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The Birth of Modern Politics—Beyond This Week's 'New Yorker' Probe | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

The Birth of Modern Politics—Beyond This Week's 'New Yorker' Probe

The estimable Jill Lepore has written a major New Yorker piece this week that kicked off with a subject dear (dearest?) to my heart, Upton Sinclair’s highly influential race for governor of the California in 1934. The race inspired my book The Campaign of the Century. Just last weekend here at The Nation, I related part of the saga: Sinclair had changed his party registration from Socialist to Democrat, and then swept the Dem primary leading one of the great mass movements in US history, EPIC, for End Poverty Poverty in California.

This inspired what I termed “the birth of the modern political campaign” and “the birth of media politics” in response to this movement. Lepore calls it “the birth of modern politics.”

Lepore focuses on just one stream flowing out this incredible race, the pioneering political consulting firm of Whitaker and Baxter (left). My 1992 book, which revealed Clem Whitaker’s and Leone Baxter’s full role for the first time—partly based on my rare interviews with Baxter—is not mentioned in Lepore’s piece, but she does cite it in a follow-up blog post, even calling it a “compelling” history. You can read my story about the campaign that’s been up at The Nation for a few days (and watch video I helped create), and of course the book, now available in new print and ebook editions.

Also, in her blog post, she gives a big hat tip to former Nation editor Carey McWilliams for his groundbreakng three-part piece on Whitaker & Baxter several decades ago.

What we mean by the birth of modern politics is that, starting with that 1934 race, major political races would be deemed too important to leave to the usual party hacks and ward heelers. Campaigns would be turned over to public relations and advertising professionals (like Whitaker and Baxter), and a new breed known as “political consultants” would call the shots, paving the way for the James Carvilles of later years. “Spin doctors” came to the fore. First radio, then TV, were used a primary message delivery systems. “Dirty tricks” grew much more sophisticated. In addition, fundraising (often national in scope even for state races) went to a whole different level.

And Hollywood started to play a central role after helping to defeat Sinclair—Irving Thalberg even created the first attack ads for the screen.

The first shot from Tinseltown was fired seventy-eight years ago this week when the studio moguls, led by Louis B. Mayer, responded to Sinclair’s upset victory—he had inspired one of the greatest mass movements in US history—by threatening to move the entire industry to Florida. Later, nearly all of the studios docked employees, including top actors, one day’s pay, to go to a Nixon-style slush fund for Sinclair’s GOP lackluster foe (Jimmy Cagney, rebelled, but Katharine Hepburn and others went along with it).

Finally, MGM produced three fake newsreels, using shots from old movies and Hollywood actors, that sparked riots in theaters. Thalberg later admitted producing the newsreels. “Nothing is unfair in politics,” he explained. Sinclair supporters, including Charlie Chaplin and Dorothy Parker, vowed revenge.

Indeed, outrage over the abuses in 1934 sparked a massive surge for the actors’ and screenwriters’ guilds—and the new activism played a key role in Democrats electing a governor in 1938. Hollywood has been “liberal” ever since.

Here are excerpts from the groundbreaking Thalberg attack ads. And you think TV spots are unfair today:

 

Lepore doesn’t explore the Hollywood innovations of 1934, but then again, her focus was pretty tight on Whitaker and Baxter. But I was surprised she did not mention that the head of the state’s Republican party during that entire “dirtry tricks” campaign was California’s attorney general, from up in Oakland, none other than Earl Warren. As my book shows, he joined in painting Sinclair as a Communist sympathizer. With his crucial decision to go outside the party for help, Warren (already known as “Mr. Clean”) did not get his hands as dirty as he might have otherwise—but they did get dirty, as I revealed in my book.

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