With the election just weeks away and with the Democratic candidate poised to make his surging socialist agenda a reality, business interests across the country suddenly began pouring millions of dollars into a concerted effort to defeat him. The newspapers pounced, too, with an unending barrage of negative coverage. By the time the attack ads finally reached the screens, in the new medium of staged newsreels, millions of viewers simply did not know what to believe anymore. Although the election was closer than the polls had suggested, Upton Sinclair decisively lost the 1934 race for the governorship of California.
It wasn’t until decades later that the full extent of the fraudulent smear campaign became known. As one historian observed, the remarkable race marked “the birth of the modern political campaign.”
Sinclair had made his name as a muckraker, writing best-selling books that documented social and economic conditions in 20th century America. His 1906 novel, The Jungle, exposed unsanitary conditions and the abuse of workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry, leading to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (and to Sinclair’s becoming a vegetarian for long periods of his life). Although President Theodore Roosevelt opposed socialism and thought Sinclair a “crackpot,” he acknowledged the importance of the author’s work, telling him that “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.”
Subsequent Sinclair novels targeted New York’s high society, Wall Street, the coal and oil industries, Hollywood, the press and the church; he acquired a broad spectrum of enemies. He moved from New Jersey to California in 1916 and dabbled in politics with the Socialist Party, with little success. In the throes of the Great Depression, he was struck by the abandoned factories and farms with rotting crops that dotted the California landscape and the poverty among the state’s million idled workers. “Franklin Roosevelt was casting about for ways to end it,” Sinclair later wrote. “To me the remedy was obvious. The factories were idle and the workers had no money. Let them be put to work on the state’s credit and produce goods for their own use, and set up a system of exchange by which the goods could be distributed.”