Two Nations, Revisited

Mary Eberstadt

Summer 2018

Almost two decades before J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, and 15 years before Charles Murray's Coming Apart, James Q. Wilson, one of the most eminent social scientists of the 20th century, identified the root of America's fracturing in the dissolution of the family. Wilson, professor of government at Harvard, professor emeritus at UCLA, and a former head of the American Political Science Association, received the American Enterprise Institute's 1997 Francis Boyer Award at the think tank's annual dinner. He used the opportunity to introduce a new line of sociological argument: what he called "the two nations" of America.

The image of "two nations," Wilson explained, harked back to an 1845 novel by Benjamin Disraeli, the future prime minister of Great Britain. These were the separate, non-intersecting worlds of rich and poor. Between these two nations Disraeli described, there was "no intercourse and no sympathy" — they were "as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were...inhabitants of different planets."

More than a century and a half later, Wilson argued, the United States had also become "two nations," but the dividing line was no longer one of income or social class. Instead, it had become all about the family — specifically, whether one hailed from a broken or intact home. "It is not money," he observed, "but the family that is the foundation of public life. As it has become weaker, every structure built upon that foundation has become weaker."

Wilson called attention to what he saw as a national catastrophe in the making: the creation of generations of young men unhabituated to responsibility and protecting others. A quintessential embodiment of the neoconservatism of the time, his argument harnessed decades of the kind of social science that had been channeled into the pages of The Public Interest and related venues. His speech was also, of course, part of the continuing commentary on the problems famously (and infamously) identified in 1965, in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report on The Negro Family. By 1997, as Wilson explained, family breakdown in America was no longer a phenomenon of the ghetto, but a fact of everyday life for more and more of the country.

Wilson pointed above all to the library that social science had been building for decades, filled with books and studies about the correlations between family particulars and behavioral probabilities. Family structure, he demonstrated, had become more important to positive outcomes than race, income, or one's station at birth:

Children in one-parent families, compared to those in two-parent ones, are twice as likely to drop out of school. Boys in one-parent families are much more likely than those in two-parent ones to be both out of school and out of work. Girls in one-parent families are twice as likely as those in two-parent ones to have an out-of-wedlock birth. These differences are not explained by income....children raised in single-parent homes [are] more likely to be suspended from school, to have emotional problems, and to behave badly.

The research was overwhelming, all of it proving the point that a stable family has come to trump material assets as the main currency of these two new nations. So much of this social-science evidence now exists, Wilson joked, that "even some sociologists believe it."

The comment was made in jest, but it presaged our current puzzling situation. Twenty years ago, evidence from all over the social sciences already indicated that the sexual revolution was leaving a legacy of destruction. Two decades, and many more books and scholars and research studies later, a whole new wing has been added to that same library Wilson drew from, all demonstrating the same point he emphasized throughout his speech: The new wealth in America is familial wealth, and the new poverty, familial poverty.

Twenty years later, it is past time to ask: What has been the effect of all this social science? Has it helped to make two nations into one again? Has it ameliorated the problems that Wilson and other bold thinkers have been elucidating since the 1960s?

The answer to all three questions is no. To acknowledge this reality isn't to fault sociology itself, let alone the theoreticians dedicated to pursuing such unwelcome truths. On the contrary, their work, like Wilson's, remains vital. The monks of the Dark Ages toiled to preserve truths for the sake of truth, keeping faith that the time might come when the record would be better understood. The brave academics today who keep adding to that library of familial social science share more than a little in common with the truth-keepers of times past.

To reflect on Wilson's two nations from this moment in time is to understand that the sexual revolution remains apparently immune to his library of social-science fact. This is all the more reason to bring new lenses to understanding the continuing, largely unseen, transformative power of the revolution — including those transformations that could not possibly have been foreseen 20 years ago, by even the most towering of diagnosticians.


We live in a moment of fantastic paradox. For the past 50 years, religious traditionalists, especially though not exclusively faithful Catholics, have been variously disparaged, vilified, and mocked, mainly on account of one historical artifact: the age-old teaching shared by Judaism and Christianity to be fruitful and multiply, a command that has translated over the centuries into attitudes toward birth control ranging from wariness to prohibition. During those same 50 years, widespread defection from that teaching has scattered the flock like no other single force of division. As voices from the secular realm often taunt, the majority of American Catholics do not observe the proscription in their own lives, and most Protestants remain similarly indifferent. Meanwhile, secular people, for their part, find contraception to be not only permissible, but more and more a technology that they cannot live without — to many, it is now a human "right." For large numbers of the faithful, and to just about every person outside the religious ranks, contraception is not even a moral question, but a must-have as talismanic as the Ring is to Frodo, Gollum, and the rest of Tolkien's crew.

