Today’s Attack Ads Have Roots In 1934 Hollywood

by | Oct 31, 2010

The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics by Greg Mitchell explores Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run of Governor of California.

MGM, led by Republican activist and movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, produced three fake newsreels to attack Sinclair before election day, using shots from old movies and Hollywood actors. The newsreels sparked riots in theaters. Irving Thalberg later admitted producing the newsreels. “Nothing is unfair in politics,” he explained.

Just yesterday on Twitter I said, “politics is war,” which led to an interesting exchange with Chris O’Rourke.

As we know, there are all sorts of wars today. Culture wars, drug wars and very real and bloody wars. In all of them lives are at stake. That’s certainly true when we look at the war on poverty, which has been ongoing in America for generations.

Let’s hear from Upton Sinclair about the lives at stake during the Great Depression.

The “EPIC” (End Poverty in California) movement proposes that our unemployed shall be put at productive labor, producing everything which they themselves consume and exchanging those goods among themselves by a method of barter, using warehouse receipts or labor certificates or whatever name you may choose to give to the paper employed. It asserts that the State must advance sufficient capital to give the unemployed access to good land and machinery, so that they may work and support themselves and thus take themselves off the backs of the taxpayers. The “EPIC” movement asserts that this will not hurt private industry, because the unemployed are no longer of any use to industry.

Ultimately, Sinclair lost the race to Frank F. Merriam. It’s now 76 years later and we’re still burdened by an inordinate number of people on the sidelines in America, and that’s no way to manage a city, state or nation. But who among us has the faintest clue about how to fix the mess that is the American economy? Sure entrepreneurs can and do create businesses and new jobs, but as Sinclair argues above, the unemployed are not aided by this.

At any rate, we’re 48 hours from another mid-term election and polls indicate that the Republicans will do well on Tuesday. Why will they do well? There are many reasons, one of which is the skilled use of advertising and the media by the Grand Old Party.

In the end, we can call today’s attack ads propaganda, but identifying them as such and rendering them meaningless and ineffective are not the same thing. As long as political propaganda works to get people elected, there will always be people of all political persuasions willing to employ it. Sure, it’s a sad commentary on our values as a nation, and all the lying and manipulation that goes on erodes the fabric of what’s good in our society. But the problem with lies is they’re not seen as lies by the people who retell them. For Loius B. Mayer and Karl Rove and the like, sure, they know the lies they tell, but the audience, sadly, isn’t that discerning.