Across 80 Years of Politics in California

Exactly eighty years ago, minus two days, an epic political battle culminated in California’s Fall election. Socialist rabble rouser and author Upton Sinclair had clinched the Democratic Party primary and headed into the November election of 1934 with a groundswell of grassroots support that terrified the state’s ruling class. EPIC, of course, stood for End Poverty in California, and Sinclair’s plan to do this was spelled out in his book, I Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty, published the year before not as fiction, but as a work of historical foresight. Audacious to the point of impossible, it probably surprised Sinclair when EPIC clubs popped up across California, and even other states. Volunteers promoted Sinclair’s ideas, synthesized as they were from the writings of socialist political economists and designed to feed the hungry and set idle factories in motion. The implications were that if elected, Sinclair would do more than expand the social safety net. He’d redistribute wealth and heavily tax major corporations. His campaign took off under the power of hundreds of thousands of disillusioned and angry working people seeking an end to the cycles of boom and bust, and hoping to quash the growing power of the financial oligarchy. Suddenly the radical left seemed potent in American politics on a grand scale. Sinclair’s campaign pushed Roosevelt’s New Deal to the Left.

Eighty years forward, California and the nation are in similarly dire economic straits, but the big ticket political races no longer offer epochal alternatives between capitalism and socialism, between austerity and New Deals. Instead voters in the Golden State, like across much of the U.S., will punch ballots crammed with centrist corporate Democrats running against wild-eyed Republicans. The main difference in California is that the general election this year feels like a formality, so dominant is the Democratic Party now that their primaries usually are sufficient to determine who holds office. Few statewide seats are actually contested. Incumbents are mostly assured reelection. And Ballot propositions, once the great hope of the progressives and democratic reformers, a means of using direct democracy to revise the state constitution, now ballot propositions offer up a schizophrenic range of pathways for the state’s future. As often as they’re used to decriminalize drugs or tax the rich, they’re also used to criminalize immigrants, expand the prisons, and defend corporate power.

Back in 1934 America was five years into the Great Depression. One in five working adults was unemployed. Bankruptcies among small businesses and households threatened to pull the national economy downward in an deflationary spiral. Hoovervilles of the homeless ringed cities. LA’s Hoover City, a jumble of tents and box shacks and broken down vehicles on several acres near the intersection of Firestone Boulevard and Alameda Street in Watts was home to hundreds at it’s peak. Oakland had Sewer Pipe City, an industrial yard near the port storing three foot diameter sewer pipes into which destitute men crawled, eventually fashioning tiny shelters.

Corporate farms in places like the San Joaquin Valley were plagued not by blights or pests, but by overabundance of crops for which there no buyers. A Steinbeckian surplus of displaced labor built tent cities in the creeks and ravines around the Salinas Valley, and the plantations ringing Bakersfield, Fresno, and Sacramento. Growers doused mountains of oranges and pears with gasoline to burn the over-production away.

The wealthiest industries of the era, companies like Du Pont de Nemours (the Koch Industries of its time) were beginning to accumulate profits again, and they paid political operatives millions to undermine the New Deal, and sabotage unions and the Left while building a long-term infrastructure for resurgence of the Right. Hollywood, the wealthy and glamorous industry of the sunshine state, was turning a profit too, and life was good for the millionaires of Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the elite feared the riotous energy of the masses of unemployed, striking workers, and migrant laborers. And they feared what the proletarians might do at the ballot box.

Today the official unemployment rate is 7 percent in California, above the national average, and probably under-counting the numbers of workers without adequate income. Debt, the real measure of economic malaise today—mortgage debt, student debt, credit card debt, automobile debt, small business debt, medical debt—still hangs over the entire economy. Resembling the early 1930s better than any other period in history, wealth today is now held by a tiny elite. Most Americans have no claim on the productive assets of the economy. No stock holdings. No bonds. No financial assets at all. Millions of Americans have lost the only asset they ever possessed, their home. Income has also split apart into two grossly unequal streams, with a small class of Americans doing better than ever, claiming a big slice of the nation’s total income, and a majority of the nation, wage earners, seeing their paycheck’s stagnate in terms of real value.

Whereas once where there were Hoovervilles around California’s industrial and agricultural estates, now there are homeless encampments like San Jose’s “Jungle” where the dispossessed hide among the canes and cottonwoods along the banks of Coyote Creek, a few blocks away from the headquarters of multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley corporations. For a brief moment in 2011 the Occupy phenomenon, spontaneous encampments of protesters talking about wealth and inequality, frightened America’s political class. Where did it go?

Life is still good for the billionaires of LA and Frisco. In fact the number of billionaires in California has grown. In 2009 Forbes estimated 89 billionaires among California’s 30 million or so residents. This year the magazine counted at least 111 billionaires under the West Coast sun.

Across eighty years the problems might be quite similar, but the political responses are notably different. Today Californians have no socialist running as a Democrat on their ballot to vote for. There is no plan today, as utopian as it might have been, to end poverty in California. There is no rhetoric, backed by potent social protest, to push the two party system back from the altar of neoliberalism. The billionaires of California lose no sleep over any of the candidates running for state office.

