The Campaign of the Century
Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California
and the Birth of Media Politics

by Greg Mitchell

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Random House: New York, 1992
665 pages

July 2012

A campaign of invective, a history of good feeling

There is a rather precise focus here, but it may leave readers a little disoriented. The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics is Greg Mitchell's engaging history of the portentous 1934 campaign which drew national interest, generated much heat (if less light) in California, and arguably cast long shadows down to the present day and beyond.

Briefly, Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle (1906), exposing the Chicago meatpacking industry, and many other muckraking books, had created a political movement called End Poverty in California (EPIC). Its goals were explicitly anti-capitalist, in favor of co-ops and increased regulation and higher taxes, generally for bigger government running the economy. Sinclair was a lifelong dedicated socialist, and in the previous election in 1930 had run for Governor of California on the Socialist Party ticket. In the 1934 election year, with a tactical shift, his EPIC movement was strong enough to give him the Democratic Party's nomination for Governor: in fact, he outpolled all his primary opponents together.

Greg Mitchell opens The Campaign of the Century on 29 August 1934, the day after the California primary and Upton Sinclair's election triumph. Thereafter he follows the campaign day by day through the general election on 7 November 1934. It's a story of personalities, political tactics, and creative dirty tricks, with a continuing focus on the importance of the media — not only the newspapers but Hollywood. Some 700 newspapers in California endorsed lackluster incumbent Republican Frank Merriam; none endorsed reform-driven Sinclair. The major Hollywood movie studios, threatened by Sinclair with new taxes and even competition from State-made films, went all out to defeat Sinclair and EPIC.

Upton Sinclair, although portrayed with foibles a-plenty, comes off as the cleanest character and nicest personality in the book, with Raymond Haight, an independent candidate for Governor, also appearing well. Political leaders from Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Dealers such as James Farley and Raymond Moley and Rex Tugwell, through Huey Long and Putzi Hanfstaengl, down through California aspirants such as Earl Warren; and movie moguls and stars such as Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Will Hays, and Charlie Chaplin, are variously armed for dubious battle. William Randolph Hearst and the Los Angeles Times both receive plenty of mention, mostly unflattering. Will Rogers' syndicated comments are included; everybody likes Will Rogers.

Shouting-points without talking-points

In this good-natured focus on people and tactics, Mitchell deliberately slights issues. Of course Upton Sinclair was called a Communist during the campaign, and perhaps reasonably so. But if this was more than an insult and campaign shouting-point, what did it mean for California? Mitchell's thesis is not that issues weren't important — the Depression, Socialism, and the New Deal were of vital concern to Americans — but that how issues are perceived is more important. Increasingly, the political parties had less control over this perception, while mass-media presentation gained greater influence. Mitchell makes the case that the 1934 campaign against Sinclair was the watershed in which publicists and mass-media came to define the political battleground.

I don't think that it's a necessary effect of Mitchell's concentration on tactics and media and personalities, but the author has very few bad things to say about anyone. Despite the reported fear and hate and invective, he portrays 1934 politics as a sort of "Era of Good Feeling", indeed to the level of not taking anyone very seriously, as though we are hearing of somewhat amusing hijinks of naive folk of long ago. This puzzled me, until I noticed the same treatment for one of Mitchell's outlying or background mini-topics. W. R. Hearst, the dominant newspaper publisher in California, was vacationing in Germany; Hearst skipped the Nazi Party's giant Nuremberg Rally but pressed his desire for a personal meeting with Adolf Hitler. From Mitchell's sketch, we might think the Nuremberg Rally was some sort of pageant, rather than political incandescence which excited millions of people while striking fear into millions more. So the rosy-hued spectrum seems to belong to the author rather than simply to his approach to the 1934 campaign.

Mitchell's attention to campaigning rather than values effectively illustrates his thesis that in the anti-Sinclair tactics during the autumn of 1934, American politics began a decisive shift away from handling through political parties toward major assistance and even management by professional public-relations individuals and organizations: publicists, copy-writers and speech-writers, movie producers, plus some amateur document forgers.

