How Upton Sinclair Upended California’s Democratic Party and the Lessons for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Run

Never in American history has a socialist been elected governor of a state, but in 1934 Upton Sinclair came close. He almost became governor on a program known as EPIC — End Poverty in California.

American socialists typically think of Eugene V. Debs’ 1912 presidential campaign as the high point of their movement since Debs won 6% of the vote, or just over 900,000 votes. Sinclair nearly matched that in 1934 by winning 879,000 votes, some 37% of the electorate. With two dozen EPIC candidates elected to the California legislature in 1934, Sinclair’s 37% was a far more politically meaningful result than Debs’ one-in-a-lifetime single-digit showing.

Despite nearly matching Debs’ power at his peak, the EPIC Sinclair campaign of 1934 has all but disappeared from the historical memory of American socialism. Almost a century later, it is the greatest story never told. These days, EPIC warrants but a single misleading mention by one Leninist journal and seems forgotten by the Democratic Socialist of America, a group that advocates the very strategy Sinclair and his followers pursued in 1934 — capturing the Democratic Party for socialism.

The issues posed by the 1934 EPIC campaign are of renewed interest now that Bernie Sanders, the lone socialist in the U.S. Senate, is considering whether to run in the 2016 presidential elections inside or outside the Democratic Party.

Like Bernie, Sinclair was no stranger to electoral politics. Like Bernie, Sinclair lost a series of marginal third-party campaigns. And like Bernie, Sinclair had to break decisively with the sects and sectarianism that crippled his previous campaigns to reach and electrify the masses. As Sinclair put it in his book, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future:

“For 30 years I have been content to be a member of a small political sect, persuading myself that it would grow. I ran for Senator in 1922 and got 50,323 votes; I ran for Governor in 1930 and got 50,480 votes; and I persuaded myself this was progress.

“I found comfort in the idea that we had a long time in which to explain our ideals to the American people. But now I have seen the horror which has come to Germany, and I realize that the American Socialist Party wouldn’t make one good-sized bite for American Big Business when it gets to the biting stage. We have only a year or so in which to save ourselves, and save our country. The breakdown of our social system is so swift, the crisis will be so desperate when it comes — in short, we have to find some way to reach the people at once, the great mass of the people, the Democrats and Republicans, and make them understand what is happening to them, and what they have to do about it.

“I remind you that in 1924 the Socialist Party of America endorsed the nomination of Robert M. LaFollette for President of the United States, and conducted a campaign in which LaFollettee got more than 4 million votes. The party took that action, not because La Follette was a socialist, but because there was a mass movement in that direction, and they took the opportunity to educate the Progressives in their ideas. Well, there is going to be a similar mass movement in the state of California this year. The movement is going to apply the principles of democracy, or rule by the people, to business and industrial affairs.

“I am making an appeal to all citizens of the state, to register as members of the Democrat Party, and to name me the candidate of that party, and thus make possible the EPIC campaign.”

Sinclair self-published 10,000 copies of his book outlining the EPIC plan in October 1933, one month after switching his registration from the Socialist Party (SP) to the Democratic Party. Within two weeks, it sold 10,000 copies and topped the state’s bestseller list. By the time of the primary in August 1934, 800 EPIC clubs had been formed throughout California, the EPIC newsletter’s circulation was over 1 million, EPIC had organizers in 50 districts, EPIC registered a whopping 350,000 new Democrats (doubling the party’s voter registration figures), and Sinclair crushed his opponents in the primary to become the first socialist with a real chance at becoming governor of an American state.

Candidate Votes
Sinclair 436,000
Creel 288,000
Wardell 48,000
Young 41,000

More people voted for Sinclair specifically in the Democratic primary than voted in the Republican primary in general and 10,000 Republicans put “Upton Sinclair” in write-in ballots.

In short, a socialist-led mass movement challenging the traditional two-party system had been born.

By election day 1934, EPIC had grown to 2,000 clubs and 10,000 precinct captains, 500,000 copies of Sinclair’s book had been sold, and Sinclair’s vote doubled from over 400,000 to over 800,000. It was not enough to win, but it was the most politically significant vote for a socialist since Debs’ 1912 showing. Furthermore, it permanently changed politics in California. Sinclair’s running mate Sheridan Downey was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938. EPIC’s Augustus Hawkins won a state assembly seat and later was elected to the House of Representatives where he became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. EPIC’s Culbert Olson  became the first atheist governor of California in 1938 after winning his state senate seat in 1934.

