8. Walt Disney’s Fascinating Political Journey
The Man Behind The Mouse underwent a political transition from naive socialist cartoonist to staunch conservative mogul.
We tend to think of Hollywood as a bastion of leftism, and rightly so. Books like Ron Radosh’s Red Star Over Hollywood demonstrate the deep-seated left-wing dominance of the entertainment industry. Even with the leftism prevalent in Hollywood’s Golden Age, many unabashed conservatives found success without compromising their principles, including one of the most creative minds in the business — Walt Disney.
Several biographers and writers that I’ve read have tried to declare that Walt Disney was apolitical, but I find this conclusion not to be true. Diane Disney Miller once said that her father was “kind of a strange figure” politically, and Walt admitted his own political naiveté:
A long time ago, I found out that I knew nothing whatsoever about this game of politics and since then I’ve preferred to keep silent about the entire matter rather than see my name attached to any statement that was not my own.
But plenty of people surrounding Walt Disney knew the truth: that he was conservative to his core. Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” said that Walt’s right-leaning politics made him uncomfortable and that politics drove a rift in their friendship in Disney’s later years. Radical writer Maurice Rapf, who worked on several Disney films, including Song of the South, said, “He was very conservative except in one particular — he was a very strong environmentalist.” However, Walt Disney’s conservatism did not manifest itself until after he had been a businessman for several years.
Walt Disney’s early exposure to politics came from his father, Elias, who was a Socialist — in particular, he followed the philosophy of J. A. Wayland. Wayland created a unique strain of Prairie Socialism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Daniel J. Flynn, in his book A Conservative History of the American Left, tells of how Wayland “reached Americans with the message [of Socialism] that had been heretofore explained in a German, Yiddish, or Russian accent, but never with a Bible-belt twang.”
Wayland’s newspaper, Appeal to Reason, “was folksy” and “reached the common man’s ears but irritated the intellectual’s.” Elias Disney subscribed to Appeal to Reason, and Walt remembered cutting his teeth as an artist by copying the cartoons. Walt said he “could draw cartoons of ‘Capital’ and ‘Labor’ pretty good, the big fat capitalist with the money with his foot on the neck of the laboring man with the little cap on his head.”
Elias Disney voted for Progressive William Jennings Bryan and Socialist Eugene Debs in presidential elections, despite being an entrepreneur and employer. Walt believed that he learned from his father how to be a friend of the working man, and he claimed to carry that belief even after his journey rightward.
As Walt moved into his thirties and became established in Hollywood and influence by his brother, his politics began to change. He told one writer:
In the election of 1936, I just couldn’t go Republican. … Roy and I split. Roy went Republican and I voted for Roosevelt. By 1940 and everything that happened in the next four years, I was right back on the other bandwagon. I became a [Wendell] Willkie man. He was a great man.
However, he stopped short of endorsing Willkie that year.
By 1941, unions began to organize many employees of the Disney Studios, and they went out on strike that May. The picket line struck a blow to the company’s fragile financial state at the time, and the strike hurt Walt personally. Though the employees who led the strike, animator Art Babbitt and layout artist Dave Hilberman, had communist leanings, most of the rank-and-file strikers did not. Nevertheless, both Roy and Walt Disney laid the blame for the strike at the feet of Communism. Roy admitted that he and Walt believed that “money was never the basic problem in this thing, as much as communism [sic].”
For Walt, the strike solidified his political transformation. He contrasted his father’s socialism (“I grew up believing a lot of that…”) with his own experiences as a businessman and employer (“…but I was disillusioned”). He came to terms with this disillusionment during the strike, and he said, “A lot of my dad’s socialistic ideas began to go out the window.”