End Poverty in California (EPIC)

views updated


End Poverty in California (EPIC) was a series of proposals defining the platform upon which Upton Sinclair hoped to win the governorship of California in 1934. A prominent socialist and writer, Sinclair won acclaim early in the century with The Jungle(1906), an exposé of the putrid conditions of meatpacking facilities and the exploitation of workers in American industry. In 1914 Sinclair left New Jersey and took up residence in California, where he threw his energies into politics, campaigning on the Socialist Party ticket. By 1933, however, with California mired in the throes of depression and possessed of an anemic Democratic Party, Sinclair realized the immediacy of the problem facing the unemployed as well as an opportunity to implement his ideas. Switching to the Democratic Party, Sinclair announced his candidacy in a sixty-page book, I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty. Declaring that there was "no excuse for poverty in a state as rich as California," Sinclair proposed a program to end unemployment and poverty based upon the principle of production-for-use. Such a principle was believed conducive to a possibility of full employment, something that capitalism with its profit motive could not accomplish. The centerpieces of the EPIC plan were a full employment program that would turn over idle land and factories to the unemployed and a pension plan that would provide those sixty years and older with fifty dollars a month, financed by higher income and inheritance taxes. Sinclair overwhelmed his rivals in the Democratic primary and, with support from hundreds of EPIC clubs—citizens groups that had sprung up to advocate the cooperative principles of his program—appeared to be the favorite in the general election against Republican incumbent Frank Merriam. Alarmed that Sinclair would prevail, powerful economic interests in southern California organized the first modern electoral campaign in U. S. history. Financed and directed by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio, the Southern California Citrus Growers (Sunkist), and the Los Angeles Times, the anti-Sinclair forces used misleading cartoons and editorials to inflame voters with allegations that Sinclair was anti-marriage, anti-religion, pro-Soviet, and a free-love radical. The most controversial component of the attack on EPIC was a series of ostensibly factual newsreels screened to moviegoers that portrayed pro-Sinclair voters as poorly informed and lazy, while Merriam supporters appeared articulate and industrious. Particularly notorious were the newsreels that presented as fact an incipient flood of hoboes and unemployed transients preparing to come to California should Sinclair be elected.

The outcome of the election hinged on the level of support provided by Democratic regulars, many of whom remained deeply suspicious of Sinclair's ideas, especially his call for the use of scrip as a medium of exchange among producers. Scrip was to be used as a token between producers and cooperatives in addition to money. Hoping to palliate the regulars and lead a united party, Sinclair dropped the more controversial of his proposals while appealing to Democratic leaders for full support. The linchpin of EPIC's fate would be an endorsement from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Early in the campaign, Sinclair traveled east and conversed at length with Roosevelt. In the end, however, Roosevelt refused his support, and the party leadership attempted to persuade Sinclair to step down in favor of a candidate deemed more favorable by the national leadership. When Sinclair refused, the Democratic leadership negotiated an agreement with the Merriam camp to support the Republican in exchange for a bipartisan administration that would support the middle road of New Deal reform. Democratic support proved crucial to Republican victory on election day.

The legacy of the EPIC challenge was its role in pulling the New Deal leftward as Roosevelt, responding to Sinclair (among others), embraced a broader series of social and economic reforms after 1934. The response of the Democratic leadership, however, illuminated the ideological fissures within its brokerage politics, and firmly indicated that it would not support a social democratic insurgency at the grassroots level that managed to nominate candidates unsuitable to the party elite.



Harris, Leon A. Upton Sinclair, American Rebel. 1975.

Mitchell, Greg. The Campaign of the Century. 1992.

Sinclair, Upton. The Epic Plan for California. 1934.

Sinclair, Upton. I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, rev. edition. 1994.

Upton Sinclair Papers. Lilly Library, University of Indiana.

William J. Billingsley