Thursday, September 20, 2012

"When Politics Became a Business"

From The New Yorker:

The field of political consulting was unknown before Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker founded Campaigns, Inc., in 1933.
The field of political consulting was unknown before Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker 
founded Campaigns, Inc., in 1933.
“I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty,” by Upton Sinclair, is probably the most thrilling piece of campaign literature ever written. Instead of the usual flummery, Sinclair, the author of forty-seven books, including, most famously, “The Jungle,” wrote a work of fiction. “I, Governor of California,” published in 1933, announced Sinclair’s gubernatorial bid in the form of a history of the future, in which Sinclair is elected governor in 1934, and by 1938 has eradicated poverty. “So far as I know,” the author remarked, “this is the first time an historian has set out to make his history true.” 

It was only sixty-four pages, but it sold a hundred and fifty thousand copies in four months. Chapter 1: “On an evening in August, 1933, there took place a conference attended by five members of the County Central Committee of the Democratic party, Sixtieth Assembly District of the State of California.” That might not sound like a page-turner, unless you remember that at the time California was a one-party state: in 1931, almost all of the hundred and twenty seats in the state legislature were held by Republicans; not a single Democrat held a statewide office. Also useful to recall: the unemployment rate in the state was twenty-nine per cent. Back to that meeting in August, 1933: “The purpose was to consider with Upton Sinclair the possibility of his registering as a Democrat and becoming the candidate of the party for Governor of California.” What if Sinclair, a lifelong socialist, ran as a Democrat? That’s one nifty plot twist.
The pace really picks up after Sinclair adopts an acronymic campaign slogan, “END POVERTY IN CALIFORNIA” (“It was pointed out that the initials of these words spell ‘EPIC’ ”); picks a campaign emblem, passing over the eagle and the hawk (“I personally can get up no enthusiasm for any kind of bird of prey,” the candidate says) in favor of the busy bee (“she not only works hard but has means to defend herself”); explains a program of coöperative factories and farms that would implement his philosophy of “production for use” rather than for profit; proposes killing the sales tax while levying something like a thirty-per-cent income tax on anyone earning more than fifty thousand dollars a year; and promises not only to raise hell but also, preposterously, to win.

All the same, it was a shock to pretty much everyone that, in August of 1934, Sinclair won the Democratic nomination, with more votes than any primary candidate in California had ever won before. That happens in the novel, too, which is what made reading it so thrilling (or, for many people, so terrifying): watching what Sinclair imagined coming to pass. Chapter 4: “The news that the Democratic voters of California had committed their party to the EPIC plan caused a sensation throughout the country.” True! “It resulted in wide discussion of the plan in the magazines, and the formation of an EPIC Committee for the Nation.” Sort of! “A statement endorsing Sinclair for Governor was signed by a hundred leading writers, and college groups were formed everywhere throughout the country to recommend the plan for their cities and states. A group of forward-looking economists endorsed the plan, and letters of support were received from a score of United States senators and some fifty congressmen.” O.K., that part never happened.

In 1934, Sinclair explained what did happen that election year, in a nonfiction sequel called “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked.” “When I was a boy, the President of Harvard University wrote about ‘the scholar in politics,’ ” Sinclair began. “Here is set forth how a scholar went into politics, and what happened to him.” “How I Got Licked” was published in daily installments in fifty newspapers....MORE