Robert Heinlein’s Experience with Political Ignorance

Robert Heinlein is best known for being one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction and for his libertarian political views. William Patterson’s fascinating new biography of Heinlein shows that an encounter with political ignorance played a key role in Heinlein’s life, setting him on the path to becoming a writer rather than a politician.

In the 1930s, Patterson recounts, Heinlein wasn’t yet a libertarian and was in fact active in left-wing politics in California, working for Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement. In 1938, he ran for the Democratic nomination for a state representative seat in the Los Angeles area. Unfortunately for Heinlein, around this same time pro-Nazi Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein was making headlines with his efforts in support of Adolf Hitler’s campaign to annex the Sudetenland. Heinlein’s district contained many Jewish voters, and some of them apparently confused Heinlein with Henlein. Heinlein and his political advisers thought that the confusion was a key factor responsible for his narrow defeat in the primary (he lost by about 500 votes). While the two names are indeed similar, it should not have been hard for voters to figure out that it was highly unlikely that Henlein or any close relative of his would be running for a Democratic state representative nomination in California.

Political ignorance also may have hurt Heinlein’s campaign in two other ways. First, Heinlein believed that he was harmed by the fact that the Communist Party had endorsed him. Although a leftist himself at the time, Heinlein was very hostile to the communists in the 1930s, denouncing them as “red fascists” no better than the “brown fascists” of the far right. On But most of the voters probably didn’t know about Heinlein’s record on communism, and the communist endorsement may have led some of them to think he was a communist or fellow traveler himself. Heinlein and his allies thought that this contributed to his defeat as well. In addition, Heinlein’s victorious opponent in the Democratic primary was in fact a very conservative Republican (California electoral rules allowed him to run in both the Democratic and Republican primaries and he ended up winning both). Although Patterson doesn’t consider the issue, I wonder if some of the Democratic primary voters who voted against Heinlein didn’t realize that they were voting for a Republican right-winger.

The experience of the 1938 campaign helped sour Heinlein on politics and eventually led him to become a science fiction writer. It probably also contributed to his later ideological evolution towards libertarianism. Heinlein was a far more talented science fiction writer than he was a politician. So in this case, rational political ignorance actually produced a beneficial result. In most other situations, unfortunately, it does a lot more harm than good.

In any event, I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity to write a post that combines my interest in science fiction with my interest in political ignorance.

UPDATE: For the benefit of readers who may not know, it’s worth pointing out that Konrad Henlein was often in the news in 1938 because he was a central figure in the Munich crisis that arose from Hitler’s efforts force Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. The resulting confrontation nearly caused World War II to break out one year early until Britain and France capitulated to Hitler’s demands that fall and forced the Czechs to give up without a battle.