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Mank’s Homage to Upton Sinclair by Steve Davis

Mank’s Homage to Upton Sinclair

Anyone who watches the movie Mank on Netflix with any attention will see why it is nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it evokes ‘40s noir classics in its stage sets, sophisticated dialogue, and superb acting. The major plot line is Herman Mankiewicz’s authoring the screenplay for Citizen Kane in 1940. But a major subplot is intensely political in the film’s coverage of Upton Sinclair’s race for governor of California in 1934. Mank reveals the demolition job that Hollywood did on Sinclair’s End Poverty in California campaign, known by its initials as EPIC. MGM head Louis B. Mayer chaired the California Republican party at the time and used financing by newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, to produce propaganda films and other advertising that painted Sinclair in the deepest, most frightening shades of red. The Mankiewicz character (played brilliantly by Gary Oldman) feels a degree of personal responsibility for casually suggesting the tactics that resulted in Sinclair’s November defeat. Payback comes in Citizen Kane’s thinly veiled attack on the life and character of Hearst himself, who in a younger incarnation had posed as a populist friend to the masses.

That 1934 campaign has incredible relevance for the politics of the present. Upton Sinclair joined the Socialist Party a short time before he wrote The Jungle, a novel whose publication inspired the passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 within a few months of its appearance. Sinclair’s intent in the novel was not reform of a specific industry, but to convert the reading audience to the necessity of socialism as the remedy for the ills of unregulated capitalism. Instead, as he famously put it, “I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach!” It was not Sinclair’s endorsement of socialism that captured the nation’s attention, but his depiction instead of the filthy conditions in Chicago’s packing houses.

By the early 1930s, Sinclair had made several bids for statewide office in California on the Socialist ticket, never garnering more than a tiny percentage of the votes. But seeing the success of FDR’s 1st New Deal of 1933 in combatting the Depression, Sinclair decided to run for governor as a Democrat in 1934 on an anti-poverty, social democratic platform. He stunned the political establishment in the primary by winning the nomination without a runoff. In this respect, he anticipated the strategy of Bernie Sanders by more than 80 years by running an openly democratic socialist campaign in one of the major parties.

California establishment types were stunned by Sinclair’s popular appeal and by the prospect that he could win the general election. The whole country was still trending left due to the clear understanding that the Depression wasn’t over and that more radical reform measures were imperative. A glance at Sinclair’s platform shows its attractions. He proposed to abolish the state sales tax and to introduce steeply graduated income and estate taxes. Echoing Henry George’s idea of the single tax that dated back to the 1880s, he favored a dramatic increase in tax rates on unimproved property (along with tax cuts for homeowners) to strike at the interests of elite land speculators. Sinclair anticipated the Social Security Act of 1935 in calling for state pensions for the elderly, the disabled, and mothers with dependent children. Most controversially, he proposed that the state purchase or rent unused factories and agricultural land to provide labor for the masses of the unemployed. The jobless would be provided productive labor rather than remain on the bum or on the dole. Pretty good stuff by any standard! But for these reasonable (if radical) proposals, the greedy monied class branded Sinclair a Bolshevik and general threat to the American way of life.

Mank captures what followed in that Louis B. Mayer orchestrated a smear campaign of fake news against Sinclair that in its mendacity might have put the contemporary Joseph Goebbels to shame. Men were hired to pose as “boxcar tourists” flooding into California on freight trains to take advantage of generous welfare benefits under Governor Sinclair. Phony Communists were interviewed expressing their admiration for Sinclair, despite the fact that the real Communist Party denounced Sinclair as a capitalist sellout. Word circulated in Los Angeles that the studios in the event of a Sinclair victory were prepared to move to Florida, echoing the warnings of capital flight that often accompany fear of left-wing victory at the polls. Sinclair had no chance against this PR onslaught.

In the film, Herman Mankiewicz attends an excruciating election night party thrown by his MGM employers in which one executive celebrates the defeat of “that utopian son of a bitch.” Sinclair was beaten 49 to 38% by the Republican mediocrity, Frank Merriam, with a Progressive party candidate drawing the remaining 13%. Still, in garnering 880,000 votes in a single state, Sinclair received just five thousand votes fewer than Socialist party candidate for president, Norman Thomas, got two years earlier in the entire country. In the depth of the worst economic crisis in the republic’s history, the fact that a candidate as able as Thomas could poll no better than 2.2% should have communicated something to the Socialist party about the hopelessness of third-party campaigns. Instead, the SP fielded presidential tickets through 1956 with increasingly meager results.

What if the party had followed the example of Upton Sinclair and fully entered the Democratic party in the early 1930s, enthusiastically supporting FDR and the New Deal while trying to push it leftward? This is exactly the posture of Senator Sanders in regard to these promising early days of the Biden administration. Our current social democratic project in the U.S. would have been so much further advanced had this model been adopted all those decades ago. But instead of endorsing Sinclair in 1934, the SP’s national leadership attacked the EPIC platform and the state committee encouraged members who backed Sinclair to leave the party. Such a sectarian mindset at a time of political opportunity consigned American socialism to an oblivion from which it only recently has begun to recover.

The Oscar ceremonies will be televised on the night of April 25. I’ll be watching and pulling for Mank. It’s a film worth savoring through repeat viewings and one that is in a unique category for its political lessons.

Steve Davis

April 15, 2021

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