well meaning, sincere but naive campaigner whose move from heresy to orthodoxy was a serious miscalculation of the opposition which ultimately defeated him.

    The ultimate lesson must be that grassroots organisation, broad democratic alliances and consumer led pressure groups must pressurise the Democrats but never join them nor guarantee them any support. Stand independents in all levels of elected representation and go organic....that's the conclusion I'd draw from the story of Upton Sinclair and EPIC.

    Thanks for posting this fascinating bit of Californian political history Doug adding to my existing stock of accounts from John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, a great post!

  9. Thanks for adding needed wider context to this episode in American political history, AA.

    The 1934 California race--not as well-known as it should be in my opinion--is interesting as a type of primitive version of what we have today in the endless 30-second "attacks ads" that saturate our radio and television ads over here. The power of media propaganda and news media obsessions with three-second "sound-bytes" trump serious debates on issues.

    The ham-fist-ed (and highly selective) interview style of Mr. Louis B. Mayer's MGM newsreels (AKA "Your Roving Reporter") might bring a smile to many today. But is it not far off the make fro what we have today, right now in America thirty seven bi-annual election cycles later? The major difference is, ironically, the carefully chosen speakers get more time to talk!

    To me, this is democracy worthy of a nation of twelve-year-olds walking around in adult bodies. And it wouldn't have to be so bad if we could have money limits and donor transparency in campaigns.

    It is important to note that EPIC was an experiment in government, an experiment that if implemented would have had to pass muster in the bi-party legislature in Sacramento. Was it radical on paper? Yes. But so was Reagan's trickle-down economics if the 1980's, and God knows that had its flaws!

    The fact that we didn't have this EPIC experiment in California is a shame because parts of it might be viable for implementation today. In a state with 12 percent official joblessness, innovations are necessary. As it is, End Poverty In California is just a blueprint of a design never built.

    To denounce Sinclair--who was an least a popular engine for reform of society -- and the Labour leaders in England, Moscow-centered groups like the Young Communist League seem to be thinking more of breaking down structures and not working openly within them. Every vote counts in a winner-take-all election.

    Trotsky perhaps anticipated the rise of pluralistic Euro-Communist parties in Italy and France.

    Perhaps the strategy of "Uppy" joining the Democratic Party was in hindsight a dubious choice. But the Democrats had the structure and imprint of a genuine opposition, albeit a weak one in California. It was that primary victory that made people all over America sit up and take notice. As a general election tactic, it went flat.

    It is harder and harder to see many Democrats move beyond their current thrall to Wall Street donors and the business community. Only political reform would change that--a "Tea Party" of the left, truly progressive in every sense, might be able to do it. But it would have to capture the Old Guard. The libertarian radicals on the right offer us on the left the blueprint for this movement. How much bile and upper-hand class warfare the American people can stomach is the only thing standing in the way
    is of progress.

    Your assessment of Upton Sinclair (sincere but naive campaigner) would be embraced I believe by his most recent biographer "Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair" (2006) by Anthony Arthur. His very title tells us that. I used the two most interesting (to me) periods of Sinclair's public life for this blog. And he does indeed stand with Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck as men who cared about the whole of society and sought to bring others to a better understanding of the human waste and indignity of an often cruel and amoral state of affairs.
    Thanks again for opening up this brief account.