THE BLOG

Final Dispatch on Upton Sinclair's Wild 1934 Campaign -- and Why it Was One of Most Influential Ever

11/03/2010 11:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Greg Mitchell recently started filing daily campaign dispatches, but with a unique twist -- the campaign took place 76 years ago. Why? In an amazing 1934 upset, ex-socialist author Upton Sinclair -- leading one of the great grassroots crusades in our history -- swept the Democratic primary for governor of California and appeared headed for victory in November. To prevent that, his opponents invented the political campaign as we know it today. It also marked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics and the creation of the first "attack ads" on the screen -- thanks to Irving Thalberg at MGM. Mitchell calls it "The Campaign of the Century" (the title of his award-winning book, just published in a new edition), and the political and economic parallels to 2010 are profound. . (Read intro piece here and catch up with previous days here. )

In conclusion -- Yes, Upton SInclair, the Democratic nominee, lost on Election Day, 1934, in California. He got more votes than any Democrat in the state's history, almost 900,000, but still lost to Frank Merriam by over 200,000. Third-party candidate Ray Haight drew about 300,000 but most analysts feels his vote might have split without his presence. Dozens of EPIC candidates, however, were elected to the state legislature, essentially creating the liberal Democratic party in California.

There is, of course, much that can be said about the lessons and impact of the race. Naturally, I advise reading my book. It includes a lengthy epilogue that not only analyzes the race but provides updates and most of the famous and often entertaining characters who got mixed up in the campaign. A rollicking tale all the way to the end. I can hardly do it justice here, but I hope you have enjoyed these daily reports during the past three weeks.

But to summarize some of the many after-effects:

The prospect of a socialist governing the nation's most volatile state sparked nothing less than a revolution in American politics. With an assist from Hollywood, Sinclair's opponents virtually invented the modern media campaign. It marked a stunning 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," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has observed. In another twenty years, these techniques "would spread east," Schlesinger added, "achieve a new refinement, and begin to dominate the politics of the nation."

The 1934 governor's race in California showed candidates the way from the smoke-filled room to Madison Avenue. Media experts, making unprecedented use of film, radio, direct mail, opinion polls, and national fund-raising, devised the most astonishing (and visually clever) smear campaign ever directed against a major candidate. "Many American campaigns have been distinguished by dirty tactics," Heywood Broun commented in October 1934, "but I can think of none in which willful fraud has been so brazenly practiced."

Another innovation (and please note what happened in this year's campaigns): It was the first state race to draw massive national fundraising focused on "special interests."

The political innovation that produced the strongest impact, both in the 1934 race and long afterward, was the manipulation of moving pictures. Alarmed by the Sinclair threat, MGM's Irving Thalberg produced outrageously partisan film shorts. For the first time, the screen was used to demolish a candidate--a precursor of political advertising on television.

Today, political consultants package candidates for the media and advertising has an overwhelming impact on public opinion. For most voters, an election campaign does not exist apart from television. The electronic media, not the political party, mediate between the candidate and the voter, and there is evidence -- as we saw again this year -- that they are failing in this role.

Win or lose, Sinclair's End Poverty in California movement was, in the words of Theodore Dreiser, "the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced." The New York Times called it "the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States." EPIC radicalized a generation of activists in California, and inspired many others throughout the country. Roosevelt may have revived the Democratic party in the state in 1932, but it was EPIC that established it as a progressive force.

The outrages of the Hollywood crusade against Sinclair -- especially the forced donation to Merriam -- sparked a revolt that caused a surge in membership in the actors and writers guilds and the birth of the "liberal Hollywood" we know today. They played a key role in electing former EPIC candidate Culbert Olson as governor in 1936, and later, Sinclair's running mate, Sheridan Downey as U.S. Senator.

And even those FDR scuttled Sinclair, the high EPIC vote, and wins for progressives elsewhere, inspired the White House to push the "second New Deal" programs such as Social Security that would have such a huge positive force to this day. A lesson for today? Sticking to principles and running hard from the left -- if backed by the grassroots -- can get results from a president, even if the candidate in question loses.

So: That's quite a lot when you think about it.

A new edition of Mitchell's book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published. He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. Contact him at: epic1934@aol.com.