In some ways the anti-Sinclair campaign is comparable to those of Abraham Lincoln's day, in which the Presidential candidates declared their positions (see for instance Harold Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President; then, once nominated, tended to withdraw from the public fray, letting allies and the newspapers carry on the informative and persuasive work. Moving on to Ronald Reagan's time, The Campaign of the Century somewhat resembles Craig Shirley's second history of Reagan's campaigns for the Presidency: the first book, Reagan's Revolution, covers the unsuccessful 1976 nomination campaign which nevertheless defined Reagan and the issues to the nation; Rendezvous with Destiny describes the 1980 Presidential campaigns in which Reagan and Reagan's values triumphed. But without the issues in political debate, the persuasion for values, all we have is tactics: all flash and glitter.

Why California?

Greg Mitchell theorizes what made California the opportunity, or target, for new modes and orders of politics (as Machiavelli might say):

It was no accident that California inspired the first experiment in professional campaign management. Political machines, even Tammany Hall, were beginning to break down everywhere, but they had already collapsed in california, for several reasons. The state had absorbed so many emigres — if America was the melting pot of the world, California was the melting pot of America — that loyalties were not long-standing. The political party had never been king in California politics anyway. That position traditionally belonged to the Southern Pacific Railroad, and politics hadn't been the same in the state since Hiram Johnson and the Progressives came to power in 1910 and broke that control. The measures they passed promoting citizen-led activism (initiative, referendum, and recall) and permitting a candidate to run as the nominee of both major parties (cross-filing) led to a precipitous decline in party influence.

In practice, this included by 1934, the explicitly socialist EPIC gaining the Democratic Party's nomination for Governor of the state and for many legislative seats; met by the coordinated and heavily-funded backlash, including such propaganda blasts as this:

One CLAS [California League against Sinclairism] item already widely circulated was the SINCLIAR DOLLAR, issued by the "Uppy & Downey Bank" [referring to Upton Sinclair and his running mate, Sheridan Downey] and printed in red ink. According to the small print, it was "redeemable, if ever, at the cost of future generations." The so-called Red Currency was "good only in California or Russia," but "not very good anywhere."

Very wisely, the U.S. Constitution prohibits such fiat currency issue by the States:

No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.
Article, I, Section 10, Clause 1
The Constitution of the United States

Ironically, what Mitchell terms the "hysterical Red-baiting" not only was effective against Sinclair in 1934, but proved prophetic generations later:

Hollywood's threat to emigrate [in 1934] had fallen flat, but as a tactic it showed infinite promise. ...

And further, if Sinclair and EPIC win:

Commerce and industry "will move out of California with all possible celerity," reported [in 1934] Blyth and Company, the West Coast's premier brokerage house, "and into places where the tax burden will not be confiscatory."

The automobile industry indeed has left California, along with most of the aviation industry, and much of the movie-making. Sure doesn't seem like "hysterical Red-baiting" from the dismal perspective of the California economy a couple of generations later, and the knowledge of why it descended so far.

A concluding note about third parties

Some of Upton Sinclair's friends and allies in the socialist movement bitterly reproached him for abandoning the Socialist Party and running as a Democrat, in the party of slavery and segregation, of Tammany Hall and cozy accommodation with go-along-to-get-along big business. Norman Thomas and Sinclair's own son were among these.

Sinclair had indeed run for Governor of California in the previous election in 1930 on the Socialist Party ticket, and received 50,000 votes. In the general election in 1934 on the Democratic Party ticket, he received 900,000 votes and almost won.

Although there have been many minor-party and several strong third-party movements in American politics, the only one so far to succeed took form during the ramp-up to America's greatest crisis: the great issue being slavery, and this contention over values culminated in the American Civil War. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 and inaugurated its first President in 1861, when the Slave Power already was withdrawing from the Union and moving to a war footing.

The lesson for political activists more committed to ideology than to party traditions was increasingly clear after Sinclair's near-success in 1934: work within and through a major party, rather than around them. The Socialist Party stayed aloof on its mountaintop with its handfuls of votes, but over the decades socialist ideals gained ground steadily in American education, culture, and politics.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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End Poverty in California:
The EPIC Movement

by Upton Sinclair
Democratic Candidate for Governor of California
The Literary Digest, 13 October 1934

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