If you want to know what will happen to Bernie Sanders should he grab the Democratic nomination for president, you should spend a little time examining what happened the last time a socialist got this close to actual political power in the Capitalist States of America.
That would be Upton Sinclair, a socialist who, like Sanders, ran as a Democrat for a powerful position—governor of California.
It happened in 1934, and what his Republican opponents did to him—aided by the press and the film industry—is a textbook example of dirty politicking. In fact, some historians consider it the birth of the modern malevolent political campaign.
By the time his opponents were through, Sinclair, who began the race as a working-class hero, looked to the general public like Stalin, Trotsky, and Lenin rolled up into one.
The same thing is more than likely to happen to Sanders. And I’m not talking about the mild back-and-forth between Hillary Clinton and Sanders during the Democratic debates. I’m talking hardcore nasty political campaigning if Sanders is the nominee.
When Sinclair entered the battle he was well known. He was a successful novelist and had been one of the first of the great muckraking journalists. His The Jungle exposed the horrors of the meat packing industry and led to meaningful reform.
He was known nationally, and even locally—he visited the Dunites in Oceano. (Amusingly, in a 2012 interview with then-Tribune local columnist Gayle Cuddy, octogenarian Ella Thorp Ellis, who had been a child of the Dunites, recounted how Sinclair didn’t care to have children interrupt the adults. Does this mean Sinclair had the “get off my lawn” persona sometimes attributed to Sanders? Nah, it’s probably unfair to both men to say so).
Sinclair’s campaign took place during the Great Depression, when people, especially the poor, were hurting as they had rarely hurt in this country.
He called his campaign End Poverty in California (EPIC), and EPIC chapters popped up all over California. Among other things—it was a highly detailed platform—EPIC called for massive public works programs to put people back to work.
Sinclair also proposed repealing the sales tax, raising corporate taxes, and instituting a graduated income tax
There’s more, and what it added up to is that Upton Sinclair posed a genuine threat to the powers that be. As the powerful do, they sought to take him down in an election season later called the “campaign of the century.” Journalist Greg Mitchell spelled it out exhaustively in his entertaining book of the same name.
In a 2012 Smithsonian article, writer Gilbert King described the reaction to Sinclair this way.
“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 reached the screens in the new medium of staged newsreels, millions of viewers simply did not know what to believe anymore.”
The newsreels and ads in question are appalling and infuriating, although perhaps no more so than what today’s candidates do to one another. Here are some highlights:
• Opponents took a quote from an amoral character in one of Sinclair’s numerous novels and attributed it to Sinclair in real life. It gave the impression that he was anti-marriage.
• Irving Thalberg, who helped found Metro Goldwyn Mayer, produced newsreels using actors pretending to be ordinary citizens. In one, cited by Smithsonian, an actor playing a working man intending to vote for the writer said, “Upton Sinclair is the author of the Russian government and it worked out very well there and I think it would here.”
• Newsreels showed “bums” from across the country hopping off freight trains in California looking for handouts.
There’s more, lots more, but you get the idea. Sinclair’s Republican opponent, a party apparatchik and anti-working man strike breaker named Frank Merriam, was elected governor. Merriam didn’t have to do much; he just let the propaganda people do their thing.
It’s hard to imagine the same thing not happening to Bernie Sanders, in spades. Can you imagine what the devious liars who run campaigns today—the ethical descendants of the anti-Sinclair people—will do to an old socialist Jew? There is a wealth of hatred and ignorance for them to draw on among America’s easily manipulated and frightened electorate.
And today’s sleaze merchants have the social media to play with on top of everything else.
It’s not going to be pretty, but I think it will happen if Sanders gets the nod. The only way for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, a pair of nasty, amoral characters, to win the election, is for them to make their opponents look even worse.
This has already happened with Hillary Clinton. She is easily the most qualified person to run for president since Franklin Roosevelt, but a relentless years-long campaign to make her seem dishonest and untrustworthy has largely worked.
Sanders has been given a relatively free ride so far, and his image is that of a likeable, idealistic, if naïve old coot. But should he get the nomination his turn will come.
Unlike Clinton, a tough-as-nails person who has faced a vicious onslaught for a quarter of a century and still goes forward, I don’t think Sanders can survive the barrage.
The good news is that even though he lost, Sinclair’s campaign had legs beyond the election. It influenced policy for years to come. I believe that will also be Sander’s legacy, no matter who sits in the White House next year.
Bob Cuddy likes to write on The Cuddy Edge and lives in Arroyo Grande. Send comments to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.