A great article on Upton Sinclair’s run for the California governorship and the manipulation and control of the public by “the haves” at the expense of everyone else — by Greg Mitchell.
How Media Politics Was Born
To keep Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California in 1934, his opponents invented a whole new kind of campaign
The American political campaign as we know it today was born on August 28, 1934, when Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author and lifelong socialist, won the Democratic primary for governor of California. Sinclair’s landslide primary victory left his opponents with only ten weeks until election day to turn back one of the strongest mass movements in the nation’s history. Extraordinary campaign tactics were clearly called for, and the Republicans pioneered strategies against Sinclair—including the first use of motion pictures to attack a candidate—that have now become the norm in the age of television.
“The Republican success,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has observed, “marked a new advance in the art of public relations, in which advertising men now believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor.” In another two decades, according to Schlesinger, “the techniques of manipulation, employed so crudely in 1934, would spread east, achieve a new refinement, and begin to dominate the politics of the nation.”
Today television commercials make and break candidates, and campaign coverage by the media has a significant impact on public opinion. Substance sometimes appears to count for little, and image for almost everything. It is little wonder that image makers, not experts on the issues, now dominate campaign staffs. It all started fifty-four years ago in California.
In September 1933 Upton Beall Sinclair, the author of The Jungle and more than forty other books, decided to run for governor of California. The amiable, fifty-four-year-old Pasadena resident had run for governor twice previously, both times on the Socialist party line, where he hadn’t won more than sixty thousand votes. This time, however, he was going to run as a Democrat.
After living in California for nineteen years, Sinclair had come to believe that the state was “governed by a small group of rich men whose sole purpose in life was to become richer.” The result of their rule was “hundreds of thousands driven from their homes” and “old people dying of slow starvation.” Most of the land in California, he believed, had been “turned over to money-lenders and banks.” One in four residents of Los Angeles was on relief, receiving an average of four and a half dollars a month, and Sinclair was not confident that President Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration was going to remedy that. After registering as a Democrat, Sinclair began his pursuit of the governorship, intending to win this time.
There were few original planks in Sinclair’s platform, but to his followers he was a prophet. To Time magazine he was an “evangel of nonsense” who “horrified and outraged the Vested Interests.”
“All my life,” Sinclair once boasted, “I have had fun in controversy.” His 1906 documentary novel The Jungle had led to passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Years later he had helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He later won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was nominated for a Nobel Prize by, among others, John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. He was friends with leading thinkers of his day, playing the violin with Albert Einstein and tennis with the radical poet and editor Max Eastman. Charlie Chaplin considered him one of his political mentors. “Practically alone among the American writers of his generation,” the critic Edmund Wilson observed, “he put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them.” Next to Debs and Norman Thomas, he was the most famous socialist of his time.
Sinclair was five feet seven inches tall. By 1933 he had thin, graying hair and wore the pince-nez that would make him easily caricatured during the campaign. To Frank Scully of Esquire he was a “skinny, middle-aged keypounder looking like a carbon copy of Woodrow Wilson that got left out in the rain and shrunk.” His closest friends—and his bitterest enemies—called him Uppie.
“We must summon the courage to take the wild beast of greed by the beard,” Sinclair wrote in his campaign manifesto, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty. By early 1934 thousands of Californians, many of them on relief, were responding. Sinclair’s rallying cry was End Poverty in California, or EPIC for short. Chapters of his End Poverty League sprang up throughout the state.
Then, as now, California was a caldron of extremes. It had the most left-wing ACLU chapter in the country and the strongest Ku Klux Klan presence outside the South. Strikes by California farm laborers in 1933 were the first in the United States. The state—a land of promise gone especially sour in the Depression—was ripe for EPIC’s soak-the-rich philosophy. Sinclair called for a huge increase in inheritance and property taxes, an unheard-of “steeply graduated” income tax, fifty-dollar-a-month pensions for the needy and the elderly, and the return of foreclosed farms and houses to their original owners. But the heart of his program was a proposal to put the jobless to work in idle factories and on unused farms. “Land colonies,” complete with kitchens and dormitories, would be established. They would trade what they produced with other EPIC enclaves.
There were few original planks in EPIC’s platform. Sinclair had merely adapted ideas from economic salvation plans already put forward by such national leaders (or demagogues) as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. The local press poked fun at the EPIC plan, but thousands of Californians embraced it, creating what Turner Catledge of The New York Times called “the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States.” By primary day there were a thousand EPIC clubs across the state, and the campaign’s tabloid newspaper, the EPIC News, had a circulation approaching a million copies weekly.
Sinclair spoke to overflow crowds in high school gyms, open fields, and arenas. Observers likened EPIC rallies to religious revivals. Time called Sinclair an “evangel of nonsense,” but to his followers he was a prophet, even a savior. His framed portrait hung in their homes. On primary day, in late August, Upton Sinclair received more than 430,000 votes, a total greater than that of all his eight Democratic opponents combined. “Congrats on nomination,” the politically obsessed poet Ezra Pound wrote from Italy. “Now beat the bank buzzards and get elected.”
Sinclair knew that to become the first Democratic governor of California in more than thirty years, he would need the support of national Democratic leaders, especially of President Roosevelt. A few days after winning the primary, Sinclair journeyed to Hyde Park for a two-hour conference. The President offered no endorsement, saying he was staying out of state politics. Privately Roosevelt told his aides that “it looks as though Sinclair will win if he stages an orderly, common sense campaign but will be beaten if he makes a fool of himself.”
Sinclair’s impending victory in the nation’s sixth-largest state became big news nationally. H. L. Mencken wrote that Sinclair, who “has been swallowing quack cures for all the sorrows of mankind since the turn of the century, is at it again in California, and on such a scale that the whole country is attracted by the spectacle.” Will Rogers observed that if Sinclair could deliver even some of the things he promised, he “should not only be Governor of one state, but President of all ‘em.” Theodore Dreiser called Sinclair “the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced.”
But Time, hinting at what was to come, declared: “No politician since William Jennings Bryan has so horrified and outraged the Vested Interests. … They hate him as a muckraker. They hate him as a Socialist. … They hate him as a ‘free-love’ cultist. … They hate him as an atheist. …” On Wall Street the market value of the twenty top California stocks dropped 16 percent following Sinclair’s nomination.
Sinclair’s friends started calling him Governor, but the title still belonged to a Republican party stalwart named Frank Merriam. The Los Angeles Times, backing the incumbent, declared that the Merriam-Sinclair contest “is not a fight between men: it is a vital struggle between constructive and destructive forces.”
California’s conservative leaders had not taken Sinclair seriously until it was too late to save the Democratic party. Now the whole state was up for grabs, and they would not make the same mistake again. “Those whose stakes in California are greatest,” Time noted, “hold themselves personally responsible to their class throughout the nation to smash Upton Sinclair.” A new kind of political campaign was about to begin.