How Media Politics Was Born

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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.