The Campaign of the Century:
Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics
by Greg Mitchell
Nonfiction — Politics
Sinclair Books, 2011
Upton Sinclair was a lot of things: journalist, Socialist, muckraker, author, politician. He’s probably best known for his novel, The Jungle (1906), about the meatpacking industry in Chicago during the early 1900′s. That book led to the establishment of what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration in 1930 (and to me becoming a vegetarian for four months in 2005 or 2006). These are all facts about Sinclair that I knew prior to learning about and reading Greg Mitchell’s book, The Campaign of the Century.
I did not know that Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California in 1934.
As a Socialist, Sinclair liked the New Deal, but thought that more could be done to employ people and help them out of poverty. Knowing that he would not win an election as a Socialist, Sinclair changed his party affiliation (in name only), and ran in the primaries as a Democrat. He won the Democratic nomination for Governor of California by a landslide. Sinclair’s plan for California was called EPIC–End Poverty in California–and its main function would be to end poverty through production for use (as opposed to production for profit). California would take over factories and farmland that were idle due to the Depression, and turn them into cooperatives.
What made this election season truly interesting, though, and different from other election seasons in the past, was the role the media played. This was the first election season in which the media took over election coverage and helped decide the outcome–something that we just take for granted as normal today. Sinclair didn’t have a lot of supporters within the political and business realms, and he had absolutely no support from any of the major newspapers in the country. Hollywood threatened to pick up and move to New York or Florida should he be elected. The 1934 election season saw the start of serious political polling and its potential for deciding outcomes. So much of what we consider normal election practice today began with this election in 1934.
Needless to say, Sinclair didn’t win the election…but even though the media fought him tooth and nail, he lost by only 200,000 votes (he received 900,000 votes). That’s impressive.
The Campaign of the Century begins the day after Sinclair won the Democratic nomination and gives a detailed day-by-day account of what happened between then and the election. Mitchell reproduces newspaper articles, conversations and letters (both public and private), short film transcripts, radio show transcripts. You name it, it’s in this book. There is so much information that it can get a little dry at times, but I am not faulting Mitchell for that at all. The amount of research that went into this book is just astounding, and it would be hard for me to complain about any part of it knowing how much work Mitchell must have put into writing it. I learned a ton of stuff, and while the 1934 election was a major turning point in politics, it also made me realize that some of the political practices we complain about today were going on 80 years ago…and longer. I guess I assumed that most of the shady political practices we deal with today are relatively new. I assumed wrong.
If you’re interested in Upton Sinclair or politics (or both), I recommend Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century. It was certainly an eye opener for me.
(Click here to learn more about Greg Mitchell.)
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