Mark A. Lause, the author of Counterfeiting Labor’s Voice: William A. A. Carsey and the Shaping of American Reform Politics, answers questions on his new book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?  

My first encounters with William A. A. Carsey hinted at a story that promised a novel approach to issues the Gilded Age, workingclass history, political history, and, more interesting, the pitfalls of history.  

However, the insights of Counterfeiting Labor’s Voice are clearly products of our own time. Carsey may have been the inventor of “astroturfing,” the creation of ostensibly grass roots organizations that essentially existed only on paper. If you were a capitalist trying to persuade the government to do something for your business, you could hire Carsey to show up for hearing and speak on behalf of labor in support of your position. If your workers went on strike, he could hold a mass meeting of labor organizations to denounce the strike. Whether or not they actually met wasn’t important because they were generally spectral organizations.  

The sources credibly identify Carsey as the New York born son of immigrant parents, a Civil War veteran and, seasonally, a popular baseball player. Sources also present him as the president of the International Workingmen’s Association—the First International—in the U.S. because he told reporters he was and they put it in the newspapers. The papers subsequently described him as a trade union leader, which he was not. They said he was the president of the Greenback party in New York and treated him as such. In the same way, he stood like a colossus over the movements of the Antimonopolists, the Union Laborites, the Populists, etc. The media of the day reported on his activities as such, interviewed him, and speculated about his next move.  

And when it got around to finally reporting honestly that his career had been all smoke and mirrors, it did so mostly by reporting what others said while remaining agnostic on the matter themselves and certainly shunning any of its own responsibility for the decades of disinformation. When people today say that journalism is not what it used to be, the historian’s job to add that it never was. 

In the end, Carsey was a leader of great importance and influence in the same way that someone today such as Donald Trump could be a self-made entrepreneurial genius. These careers existed in a landscape almost entirely shaped by the media. The transient nature of commercial “news” made these serial deceptions possible, and rather difficult to discern without plunging into that ocean of digitized newspapers running over decades.  

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?  

The purpose of Carsey’s activities wasn’t immediately clear as I followed his activities forward until I found obituary information that described him as an associate of the Tammany Hall organization of the Democratic Party. That explained much about his twists and turns in the electoral arena that was otherwise inexplicable.  

Those twists and turns add a hitherto neglected dimension to the problems plaguing working class efforts at independent political action. All those larger contextual explanations are as legitimate as ever, but we’re looking here at the nuts and bolts of how to derail labor or farmer parties before they gained a foothold. 

The two-party system exists to manufacture consent, and that creates all sorts of roles. Notwithstanding the manipulative nature of their activities, the careers of Carsey and his colleagues developed as part of the processes of an evolving mass-based politics among white men in the United States. The parties, their representatives, and operatives sought to shape the course of rival or potentially rival organizations so as to increase their own chances to win or keep power.  

This doesn’t require positing a long-term strategic conspiracy by the powers-that-be to keep control. It took no vast plan for the bosses to use a hired killer such as Tom Horn in the West or a Pinkerton thug such as James McParland to perform the roles they did. Horn murdered for the bosses through a series of Range Wars, and McParland did essential work undermining support for the Molly Maguires in the 1870s and supervised Harry Orchard who murdered the Populist governor of Idaho in 1905 and attempted to pin it on “Big Bill” Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone. Carsey represented a variant on that theme. As the old song reminds us, “some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen.”  

Indeed, the reader will encounter others who also counterfeited labor voices on behalf of Democratic or Republican interests. For their services, they might land a government jobs. Carsey won and held several of these, even as he sought to shape worker responses to their unaddressed grievances. Of course, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” However, Carsey and his colleagues did not make the rules of the game they were playing, and our purpose was primarily to clarify and understand those rules.  

As to independent political action, the position of the players of those rules have changed since Carsey’s day. At that time, citizens still remembered having organized antislavery parties that elbowed their way into prominence despite the two-party system of Democrats and Whigs, eventually creating the Republicans. Subsequent political history has not refreshed that collective memory. By the time I started teaching, a poll among high school seniors indicated that roughly half thought that a two-party system is in the U.S. Constitution. I doubt civics education has improved much.  

