“What’s past,” as Shakespeare wrote, “is prologue.” This is the message—and the lesson—of Upton Sinclair’s I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked. Published just months after the defeat of his 1934 candidacy for governor, with its cornerstone program EPIC (End Poverty in California), the book reveals its author’s idealism and excesses. But to reread it now, 85 years after a campaign that revolutionized the politics of both California and the United States, is to discover some startling, and discomforting, parallels.
When Sinclair ran for governor, California was as overwhelmingly Republican as it is now Democratic. “As late as 1931,” writes James N. Gregory in his introduction to the 1994 reissue, “not a single Democrat held statewide office, while Republicans claimed 12 out of the state’s 13 congressional and Senate seats and an incredible 111 out of 120 seats in the state legislature.” The author of some 60 previous books—most famously The Jungle, which indirectly led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration—Sinclair had twice run for governor on the Socialist ticket, as well as twice for Congress and once for Senate. With the EPIC campaign, he got serious, registering as a Democrat (he won the party primary with more than 436,000 votes) and challenging incumbent Frank Merriam, a Republican, in the general. Merriam’s eventual victory was by a margin smaller than the 300,000 votes cast for third-party candidate Raymond Haight, which brings to mind contemporary electoral spoilers like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein.
I, Candidate for Governor grew out of an earlier effort, I, Governor of California: And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future, a campaign pamphlet that purports to report back from the future after four successful years of a Sinclair administration. By contrast, I, Candidate for Governor is a straightforward recollection. “I grieve for the people,” Sinclair writes on the first page. “But the people have suffered for ages, and I have no way to help it. Whoever made this universe ordained it that people learn by suffering, and in no other way.” The rectitude is all Sinclair. He may have, as a young man, rebelled against his mother’s religious moralism, but he brought a similar sensibility to politics. Socialism, for him, was not merely a pragmatic means of struggle; it was also an ethical imperative. “If you take this book rightly,” he explains, “you will consider it a textbook of military strategy; a book of maps and other data needed for the planning of forty-nine campaigns of the future; forty-eight of these to take our States out of the hands of organized greed and knavery, and the forty-ninth, the biggest of all, to take our nation out of the same hands.”
As a piece of writing, I, Candidate for Governor can be bombastic, self-aggrandizing, and contradictory. The same might be said of EPIC, which alternated pragmatic plans involving pensions and taxation with more amorphous ideas for helping the unemployed. And yet, like EPIC, the book remains historically important for what it set in motion. EPIC helped push mainstream Democratic policy to the left, influencing the federal Works Progress Administration. EPIC-affiliated Democrats were elected to the legislatures and Congress. The Democratic Party was refreshed, if not entirely revitalized, and the Republican Party liberalized. It’s no stretch to trace a line from Sinclair to Earl Warren and Pat Brown, governors who effectively reinvented California with their emphasis on infrastructure, education, and social welfare, and from them to the pragmatic progressivism of the latter’s son, Jerry Brown. Sinclair’s opponents, meanwhile, defeated him by using many of the tools of contemporary political discourse: smear campaigns, media consultants, and fake news. In nearly every way that matters, then, his campaign and the reaction to it were decades ahead of their time.
As for Sinclair, he returned home to Monrovia, California, where he remained until his death in 1968. He never ran for office again. As to why, there is a moment in I, Candidate for Governor that succinctly sums up the peculiar pressures of being a candidate. “This is the price of taking part in public life in America,” Sinclair reflects. “You have to learn to think on your feet, and to think about several things at once. You speak knowing that if you make a single mistake, you have lost your cause, and the hopes of a million people. You have to have a cast iron stomach, or else be wise enough not to eat until the excitement is over.”
David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author or editor of 10 books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was short-listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He is a former book editor and book critic for the Los Angeles Times.