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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
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
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.
Name calling and vote buying were nothing new in American politics, of course. Party machines had often made free elections a farce in big cities, and presidential campaigns were sometimes rough-and-tumble too. The national campaign that had been most similar to the 1934 California gubernatorial race was the contest for President in 1896 between the crusading Democrat William Jennings Bryan and the staid Republican William McKinley. Bryan’s attacks on the moneyed class had inspired amazing fervor among farmers and workers.