Which is exactly why it's correct, again, to examine the fantastic paradox before us. For even as fealty to that talisman has increased across Western societies especially, the same 50 years have offered proof after proof that the sexual revolution inaugurated by widespread adoption of the Pill has included terrible consequences. Some of that evidence can be found in places like Wilson's "two nations" speech, as well as throughout his other work. It has also been analyzed in magazines and journals stretching back to the 1960s; in the books of writers like Midge Decter, George Gilder, and other intellectual pioneers; and in the ongoing research of contemporary sociologists like W. Bradford Wilcox and Mark Regnerus. (Several years ago, I worked similar ground in my own book, Adam and Eve after the Pill, studying many examples of the paradoxical and mostly unseen fallout of the revolution.) These and other entries in the modern library take what might be called a "microscopic" lens to the transformations wrought by sexuality unbound.

Yet these are not the only demonstrations that religious traditionalism may have gotten something right that most of the rest of the world keeps getting wrong. There are also what might be called "macroscopic" proofs — new evidence that the revolution not only continues to disfigure individual lives, but is also widening its effects into society and politics in ways that now amount to signature problems of our times.

We can begin with one example that no one saw coming, and that's dominated and transformed conversation both public and private since the end of 2017: revelations of widespread sexual harassment and the ensuing "#MeToo" movement. The initial reports about depravity in Hollywood have somehow become the fulcrum for many related revelations of sexual predation and sexual harassment in one high-profile industry after another. For understandable reasons, much of the focus has been on individual tales.

But the most salient point to be made about these scandals hasn't made the rounds as yet. It's not about one particular man or another newly fallen from worldly grace. It's rather about what, exactly, has made these multidimensional scandals possible in the first place. Men behaving badly, as some skeptics have shrugged, isn't exactly news. But a great many men taking for granted the sexual availability of any given woman, in one arena after another — that is new. That is something that only the Pill and related technologies could have made possible.

Only in a world where sex is allegedly free of consequences would any man dare to proposition women on the spot, over and over, as appears to have been the case among the repeat offenders accused in the harassment revelations of the past two years. Put differently: No Pill, no sexual-harassment scandals on the scale seen today.

The revolution also appears connected to today's scandals in another, more subtle way. The shrinkage of the family brought on by contraception has deprived many men of sisters and daughters. It has deprived many women of brothers and sons. And, of course, divorce and cohabitation have also deprived boys and girls of biological parents, particularly fathers.

And what might be the net effect of all that loss? At a numerical minimum, it's a world in which the sexes know less about one another than they used to — in which many women no longer know any men as protectors, but only as predators. It's a world in which many men who lack sisters, cousins, and the rest know women mainly through the lies absorbed in watching pornography.

Reading some of the grislier details of the ongoing scandals, many have been asking themselves: What's wrong with these guys? Don't they have mothers, sisters, and other women to protect? How could they act this way, if that were the case? The answer may well be in part that, after the sexual revolution, many men don't have much familial experience of the opposite sex — and many women don't, either.

Just as formative, we also live at a moment when more and more people have no experience of organized religion. As the Pew Research Center and other sources have been documenting for years, rising numbers of Americans, especially under the age of 40, are falling away from religious practice and religious literacy. This trend has far-reaching implications for society, of course — as the work of Arthur Brooks has shown, one is that charitable giving will likely decline — but it also has fallout we haven't yet begun to map. Secularization means that many people no longer experience the opposite sex as those with a religious background are instructed to do — as figurative sisters and brothers, united in fellowship. Once more, people have been deprived of a familial, non-sexual knowledge of the opposite sex, and another healthy bond between the sexes has been frayed.

Again, behold the irony: The revolution has made sex itself more ubiquitous than ever before. But it has also estranged men and women as never before, both by shrinking the family and by increasing the mistrust between men and women thanks to widespread sexual consumerism. That includes not only dating apps like Tinder, but also the consumption of pornography, which spreads false accounts of relations between the sexes that are poisoning romance on a macrocosmic scale. To offer just one indicator that also would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, internet pornography use is now a major factor cited in divorces.

Pornography's lies not only make the rounds — they are believed, and they affect personal behavior. When television host Charlie Rose fell from grace following multiple accusations of what just about any woman would call predatory conduct, he said in a statement that "I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings." Awful though his conduct allegedly was, those words bear the mark of authenticity. It seems safe to bet that many modern men, especially those without religious attachments, believe similarly in the untruths that have been spreading across the human race for half a century now — beginning with the untruth that both sexes take the same view of supposedly consequence-free recreational sex. To observe the potency of this lie isn't to exonerate offenders; it is merely to acknowledge one more engine of the mass confusion that now plagues interactions between the sexes.

To employ an image, think of sculptor Frederick Hart's magnificent and often-photographed work Ex Nihilo, on the front of the Washington National Cathedral. It depicts beautiful human bodies emerging from chaos as God creates the world. Post-revolution, romance for many seems the opposite of what Hart so famously rendered. Today, beautiful human beings do not so much arise from chaos fully formed, but instead plummet into it like Dante's Paolo and Francesca — endlessly circling and never really touching.


Consider another area in which post-revolutionary sexual habits are having profound and pernicious effects that could not have been seen 20 years ago: politics. Here I would like to focus on three particular ways in which the revolution now shapes, indeed disfigures, today's political order.