Instead California has Jerry Brown, the most dominant politician in the state’s recent history. Brown, 76, was once a progressive. But since the tax rebellion of 1978 cracked over his back like a gilded whip, Brown has retreated far into the center of the political spectrum. From this position he lectures the public frequently about “the prudence and the discipline to live within our means.” Brown plays up his own reputation for frugal living as the embodiment of a new state model of fiscal asceticism.

This year Brown ran a virtual non-campaign to return to the governor’s office. Instead of campaigning for himself he appeared in advertisements championing two ballot propositions, and spent the millions he raised from both labor unions and corporate patrons on these laws. One of these ballot propositions will will expand California’s already colossal system of dams and aqueducts. The main beneficiaries of these water bonds will be California’s potent Central Valley industrial farms, and the engineering and construction companies, and labor unions, that build this hydrologic infrastructure. The other ballot proposition Brown is shepherding will sequester state income tax revenues into a rainy day fund by the billions, only to be used in the event of an “emergency.” This ballot measure is predicated on the notion that California’s main fiscal problem is revenue “volatility,” thus the solution is to normalize the current levels of state spending, and simply redistribute tax receipts across future years.

Brown has said that he plans to let a significant tax increase on high-incomes expire in 2018. Proposition 30, approved by voters in 2012, boosted the marginal rates paid by households earning $250,000 and up, thereby contributing billions to the state’s budget during the Great Recession. You might think it shows that Brown still holds progressive values because he worked for passage of this tax two years ago. However, Proposition 30 was drafted as an emergency response to a true millionaire’s tax that would have raised more revenue purely by taxing the state’s top income earners, and this alternative measure wouldn’t have regressively increased the state’s sales tax, as Prop 30 did. Brown’s tax measure displaced the more progressive tax proposal, and put the temporary fixture in its place.

Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial substance as a centrist with deeply conservative fiscal tendencies, and a love for grandiose water projects fits neatly into the tone of the Brown dynasty. His father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, was a Republican lawyer and a supporter of Herbert Hoover who changed his party registration during the Great Depression because of the charisma and obvious impact Roosevelt had calming the nation in crisis, and saving the capitalist system from itself. Pat Brown as governor was much more progressive than his son, however. While governor in the 1950s and 1960s Pat Brown oversaw an expansion of the public sector, especially California’s schools and universities. Pat Brown raised state revenues and normalized a growing public sector that benefited a prosperous middle class. Jerry Brown instead is consolidating decades of budget cuts into a more austere reality.

Tying father and son together is the penchant for searching out the middle, the compromise, the moderate position, which in American politics means steadily drifting to the right. In 1934 Pat Brown supported moderation by working for the election of Republican candidate Frank Merriam over Upton Sinclair. Merriam’s first moderate act as governor was helping to crush the longshore strike in San Francisco with state troops.

In a bit of a contradiction, Merriam also fought for passage of California’s income tax in 1935, which has become one of the most progressive mechanisms of public finance in all the states. It probably took the threat of Sinclair’s EPIC program to set the political stage on which a Republican governor could end up creating a powerful redistributive tool, raising $11.8 million in its first year, mostly from high income earners.

As Greg Mitchell has shown in his book about Sinclair’s run for governor, Campaign of the Century, it took millions of dollars and the invention of a whole new kind of politics, the media-driven smear, to tear down Sinclair and prevent him from pushing California beyond the New Deal’s envelope. And here is about the only parallel between the election of 1934 and 2014.

Money, big money spent by big corporations out to expand their profits, weaken labor, and avoid taxes, still sways voters on the major questions of the day. This year there’s no singular politician to destroy, but there are several ballot propositions in the sights of California’s corporate powerhouses. Proposition 45, for example, would subject health insurance companies to the same kinds of regulatory oversight that utilities and car insurance companies currently face in California. That is to say, the health insurance giants would have to open their books and justify rate increases before a democratically elected official, the state Insurance Commissioner, rather than unilaterally upping insurance rates to enrich shareholders.

Wellpoint, Kaiser, Blue Shield of California, Health Net, Anthem Blue Cross, and the California Chamber of Commerce all oppose Proposition 45 for the obvious reason that it will tamper with corporate profit streams. Proposition 45 had support among most voters early on, but after a slew of negative ads costing upwards of $40 million blanketed the state’s airwaves in October, polls now show the measure going down in defeat. And Jerry Brown appears to be sitting on the sidelines, letting one of the only progressive measures on the ballot wither.

Jerry Brown’s opponent this year, the insurgent Neel Kashkari, is an ex-Goldman Sachs banker who was brought into the George W. Bush administration to manage the TARP bank bailouts. Kashkari is running on a platform that calls for eliminating teachers’ tenure protections, expanding oil drilling, and gutting business and environmental regulations. Unlike Sinclair 80 years ago, Kashkari stands virtually no chance of winning. But his campaign is Sinclair-like in that he’s pushing California’s political debate by advocating for a kind of utopian dream, albeit one for the wealthy capitalist, not the struggling wage earners. His campaign web site adds that he “currently resides in Orange County with his two Newfoundland dogs, Winslow and Newsome.”

Brown, by contrast, lives in the Oakland hills with his wife, a corporate lawyer, and his dog Sutter, a Corgi who has his own Facebook page. According to Sutter’s Facebook, politically he’s a Whig, “practical and not carried away by the barking constituencies,” just about what Jerry Brown thinks of himself.

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at


Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at