Attending the Tea Party, an archive by A.J. Bauer
Introducing an Archive, or Towards Conversation As Method:
This archive began with a conversation. On Wednesday, April 14, 2010 — at 2:30 a.m. to be exact — I arrived at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to catch a red-eye bus to Boston. The Tea Party Express and Sarah Palin were due to perform on Boston Common eight hours later, but as I approached the bus queue I realized that the spectacle had already begun. Against a tile wall, next to an American flag carefully wrapped around a dowel, sat Fred. White and middle aged with an ex-military build, Fred’s eyes were shielded from the terminal’s fluorescent lights by the American-flag embroidered brim of a black baseball cap, which was also emblazoned on the crown with a bald eagle. I watched as he pulled a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution from his New England Patriots windbreaker and began intently, silently, to read the Preamble.
At first I was hesitant to approach Fred, given the hour, the location and my intention to rest. But someone that conspicuous practically demands a conversation. “Are you headed to the rally too?” I asked. He rose to his feet with a frenetic motion that matched the pace of his speech as he recounted an abridged version of his life story and his ongoing pilgrimage, following the Tea Party Express from Cleveland, to Buffalo, to Boston (via New York), to D.C. I told him I’d not yet attended a rally. Fred’s eyes sparkled as he told of the rallies’ inspirational speeches, of their sentimental music and of the sense of camaraderie, how they filled his heart with such patriotism. He bristled at allegations that the movement harbored racist motives, lamented the stagnant economy. As the conversation waned, Fred and I each boarded the bus and settled into our seats to catnap as best we could. The bus soon grew silent, but for the steady churn of the engine and Fred’s sporadic, almost compulsive chanting of “Ale-Alejandro, Ale-Alejandro ... Fernando.”
The contents of this archive, 21 interviews and nearly 300 photographs, are souvenirs of a scholarly road trip on which I embarked during the late spring and summer of 2010 — a little more than two months of ethnographic field research, of interacting with, documenting and interviewing Tea Party participants in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. Tea Partiers aren’t humming Lady Gaga lyrics in op-eds, and many are performing their Tea Party identities and ideologies when the news cameras aren’t watching. My research objective was to construct an account of the Tea Party quotidian, to explore the ways in which the Tea Party movement is lived and understood by its participants at the grassroots. Such a project required, above all, the development of rapport, the patient construction of shared meaning, the mutual exchange of ideas — in short, it required near constant conversation.
The resulting archive yields many insights into the Tea Party movement’s relationship to the historical present, but it is important to note that this archive’s very existence demonstrates the viability of and need for a robust politics of conversation.
If this collection of more-or-less raw data is to serve as a resource for scholars of the Tea Party movement, I also intend it to serve as an intellectual call to arms. In the spirit of Studs Terkel, and harkening Andrew Ross’ call for “scholarly reporting,” this archive advocates for conversation as a methodological tool in socio-cultural studies and critique. Anti-intellectualism and ahistoricism, hallmarks of the popular political culture in which the Tea Party has thrived, prosper when the gap between scholar and non-scholar yawns — when shared meaning between the two is neglected amidst political positioning. Insofar as conversation is the art of constructing shared meaning, it is a method that facilitates nuance in understanding and, thus, sharpens critique. Perhaps more importantly, it roots intellectuals in the global society we serve. The historical moment demands that scholars converse popularly, especially with those who understand scholarship the least and who so often double as those whom scholarship least understands.
About the Contributor:
A.J. Bauer is a doctoral student in the American Studies program of the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University. A former editor of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, Bauer worked as a reporter of politics, business and culture in Texas and Massachusetts before returning to his studies in 2009. His journalistic work has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Texas Observer, The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.), and The Boston Globe (South Edition). He can be reached at BauerArchive@gmail.com.
First, I must express my sincerest appreciation to Matthew Frye Jacobson for his extreme generosity in welcoming my participation in this visionary and vital archive. Thanks, too, to Nikhil Pal Singh for introducing us, to Alison Kanosky for lending her Web design skills and to Elizabeth Mesok and Thulani Davis for their insightful edits and invaluable conversation.
Special thanks to my mother Mary Ann Baker and her husband Bruce, not only for their immeasurable support and inspiration over the years, but for providing me with shelter, nourishment and transportation while I was conducting the Texas leg of my research. Special thanks, too, to my lifelong friend Mike McCullagh and his wife Julie (and, of course, their mischievous, if endearing, dog Daphne!) for housing me and keeping me company while I researched in greater Boston.
Finally, I would like to personally thank each and every one of my Tea Party informants for generously allowing me access to their lives, and in many cases their homes. This archive would not exist without their courageous willingness to trust a stranger. I thank them for their trust and for the invaluable conversations it enabled.