The state of American culture in the 21st Century is that there really is no unifying “mainstream” American culture. I put this down, of course, as if there ever really was a coherent and cohesive mainstream culture in America — or anywhere else, for that matter.
Any amount of study should reveal that there are usually recognizable cultural attributes to peoples and nations of the size and scope of the United States, promoted by the accepted civil institutions, with much more creativity going on beneath the accepted cultural surface in the form of an underground or alternative or folk culture. In the America that I am growing old in, however, it often appears as if there is hardly any cultural attributes that are shared by enough of us to pass for any kind of mainstream. The lesson being that Americans’ tendency toward conformity while striving for individuality leads to rampant judgementalism and some brutally warped judgement. There may be some crossover between lucrative and uniquely American cultural touchstones, like WWE, The Voice and various megachurch ministries, but have little desire to seek nor find the American that embodies their confluence — not deliberately, anyway.
There are essentially two things with which individual Americans express their values and principles: what we spend our money on and how we exercise our electoral franchise. As soon as kids my age were in high school, we found our tribes and divvied up mostly into freaks, jocks and nerds. Of course, there were jocks who smoked weed but they would kick your ass if you called them freaks. So, these tribal distinctions cut deeper than simple matters of taste. While pretty much everyone got into some kind of music or another, there was a general musical culture from radio to recordings to concerts; but there were Zeppelin freaks, Deadheads and the beginnings of punk and disco scenes. While pretty much everyone drove and aspired to own a car, there were Ford, Chevy or Dodge fans and, from there, you can branch out between jeeps, pickups or motorcycles.
At the 1992 Republican National Convention, the former Nixon speechwriter and professional right wing lunatic Pat Buchanan declared “a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.” Throughout its history, from the Know Nothings of the 19th century to QAnon right now, American culture has arguably run on internal tensions between inclusion and exclusion. You will nevertheless hear people suggest that “identity politics” is something that was invented in the 60s by “radical leftists” when it is simply a very old idea with a new name. In fact, in his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens proudly stated, “The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the [slavery] institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’ Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth….”
This seditious and perverted attitude would sustain, to one degree or another, a peculiar facet of American identity well into the 21st century and with bold expressions of superficial American patriotism — mostly just because they say so, draped it in the flag in no subtle fashion and our punditocracy sees, hears and reports back. The descendants of later immigrations and emancipated Freemen, freethinkers, so-called freaks and misfits, can never seem to catch a break and rise to the level of “real” Americans in their sight, so their stories don’t matter, their neighborhoods don’t deserve investment, their cultures can never be adopted by our wobbly mainstream (except for when the Blues had a baby and named it Rock and Roll) and their votes are casually dismissed as less than legal.
Perhaps the key to understanding the ongoing absurdity of 21st century American culture are those ubiquitous Christmastime car commercials on TV. If you actually buy cars for Christmas gifts, chances are better than even that you do not experience American life the way that most Americans do.