The arrival of tens of millions of dollars from vested interests outside Wisconsin that came to dominate the recent Governor Scott Walker recall campaign (he survived in the vote two days ago) certainly set a new, and troubling, standard in this post–Citizens United world. Except for its scale, however, it is nothing new.
In fact, the first race where “outside” money dominated, and turned back a people’s movement in the process, took place seventy-eight years ago in Californiia, in 1934, after famed socialist author Upton Sinclair won a stunning landslide victory in the Democratic primary for governor. That primary event—much like the filing of enough signatures in Wisconsin to put the Walker recall on the ballot—sounded alarms in reactionary circles around the country, calling them to battle (by writing some big checks).
I’ve covered the 1934 campaign for thirty years now, going back to a two-part feature in the old Working Papers magazine, then articles, a major book (The Campaign of the Century), more articles, a PBS documentary, even a musical aimed at Broadway. Since I’ve written about it already a couple of times here at The Nation, I will simply provide a link here to the main piece, which also appeared in print. It covers the significance of Sinclair’s End Poverty in California mass movement, how it profoundly influenced New Deal programs, but also how it marked “the birth of the modern political campaign”— dominated by money, spin doctors, outside consultants and fundraisers, “dirty tricks” and the first use of the screen to defeat a candidate. Also see video below.
What I would add here is the role of “outside” money, as this also marked the first infusion of massive amounts of money to defeat a state candidate, outside the party structure. The anti-Sinclair crusade is believed to have cost as much as $10 million—a staggering sum back then, especially during The Great Depression.
Within California, tycoons of all sorts, from bankers to citrus moguls—and Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini—led the way, with Hollywood playing a key role: most of the studios leveled a forced contribution from all of their tens of thousands of employees (a few famous actors and writers famously rebelled). But they also asked for, and received, huge donations from business leaders across the country, who feared that if Sinclair won it might inspire “socialist” takeovers in other states. Unlike today, there was no paper trail at all, especially since the money went to anti-Sinclair front groups with names like United for Claifornia and the Citizens League Against Sinclair.
And as in Wisconsin, the investment paid dividends, as the once nearly certain Sinclair and EPIC victory turned into defeat in November—although with many positive after-effects for the left and (yes) labor unions in California and elsewhere.