To sum up: the potentially socialist wing of California’s Democratic Party known as EPIC became the party’s liberal New Deal wing. This outcome was preordained nor inevitable but the result of a few crucial factors:

  • Sinclair was not a tireless socialist campaigner like Debs but a writer. After the 1934 election, he went back to writing and EPIC floundered and foundered without proper socialist leadership.
  • The SP and Communist Party (CP) were unforgivably sectarian towards EPIC. Both scabbed on Sinclair and EPIC in 1934 by running their own candidates against him — the SP’s Milen Dempster got a pathetic 2,947 votes and the CP ran a leader from the 1934 San Francisco general strike, Samuel Adams Darcy, who got 5,826. Both the SP and CP passed up this historic opportunity to guide a mass-based pro-socialist movement among the unemployed, white collar workers, ruined farmers, and blue collar workers in favor of denouncing EPIC from the sidelines of the class struggle even as big business spent millions of dollars to run the first modern attack ads in American history and kill Sinclair’s candidacy.
  • Because Sinclair, the SP, and CP abdicated leadership of EPIC, EPIC never developed a really EPIC organization. There was no EPIC congress to unite the 2,000 EPIC chapters and elect an EPIC leadership. Electing two dozen EPIC candidates to the state legislature in 1934 created an awkward situation in which EPIC and the Democratic Party were intermeshed, with no clear lines of demarcation between the two. Some EPIC clubs chose to retain their names, some turned towards becoming co-ops and self-help organizations, and others folded up to become Democratic clubs focused on get-out-the-vote operations.
  • EPIC captured the Democratic Party in the short run, the Democratic Party captured EPIC in the long run because EPIC never developed its own identity separate and apart from the Democratic Party after its impressive 1934 victories. So the last hurrah of American socialism as a mass-based movement ended without even the whimper of its own voice.

Sinclair and EPIC proved in practice a few things that are of relevance to Bernie Sanders’ potential 2016 run in the Democratic presidential primary:

  1. It is possible for a socialist candidate to enter and take over the Democratic Party ballot line, but the party machinery will split and/or struggle against this outcome. Once Sinclair won the nomination, quite a few Democratic politicians refused to support him, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt; others went so far as to endorse his Republican opponent. And just because it is possible to capture the Democratic Party does not mean it is necessarily advisable any more than the possibility of winning the lotto means it is advisable to buy a lotto ticket.
  2. The prerequisites for a socialist to successfully contest a Democratic primary are exceptional circumstances, an exceptionally good candidate, and an exceptionally good message. Sinclair and EPIC never would have had a chance in 1924 or 1944; the combination of the Great Depression and the two-party system’s inability to even make a dent in solving the most serious crisis American capitalism ever faced were the objective circumstances that created the possibility for Sinclair’s subjective success. Furthermore, Sinclair was a creative genius and a gifted communicator and EPIC was very much a product of these two aspects of Sinclair as an individual whereas most programs are collectively created by party/movement congresses and deliberations (although Sinclair continuously revised the EPIC program throughout 1934 in response to questions, objections, and counter-arguments). Had the SP’s Norman Thomas tried to create an EPIC-like program to do what Sinclair did, he would have failed miserably.
  3. Have a Plan B (and plans C, D, E, and F). Sinclair and EPIC never gave any thought to what would happen if the 1934 election should end in their defeat. They never discussed how to keep on keepin’ on, how to continue the EPIC struggle, or developed plans for the 1936 presidential and 1938 gubernatorial elections.

Sanders and leftists who support him running for president in 2016 like Socialist Alternative must come to grips with a few realities when thinking through a potential run inside or outside the Democratic Party. There are serious advantages and disadvantages to both courses. Which road to take depends on what the strategic goals and destinations of the campaign are. Sanders has already ruled out a 2000-style Nader run so he has no interest in functioning as a spoiler in a two-candidate contest for 270 electoral votes. Bernie says if he runs, he runs to win the White House.

