On the Death of a Common American Culture
The meaning of cultural fragmentation and political centralization
In the comments to my piece on developments in music, zinjanthropus writes:
I think popularity and influence are really hard to measure in the streaming age. According to this the top selling album of 2021 was Drake's Certified Lover Boy — 613,000 units. Which, for someone who came of age in the 80s, is minuscule — Thriller sold 25 million copies in 1983. But if you look at how the 613,000 number was derived, it appears that it's mostly based on some very large number of streams — most of which are not paid for — equating to one “sale.” I have an Apple Music subscription, meaning I pay a flat fee every month but can download and listen to as much music as I want. Is there a reasonable way to derive sales from what I and millions of people like me do? I'm not sure, but the music business has to try.
This is an important point. I was imagining contemporary superstars who had a cultural influence on par with that of Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys at the turn of the century. But a lot of young people are probably just as unfamiliar with some of the top artists of today as I am. Here is the number of sales of the top selling album each year between 1991 and 2022. The trend is clearly downward, even if you account for streaming.
That certainly looks like a more fragmented culture, a result we can see elsewhere. In television, it looks like the same story. For 1952-1953, the top show was I Love Lucy, which had a Nielsen share of 67.3, which means that more than two out of three households with a TV on tuned in. Throughout the 1950s, the top-rated show of the year would regularly get a share over 40 or 50. Now, the top-rated shows are in the 10-12 range, and this includes DVR recordings.
There is a kind of synergy between the fragmentation of TV and that of music. The boy band craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s was driven by music videos, particularly as seen on the MTV show Total Request Live. Today, you either hear of things through word of mouth, or go to YouTube and let the algorithm take you wherever it might.
What about movies though? Here is how much the biggest box office film in the country made in each year from 1977-2022, adjusted for inflation.
Maybe we should be adjusting for population size? It seems like we should, but nothing really changes.
More interesting than any trend in the chart above is of course the often remarked upon decline of original hits. The highest grossing films in adjusted per person dollars have been Star Wars (1977), ET (1982), and Titanic (1997), but the 2010s have been dominated by remakes and spin-offs.
While we can’t show cultural fragmentation in movies as easily as we can with regards to TV and music, something feels different about a culture where the major hits are telling the same stories over and over again.
Why would film be different from music and TV? One might suspect that you simply have a lot more options now with the latter. The number of scripted TV series across all platforms jumped from 182 in 2002 to 559 in 2021. This doesn’t even count the rise in reality television, a genre that practically didn’t exist until the 1990s.
Obviously, music is now easier to record and distribute too. But why wouldn’t what we see with TV also apply to films? Looks like there are indeed also more options in this area of life.
Maybe looking at the top grossing film each year isn’t the best methodology for seeing how fragmented cinema has become, especially when the biggest hits tend to be well known brands, therefore contributing little that is new to the culture. If there were in 2019 more than twice as many movies released as in 2000, unless people are watching at least twice as many films, by simple algebra the world of cinema must be more fragmented. Since 1980, if you ignore the post-covid era, the number of movie tickets sold hasn’t changed much when you consider the increase in population. Streaming may have made up a bit for this, but I doubt that it has enough to mean that people are watching that many more original movies, particularly when we consider that they can stream old films at home as much as they can new ones.
I think that a lot of people find cultural fragmentation disorienting. We evolved in small tribes, where everyone probably gossiped about the same things and had a shared frame of reference. Modern society through most of the twentieth century did a relatively good job of simulating something similar. A world where everyone has the same three broadcast channels sort of feels like the lived reality of a hunter-gatherer tribe or small village, while a world of cable-plus plans with hundreds of stations you’ll never check out on top of a dozen streaming services seems like something new.
At the same time, while the wider culture has fragmented, we are witnessing a great centralization in news and politics. Today, Republicans and Democrats increasingly look alike wherever you go. Red States ban trans care for minors, and Blue States bankrupt themselves with public sector pensions and remove all restrictions on abortion. Every political science measure shows increasing ideological sorting across parties, and this is true whether you look at the attitudes of voters or the behavior of politicians.
Meanwhile, the number of daily newspapers in the country declined from 1,748 in 1970 to 1,279 in 2018. This is as total subscribers to The New York Times and The Washington Post have exploded throughout the internet era. The number of Americans who say they pay close attention to national political news shot up from 27% in 1996 to 43% in 2008 and has stayed around that number for election years ever since.
Under such circumstances, partisan divisions aren’t that difficult to explain. If you don’t like what’s on TV or a certain kind of music, you have other options. But if you happen to not like the president and what he’s doing, you can’t just create an alternative reality with your own president, setting aside the QAnon types.
But that doesn’t explain why you can’t simply check out anymore, which people in previous generations were more apt to do. I suspect that politics is filling the void left by the fragmentation of popular entertainment. People need something to talk about over the proverbial water cooler, or whatever the modern equivalent is, and if it’s not the latest episode of Seinfeld or Friends it might as well be Trump’s antics. It’s sort of like how the first thing aliens say when they land on earth is “Take me to your leader.” The political head of state serves as a Schelling Point that facilitates communication between (figurative or literal) alien tribes. They don’t say “Take me to your New York Times building” because they don’t know whether newspapers are important in our world, and if they are, whether one in particular has an outsized influence. But they assume that we do have a political leader and they should probably talk to him, even though it’s possible that the newspapers might be more influential.
I think that a lot of the bitterness of our politics reflects the end of the shared wider culture. Populism, wokeness, etc. are ways to try to unify around something new, but they only make things worse, because the fundamental reason behind our divisions is that people have different values, prejudices, and tribal loyalties, and this was to a large extent inevitable with increasing wealth and technological progress. If Americans can’t have a common culture that encompasses the whole country, they can at least identify with a slice of it and bond with those who think most similarly over how evil and stupid the other side is.
It’s an evolutionarily unnatural state to live with people you fundamentally don’t understand in the same imagined community. Nativists like to blame immigrants for this, and they’re really missing the point, as they often do on most things, since the division between the Red and Blue tribes is a much greater source of bitterness than newcomers are. Restrictionists talk about how they want to stop immigration to preserve cultural unity, but are unable to see the irony in the fact that whenever they advocate for their issue they only make half of their fellow citizens hate them more and further inflame societal divisions. Absent something no one should hope for like an economic collapse or a world war, and probably not even then, your future is going to be spent in a sea of people with strange tongues, customs, and values, and no border policy is going to change that.
The common culture is dead, but it wasn’t killed by nefarious elites or anyone else one wants to scapegoat. It’s the end result of increasing freedom, wealth, and technological progress. Some people might therefore feel a sense of alienation, but we should try to alleviate their suffering by encouraging them to find ways to cope rather than creating unrealistic hopes that we’ll ever return to a pre-internet world with three broadcast TV channels, a default American ethnicity, or Carson Daly officially announcing to teenage girls at a set time each day which boy band they’re now supposed to swoon over. To the extent that we can find our way towards a less divisive politics, it will have to be focused on bringing the same decentralization we have achieved in culture to government, letting communities and institutions go their own ways.
Richard Hanania's Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.