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America’s Depressing New Culture War

Tyler Cowen

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There is a new culture war in America, between the ordinary and the transcendent. And the ordinary is winning.

That was my thought upon seeing the list of the 50 largest-grossing recipients of funds through Patreon, which includes only those who agreed to share information about how much they have raised. Patreon, in case you don’t already know, is a membership platform that allows anyone to donate money to participating performers or institutions (recipients have to pay Patreon a percentage). It is the true democratization of philanthropy.

I am glad that Patreon exists, and I understand that a lot of its value comes from the smaller amounts it sends to less well-known creators outside the Top 50. Still, I wonder what this newly found freedom to give money away says about America’s values and priorities. 

The largest recipient of Patreon funds is the Chapo Trap House podcast, whose 31,000-plus donors send in more than $138,000 per month. This podcast is a leading voice of what one of its hosts has dubbed “the dirtbag left,” which Wikipedia calls “a style of left-wing politics that eschews civility-for-its-own-sake in favor of subversive, populist vulgarity.” Not my cup of tea, I thought, but OK; 49 more entries to go.

Alas, reassurance was not forthcoming. Eight of the top 50 are marked “NSFW” (not safe for work). Podcasts are the most common kind of project on the list, but too many are along the lines of the Timesuck podcast of Dan Cummins, which describes its subjects as “serial killers, historical events, enduring mysteries, paranormal encounters, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology and more — nothing is off limits if it’s interesting.”

I like the second item in the Top 50, namely Brandon Stanton, a well-known photographer who has created Humans of New York, a photoblog and bestselling book. For better or worse, Stanton’s work is not art photography of the classic sort, rather it focuses the attention of the viewer on the stories and narratives of his subjects. That is a common theme of most of the top entries: They are about “ordinary life.” They tend not to be representations of noble ambition, or of a classical or romantic vision of how human beings might achieve greatness.

Feel free to peruse the list yourself. My own browsing and clicking led me to a new conclusion: America’s culture war is not just left-wing vs. right-wing, or privileged vs. unfortunate, or even Trump vs. his critics. It is between those who believe in aspiring to something greater and those who do not.

There is a longstanding Western tradition, arguably starting with the ancient Greeks and running through Christianity and the Enlightenment, and it includes classical music, the U.S. Constitution and the scientific and technological revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. It reflects a vision of something greater and grander than everyday life.

That is, I concede, a very broad tradition. Yet I do not see it much reflected in the Patreon list, except for No. 8, the German animated science education videos Kurzgesagt, and a few other educational video sites (“True Crime Obsessed: Creating Podcasts of the Non-Garbage Variety” doesn’t quite do it for me). The ostensible cultural leader, at No. 4, is Amanda Palmer, a singer, songwriter and performer.

Just looking at the Patreon list, my uneasy conclusion is that, in the culture war between the mundane and the grand, the grand has already lost — and without the battle ever having come much into public view.

I suppose you could argue that the top Patreon winners don’t represent a major sea change in American culture. Perhaps philanthropy is moving toward greater market segmentation, with “old money” donors still financing ballet companies and museums while the larger public picks up the tab for otherwise unsupported creators on the fringes.

Maybe, but there is another possibility: that Patreon is the tip of an ever-growing iceberg. As today’s young become wealthier and more philanthropic, perhaps they will reject the traditional patterns of an earlier era. A recent survey of American values indicates that patriotism, belief in God and having children all rate much lower than they did 20 years ago. I suspect both classic high culture and America’s “popular version of high culture” (which is to say, jazz) are losing loyal support as well. In due time, these changes in values will probably be translated into changes in giving behavior.

Of course this list is just one data point, from a relatively small service (Patreon has about 3 million members and is expected to pay out $500 million in 2019). Still, we ignore internet trends at our peril. In its fascinating yet disturbing way, the internet gives us a fast-forward glance into our collective future.

(Updates second paragraph of article published Aug. 29 to clarify that only those who agreed to share funding information are included on the list of top 50 recipients.)

To contact the author of this story: Tyler Cowen at tcowen2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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