[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
David Dayen, Host:
It’s a propitious time to be welcoming in Greg Mitchell for a discussion about his book “The Campaign of the Century.” Over the past couple weeks, Mitchell has virtually turned over his blog at The Nation to painstakingly chronicling the Wikileaks story, and chronicling how the political, corporate and media elite have mounted an effort to discredit, destroy and punish Julian Assange. 76 years earlier, these forces came together in an electoral context, to disable the candidacy of Upton Sinclair for Governor of California.
Sinclair, the celebrated muckraking writer, was described at that time as “America’s most prominent socialist.” (Just yesterday, America’s most prominent socialist in 2010 spoke on the Senate floor for 8½ hours in opposition to a deal to extend giant tax breaks for the rich.) On August 28, 1934, he improbably swept to the Democratic nomination for Governor on a platform known as EPIC, or “End Poverty in California.” The keynote of the plan was known as “production for use,” where the unemployed would produce goods and exchange them among themselves in state-run co-ops, outside of the business sector.
At the time, California was mired in 25% unemployment, and across the state people were searching desperately for hope. They found it in Sinclair and EPIC. Nearly 50 EPIC-backed candidates won state legislative primaries that August. Registration soared among Democrats, pushing them above Republicans in California for the very first time. By charging a small fee at campaign rallies, Sinclair funded his movement without the backing of wealthy contributors, presaging the small-dollar revolution. Sinclair – and even the forces beginning to mount against him – was confident of victory for him and his movement in November.
They ran into the most coordinated, focused and downright dastardly campaign to that point in American history, which saw some epic (pardon the pun) collusion amongst the forces arrayed against him. Multiple front groups with names like “United for California” and “The California League Against Sinclair-ism” sprung up overnight, backed with hundreds of thousands in donations by corporate money from sectors like energy (Southern California Edison), oil (Standard Oil), insurance (Pacific Mutual) and transportation (Southern Pacific). C.C. Teague, the head of Sunkist, hired the ad agency Lord & Thomas, who sold the concept of orange juice to the public, to demonize Sinclair. The ad man hired to oversee United for California was Don Belding, who later headed the famous agency Foote Cone Belding.
The California Real Estate Association launched a scheme to warn homeowners and prospective homebuyers that their properties would be worthless if Sinclair won the election, essentially freezing the housing market for two months. Business leaders raised the prospect of leaving the state constantly, and would flat-out tell their employees that they would lose their jobs if Sinclair won. Other groups poured through Sinclair’s voluminous writing, ripped quotes out of context, and plastered them across the state, providing them as proof of Sinclair’s hatred for America and all its values. This pre-figured the now-standard practice of campaign oppo research, and it was pioneered in the anti-Sinclair campaign by one of America’s first political consultants, Clem Whitaker. A damning Sinclair quote appeared in a box on the front page of the LA Times every day from September 20 until the election.
The media collusion was even more incredible. Not long after the primary, the New York Times asked William Randolph Hearst, who controlled competing papers, to submit an article blasting Sinclair. (In the article, Hearst called Sinclair “but a visionary.” Sinclair replied: “I think vision is one thing that is sadly needed in American politics.”) The LA Times’ lead editorial after the primary read, “Is This Still America?” Oakland Tribune publisher Joe Knowland asked his attorneys to look into how much he could lie about Sinclair and legally get away with it. Newspapers across the state (in association with several beer distributors) coordinated and timed their attacks on Sinclair, teamed with praise for the Republican incumbent, Frank Merriam (who ran Hoover’s campaign in California in 1928). By one account, 92% of all papers in the state supported Merriam, 5% the Progressive third-party challenger Ray Haight, and the rest stayed neutral.
Sinclair not only faced this mounting criticism, but a revolt from old line Democrats inside his newly adopted party. Fake flyers from the “Young People’s Communist League” endorsing Sinclair were traced back to his primary opponent, George Creel. Creel, and Democratic Senator Bob McAdoo, checked out of the election campaign, literally leaving the state. Dozens of Democratic clubs and prominent Democrats deserted Sinclair, with William Jennings Bryan Junior calling him a “socialist interloper.” Many moderate Democrats looked to Ray Haight as the “responsible” alternative. More looked to their party leader, Franklin Roosevelt, for guidance, but after a meeting with Sinclair in early September he gave no indication of support. An endorsement of Sinclair at the DNC was chalked up to a “clerical error.”
But the biggest firepower against Sinclair was reserved to the motion picture industry. The movie moguls feared that Sinclair would raise their taxes and compete with them for business; Sinclair envisioned state-run movies to employ thousands. All the studio heads claimed that the movie business would leave California for New York upon a Sinclair victory. And what’s more, they created an unprecedented visual campaign against Sinclair. In between the newsreels and the features at their movie houses, they ran propaganda films smearing Sinclair, essentially the dawning of the negative attack ad.
All of this eventually wore down Sinclair’s support. After leading Frank Merriam 2-1 in polls at the start of the general election campaign, a week before the polls completely reversed, and rumors were rampant that Sinclair would drop out.
In the end, Sinclair only had the support of the people, and he did respectably. He lost to Merriam 48-37, garnering almost a million votes, twice as many as any Democratic candidate for Governor in California history. He consolidated a left-wing bloc in the state for the first time, rooted in the Southern California working class and the farm worker movement. 24 EPIC-backed candidates (including many who would have storied careers in California politics) won seats in the state Assembly, making that body almost even between Republicans and Democrats. The downticket strength proved that the party was on the verge of a breakthrough in the state. “This is our election in ’56,” supporters cried, referring to the Republican John Fremont election for President prior to Abraham Lincoln. In fact, in 1938, Culbert Olson, an EPIC-backed state Senator, did win the Governor’s race. As A.P. Giannini, the owner of Bank of America, said at the time, “You can’t tell me there there isn’t something wrong somewhere when a man like Sinclair without any newspaper support can get nearly a million votes.” Sinclair’s vision of government as helping to provide for California’s citizens helped swing the state away from the reactionary Republican consensus, even if he was not victorious. Sinclair himself noted in his concession speech, “Be of good cheer, this is not going to stop. This is only one skirmish, and we’re enlisted for the war.”
What’s more, the 1934 race showed the rank and file of Hollywood workers – which to that point were not really political – the power of the industry leadership. The campaign coincided with the rise of the big Hollywood labor unions, particularly the Screen Writer’s Guild. The election moved the line workers in Hollywood more, not less, to the left. An editorial in Variety the day after the election screamed: “Election’s Over, Go To Work.” But Hollywood didn’t heed this call, and now can be seen as one of the central points of liberal power in America, mainly because of their trade unions.
Mitchell tells this story in great detail, providing a day-by-day recollection of the Sinclair campaign and the power supplied against it. He brings forward the stories of practically everyone of renown in the country, if not the world, and how their orbits mixed with Sinclair in 1934. Sinclair was not without faults in the campaign, something he seemed to know implicitly; but the amateur candidate could simply not hold up against the birth of the modern attack machine.
Needless to say, in a post-Citizens United world, the campaign against Sinclair has powerful resonance today. The architecture of front groups and oppo research and attack ads is now a standard part of the discourse. But it’s telling how swiftly it was able to move people – even during the Depression – back then. In my favorite anecdote in the book, Roosevelt relays in an informal press briefing that he would like to take back his statement about how the only thing the country has to fear is fear itself. “I would now say that there is a greater thing that America needs to fear, and that is those who seek to instill fear into the American people.”
Please welcome Greg Mitchell to FDL Book Salon.