Every election, we will hear reasonable citizens who proclaim democratic and republican values—with a small “d” and a small “r”—urging the active suppression of any efforts to field an alternative to the two parties. I suspect that at the bar in some unreconstructed saloon, the ghost of Mr. Carsey is leaning over to the bartender and ordering another round for the house and lighting a celebratory cigar. 

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn? 

Let’s talk about the two big ones. 

First are the dogmatic assumptions about the two-party system. The nature of that system means that officeholders, officeseekers, lobbyists, donors, pundits, journalists and academics wind up asserting those options as an immutable law of nature. A prominent labor historian once insisted to me this to me the American party system is analogous to gravity determining planetary orbits. 

Around the time I started teaching, a poll among high school seniors reported that roughly half thought that a two-party system is in the U.S. Constitution. I don’t think that civics education has improved much since then. The paradox is that poll after poll today registers voter discontent with the two-party options.  

Media discusses independent campaigns not in terms of the ideas and arguments they might raise but on whether they will hurt or help Democrats or Republicans. That is, they may see such a move as damaging the other party, which they might favor, or as a cat’s paw for the other party. 

Historically, that certainly has happened. Counterfeiting Labor’s Voice offers a number of examples of this, starting with 1864 effort of some of the radical abolitionists to move Lincoln’s Republican administration to extend slave emancipation to the border states. Those who promulgated the movement were serious enough, but soon found themselves inundated with elements of Democrats who effectively took over, transforming it as a tool to reduce the Lincoln vote. And it closes by noting that similar efforts de-fanged the Populists. It can be a real issue, but people can do something about it. It’s not settled by a law of nature. 

Second, as Carsey’s career demonstrated, related myths afflict the understanding of independent campaigns. When I started school, we learned that third party ballots represented a protest vote that would eventually, if the fullness of time, shift one or the other of the major parties. Mass political movements change the national agenda, and independent campaigns that raise and promote those ideas help that process. However, major parties don’t really take up issues one-shot independent campaigns raise. 

Republicans can use the language of Libertarians about small government to encourage deregulation and privatization, but they employ it in service of an ever more centralized and less accountable executive. Some Democrats might talk about a “Green New Deal,” but disavow the essential economic and social reconstruction the Greens advocated. 

The hard realities are that there are reasons the major parties hadn’t taken up those issues on their own in the first place, and those considerations outweigh protest votes. For decades, sound information about the danger of climate change has not outweighed the the financial contributions of the fossil fuel industry to the officeholders and officeseekers. Although they used to need a certain level of engagement and enthusiasm, their reliance on mass media—and the concurrent importance of record-breaking fundraising among big donors—undercuts the old need to inspire unpaid volunteers going door-to-door to sell campaigns to voters. They don’t need to convince voters on issues or programs but persuading them as consumers and denounce them if they’re not buying. 

On the other hand, based on what they have done rather than what they have claimed, campaigns such as those of Cornell West, Jill Stein, Ralph Nader, and others have made no serious move to draw voters into an organization that will last beyond the election. It is a de facto repudiation of something essential to building a new party. Without building a party, the default strategy is the one-off protest vote. 

Experience and reflection—not academic histories—change minds about such myths, but I’m hopeful that Counterfeiting Labor’s Voice will inform and enrich the thinking among those who have already worked their way through it.  

Q: Which part of the publishing process did you find the most interesting?  

I enjoy most aspects of the publishing process, even the indexing, which a lot of authors don’t particularly like.  

Research has been especially fun. It was my great good fortune to have had a career that encouraged me to be curious when I saw the name of “William A. A. Carsey” popping up repeatedly and allowed me the wherewithal to pursue to identify mysteries, run down the sources that might have the information you need, and following the evidence until a pattern begins to take form.  

The process in the running as more interesting, is often more time-consuming and often the least fun. It’s not enough to discern patterns that are clear to you. You have to learn how to make it clear to others. Conveying a persuasive argument in writing is a challenge. I think everybody who does it wrestles with how they can improve their efforts in this regard.  

What takes even more time and patience, but certainly the most interesting, has been watching the impact of a book, what defines its importance over the long run. It is rare that any single book turns thinking around on any particular historical subject, though some have opened the door to different approaches. I was lucky enough to begin coming into my own as a historian at a point where the Civil War stirred a much more general interest and historians began to push back hard against the persistent mythologies of the “Lost Cause” of secession and slavery. I did my bit to contribute to what was really a generational achievement. 

