Monday, October 26, 2020

When a Novelist Ran for Governor: Upton Sinclair

 Annamaria on Monday

So.  It's California. The electoral campaign is on.  A socialist from the East is garnering enormous and enthusiastic support from the State's Democrats. The Republicans are up in arms about his unapologetic insistence on universal health care, greater support of the rights of working people, higher minimum wages, and so on.  Something must be done to stop him from ruining the heyday of the privileged class.

Sounds familiar, right?

Yes!  That's what drew me to this story.  But surprise!  It took place in 1934.  What makes it relevant today it that this Depression-era political battle gave birth to what we think of as the "modern" use of fake news, conspiracy theories, hysteria, and the merciless use of tons of money to stop a frontrunner from winning an election.

In the dead center of the Great Depression, the novelist Upton Sinclair had already lost two bids for office while running as Socialist.  He changed his tactics.  He switched to the Democratic Party, signed up to run in the party's gubernatorial primary, and declared, "There is no reason for anyone to be poor in a place as rich as California."  To reach his ends, he promulgated a plan called End Poverty in California or EPIC.  It called for those long-sought-after but (so far) elusive benefits listed above.  He won the Democratic primary by a landslide, delighting the workers and giving the privileged a hissy fit.

To defend their candidate, the Republicans went so far as to hire the first ever "professionals" at electioneering - a company invented that moment: Campaigns Incorporated, who immediately introduced techniques such as quoting Sinclair out of context, relentless pamphleteering, and trying to anticipate and defang any Democratic tactics.

The cops sided with Sinclair's opposition.  When, at a rally, he started to read the Bill of Rights, the LAPD moved in to arrest him and many of his supporters.  When challenged on behalf of the First Amendment, the head of the police contingent declared "We'll have none of that Constitutional stuff."

The elite of California threw themselves into the battle.  The ultra wealthy Chandler family, owners of the LA Times, without the slightest bow to journalistic ethics, put their paper's full force behind smearing Sinclair.  They found a favorite ploy in the famous author's body of fiction. They took outrageous statements made by his fictional characters, turned them into headlines, and ascribed the opinions to Sinclair personally.  (How would you like that to happen to you, my fellow author's out there?)

Hollywood got into the act.  Louis B. Mayer docked all his employees a day's pay and turned the funds over to the Republican Party.  Irving Thalberg (Yes that Irving Thalberg) started producing fake newsreels, using actors from his studio who pretended to be working people, espousing outrageous opinions.

The scariest flim-flam for the residents of California was the "news" that hundreds of thousands of "bums" from all over the country were flocking there to take advantage of the State's handouts once Sinclair became governor.

Newsreels were a trusted source at the time.  You can now find some of the footage on YouTube - very convincing fakes to scare the residents into voting Republican.  Of course, the granddaddy of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst got into the act.  And he owned movie theaters to make sure the scary fairy tales got wide distribution.

Sinclair lost.

And so did the country.  Because now we are stuck with an electioneering tradition that makes the majority of us nauseous.  But one that looks as if it will never go away. 


  1. Well, I suppose the moral of the story is that America survived and moved on. Maybe that's worth keeping in mind over the next few weeks.

    1. Hope springs, Michael, if not eternal, at least for the next week. I try to remind myself that the founders of the American democracy were inventing a form of government out of whole cloth woven in the Age of Enlightenment and that they managed to overthrow the most powerful government on earth without having their revolution devolve into a bloodbath and a dictatorship. They knew the Union was imperfect. Heck! Imagine what would have ensued if—in the 18th century, some group tried to write a Constitution for a United States of Europe. The little old UK is still having trouble keeping itself together.

      Wow! I just talked myself into feeling better. Whew!!!

  2. I did not know he ran for office. But that would explain a few of his novels. Also, I keep mixing him up with Sinclair Lewis, so I was about to add It Can't Happen Here to the mix...

    1. So true, Marina. A few of his novels inspired action and led to changes in laws, most notably, of course THE JUNGLE, but others too—mostly led to legal protections for workers.

      You are right! Those “Sinclairs” do have quite a bit in common. I never noticed that until you said it!

  3. Nothing new under the sun, sadly. But as both you and Michael Sears note above, the nation survived. Maybe there is reason to hope!

  4. Optimist that I am, I look to the next generation. I think the majority of them have grown up in a more integrated world and will their heads screwed on right (left?) about the issues I feel most passionate about.

  5. Since you're feeling better, Sis, I shall not say anything to discourage your mood.


    Three days and counting.

    YES, I shall not.

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  7. Oh, yes, Upton Sinclair. I read "The Jungle" when I was 13, my first "adult" book, and I didn't eat meat for a few months. It isn't surprising that the Hearsts and other right-wing rich guys threw everything at him. True then, true over the years, including slime thrown at FDR, and true today. True of the slime thrown at Barack Obama, with racism thrown in. True of the racism, sexist and red-baiting thrown at Kamala Harris.
    I won't sleep again. Racism is an evil that doesn't go away.