2016Like it or not, the only path to 270 electoral votes in 2016 for Sanders lies through the Democratic Party, just as Sinclair’s only path to the governor’s mansion in 1934 lay through the California Democratic Party. The main (and perhaps only) obstacle on that path is Hillary Clinton, a candidate who can raise tens of millions of dollars to defeat Sanders and who will have the entire corporate media on her side from the outset. However, Clinton’s fund-raising ability is also her chief liability because she is so clearly part and parcel of the Washington and Wall Street establishments both of which are anathema to the Democratic Party’s popular base. It was precisely this vulnerability that a young unknown candidate with a thin résumé and a funny-sounding name exploited so successfully in the 2007-2008 primaries to defeat the Clinton machine and become the country’s first Black president. But where Obama relied on a politically vacuous newness (and the naiveté of first-time young voters) to cast himself as the candidate of change, Sanders has a decades-long record in the Senate, the House, and as mayor of Burlington of fighting for working people, for single-payer health care, for taxing the rich and corporations, and for the entire wish list of the Democratic Party’s voting base while Hillary and her husband were busy gutting welfare, passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, deregulating Wall Street, and voting for the 2003 Iraq war.

Sanders is no Sinclair. He will probably not be able to devise his own wildly popular EPIC-style program that could dramatically expand his voting base the way Sinclair did, so victory over Clinton can only be the result of a long, drawn-out state-by-state primary fight and any wins Bernie gets will be by incredibly narrow margins. The only way to win this type of protracted war will be to develop an Obama-style ground game to out-campaign Clinton door-to-door, neighborhood-to-neighborhood, vote-by-vote in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina which is how Sanders has won so many elections in traditionally Republican Vermont despite being out-spent by candidates of both parties in almost every election cycle. And if the main theme of 2016 is income inequality and the destruction of the so-called ‘middle class’ in America as Republican Mitt Romney is betting, that will be extremely favorable political terrain for Sanders’ battle against Clinton since he has been railing about these issues for the better part of three decades.

The path to victory over Clinton in a primary fight is exceedingly narrow, with very little room for error on Bernie’s part. The superdelegates may be an insurmountable obstacle for him since they control 20% of the votes at the party’s convention and are not bound by any popular vote whatsoever. Even so, Clinton will inevitably make mistakes and those mistakes will be disproportionately costly for her since she is the presumptive nominee and the automatic front-runner. A presidential nominee can sneeze the wrong way and end his or her chances if the media smells blood in the water. Bernie should exploit every Clinton’s every mistake, no matter how small. Should Clinton decide to postpone her formal campaign announcement as rumors claim, for example, this will buy Sanders precious time to raise money and organize his forces in places like Iowa and New Hampshire where Clinton started her losing streak in 2008.

Since the path to 270 electoral votes through the Democratic Party primary is so tenuous for Sanders, he ought to think in terms of 2020 and 2024 and not just 2016. His plan B for losing the primary fight to Clinton could and should be a Green Party (or independent) safe state run in places like Texas, New York, and California. The strategic goal of such a campaign would not be 270 electoral votes (virtually impossible without a major party nomination to eliminate one of two main candidates) but 5% of the popular vote, the threshold to receive nearly $100 million in taxpayer funds for a 2020 run. That money would be a God send to any future Green Party candidate given the fact that their 2012 nominee, Jill Stein, failed to raise even a single million in a contest that now costs over $1 billion total.

Campaigning for 5% of the popular vote in safe states while staying off the ballot in places like Florida and Ohio would simultaneously satisfy Bernie’s determination to not affect the overall two-candidate contest in November 2016 and it would give voters in safe states the chance to make their votes count. Sanders should exploit the fact that a Democratic vote in the Deep South or a Republican vote in New York are equally meaningless thanks to the electoral college system and campaign hard there, especially since the nominees of the two major parties will spend most of their time in swing states and avoid solid red/blue ones.

Some on the far left want Bernie to avoid the Democratic Party primary altogether, but this would deprive Sanders of a potential audience of millions of voters and keep him on the political margins, trying desperately to break into the mainstream for coverage, attention, funds, and votes. Such a strategy would trade political influence for political purity and maintaining such purity has never advanced the struggle for socialism.

6 responses to “How Upton Sinclair Upended California’s Democratic Party and the Lessons for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Run

  1. Pingback: Deindustrialization or Post-Industrialization? | Revolutionary Democratic Socialism

  2. I’m looking for a way to send a letter to your blog site in general. You have made a number of comments on one article of mine on the blog site. I posted your comments and we have had a back and forth on that article. I would hope that you would consider posting a link to that article and your comments so that that discussion can get a wider audience.


  3. Pingback: ‘Left’ Objections to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential Campaign | Revolutionary Democratic Socialism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s