My particular focus on the Trans-Mississippi emphasized the interdependence of slavery, Indian removal and the Manifest Destiny land grab along the Mexican border. I also managed to demonstrate the massive but largely neglected influence of spiritualism as fueling Northern resistance of slavery. And I worked on the cultural dimension of this new drive for freedom, evident in the importation and cultivation of bohemianism. 

And I worked to reconsider the relationship between antislavery and the working class movement, particularly for land reform—with which Carsey tinkered in his own grifter fashion. At the time few writers—Bernard Mandel comes to mind—saw abolition and free labor as anything but antagonistic. The antebellum labor spokesman who referred to slavery before insisting that “The cause of labor is one.” I think that when I started writing, the time was ripe for a healthy reexamination of this because, in the end, quite a number of historians began doing so. 

The writer, the subject, and the publish process all require patience.. 

Q: What is your advice to scholars/authors who want to take on a similar project? 

Each of us takes up the study of history inspired by a distinctive experience and combination of concerns. I confess to having always been very interested in politics, while, as an adult, having never been much of a fan of it. I became a serious student of the subject in the glowing promise of the 1960s, when a generation of New Left historians began challenging some of the foundational assumptions about American history. However, I began graduate work under the doublespeak of Richard Nixon’s America, and entered the job market during the blighting of history teaching under Ronald Reagan. And, against all the odds, I came into my own in the profession when one of its most famous members was Newt Gingrich. 

Through all this, fashions have come and gone in the field. I was definitively told as a graduate student that there would be no jobs—certainly no good ones—for anyone who didn’t use statistical methods. What’s marketable today may not be tomorrow. When I was circulating drafts of what became Race and Radicalism in the Union Army, one publisher advised me to write about race relations between whites and blacks or whites and Indians, but trying to discuss relations between the three would be confusing to readers and not be marketable enough.  

Follow your curiosity and learn to self-critically trust your own judgement. The goal is to produce solid scholarship. Trust that books find their readers, people who are looking for them. 

If anyone would be interested in a similar project, I’d congratulate them on the one hand, and warn them not to be distracted by what’s fashionable. 

We should be grateful for the obstacles we hit in our work. They make it easier for us to remember that we need to remain what we were in the beginning: a student of history. This is so whether you are teaching yourself in your research, your readers in your publications, or your students in the classroom. 

Much of the research for Counterfeiting Labor’s Voice came from digitized sources available online. We’re still at the stage in this digitalization of sources that you never know what you’re going to find. In poker, you don’t draw to an inside straight. Research is not poker. In research, we can draw to an inside straight repeatedly and simultaneously over a number of questions. A certain portion of them will pan out. 

We should trust our hunches, because there’s more understanding behind them than we tend to realize. Don’t hesitate to invest time in what might be a wild goose chase, because it might not be.  Be patient and let the sources take you where they will, though never beyond the reach of your critical faculties. 

Beyond the sources themselves, historians, like the media—or citizens generally—need to think more critically about their sources. Mass media creates the impression, if not the reality, of successive tsunamis that continually redefine what is and isn’t marketable. It’s true for us working on the past today and it was true, in one form or another, for the whatever we’re researching.  

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun? 

The information superhighway is littered with large piles of junk, but it’s remarkable where it can take us. I usually start a morning at the keyboard turning hopefully to news clips in the background. But I pretty quickly fill my quota of disgust with it.  

Most of the time, I am listening to—and half-watching—some of the remarkably good documentaries posted on You Tube. We are living through a time where the technology has generated a vast new enlightenment of our understanding. We now have machines capable of looking to the edge of the visible universe, and of processing genetic information that enable us to look deeply into our prehistory.  

Since I’ve retired, I have the time to take more frequent breaks. We have a menagerie of pets and a YMCA right around the corner. 

In the evening, I do watch a lot of mysteries on TV in the evening, though half the time I’m fiddling with the laptop scanning for new sources. 

As I finish some of these long projects, I plan to pull back from books in favor of short-term essay projects. I have also rarely read fiction that’s not related to a historical research project, partly because it tends to swallow my time so completely, but I have a backlog of novels I hope to get to soon.  

More generally, I’ve been fortunate enough rather late in life to discover the fun of overseas travel, and I hope to continue that.

Mark A. Lause is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Cincinnati. His many books include Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era and Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class.

About Kristina Stonehill