The first of these concerns the modern welfare state as we know it, and its sustainability in the coming decades. It doesn't take an economist to see that welfare schemes premised on family sizes of yesteryear cannot be sustained by demographic shrinkage.

It also doesn't take a Ph.D. to grasp that the fractured family is a major engine of the increased welfare state. Why? Because overall, the state is the financial backer that makes single motherhood — and absent fatherhood — possible. In effect, the state has become the angel investor of family dysfunction. The fracturing of the family has rendered the modern state a flush but controlling super-daddy. The state moves in to pick up the pieces of the shattered family — but, by bankrolling it, the custodial government ensures more of the same.

Economists are fond of saying that if we want more of something, we should subsidize it. And, though it's been done with the best of intentions, that is exactly what the welfare state has been doing across the free societies of the West: subsidizing family breakdown.

This dynamic has profound political implications, including for those people who regard themselves as conservatives and constitutionalists first. Unless and until there is a familial and religious revival, arguments on behalf of limited government are futile. Over 40% of children born in the United States today are born to unmarried parents. Twenty years ago, that number was around one-third. Absent meaningful backlash against the revolution via some form of moral or religious renaissance, the state will continue to play the role of super-daddy.

Put differently: No rollback of the sexual revolution, no rollback of the federal government.

A second way in which the revolution has transformed politics is even less understood than the revolution's connection to the omnipotent State, and arguably just as consequential. That's the symbiotic bond between the diminution of the family and the rise of identity politics.

Sexual identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, and the rest of the now-familiar pack have become the driving force of progressive politics — so much so that imagining today's progressivism without these group identities is an exercise in futility. Identity politics is behind many of the most incendiary clashes of our time. Campuses have become "safe spaces" in which the assertion of group identity now routinely trumps free speech. Language is policed down to the pronoun for transgressions offensive to one or another aggrieved tribe. Halloween costumes and other trivia that run afoul of "cultural appropriation" can exact costs in social opprobrium, social-media flaming, and even employment.

How did this way of doing "politics," which was only in its infancy 20 years ago, ever ascend to today's heights? To study the timeline is to see that identity politics in America has grown exactly in tandem with the spread of the sexual revolution — and for good, if pitiful, reason. Western human beings today, like human beings everywhere, are desperate to know who they are, to whom they belong, where they have a place in the world. But today, the old ways of knowing all these desiderata — that is, by reference to the family and extended family — no longer exist for many people, and are growing weaker for many more.

Why is this happening? Because our organic connections to one another have been sundered as never before, outside wartime or natural catastrophe. Today's clamor over identity — the authentic scream of so many for answers to questions about where they belong in the world — did not spring from nowhere. It is a squalling creature of our time, born of familial liquidation. Political identitarianism is a bastard child of the birth-control pill.

A third way in which the revolution is having macrocosmic political effects is more prosaic, though no less compelling for its obviousness. Even more than two decades ago, evidence today abounds that, whether of their own accord or that of others, a great many people out there are suffering. Something about the way we live now is manifestly making many fellow human beings miserable.

The presidential election of 2016 was widely held to be one of the most rancorous in history — a signal new low for our politics. But it surely reflected even greater social discontent roiling underneath the surface. From the United States to Western Europe and beyond, many in the world's most advanced societies are feeling angry, ignored, and disenfranchised. And today, even more than in 1997, it seems an incontestable truth that politics alone won't heal their wounds.

Most visibly in the United States, millions are looking to government and to their political-cultural tribes to replace what they have lost — connections to family and transcendent communities. Vital books about rural America and the opioid epidemic, like Vance's Hillbilly Elegy or Sam Quinones's Dreamland, wrestle some of this pain into prose. Even so, beneath visible crises like unemployment in the Rust Belt and the opioid explosion, the fault line remains the one identified by Wilson: the family, as the manifold dysfunctions in the pages of both books go to show.

Globalization is part of this same crisis, of course. So is the immediacy of the internet, which shows the have-nots what the haves enjoy up close and more personal than ever before, and also provides the angry and discontented with a power never available until now. Even so, what most ails great swaths of the country today is something more fundamental than income disparity or a Gini coefficient, and more natural than any digital act of bonding.

Anthropological evidence from every culture and era verifies that human beings by their nature live in families — just as coyotes and elephants and many other mammals live in families rather than in random collections of individuals of the same species. The same evidence shows that human beings across history have been pulled into transcendent communities of some kind. Both are elemental human demands. And since the revolution, a great many people can no longer figure out how to supply them.


Given this current state of dysfunction, the inevitable question arises: What is to be done?

Wilson's proposed answer was meliorative — and essentially, political. He advocated early, extensive, and expensive intervention for the youngest children at risk, based on the fact that social science had also shown those early years to be critical. Of course, nothing like that experiment has been run, at least not as ambitiously as he envisioned it.

On the other hand, with 20 more years' experience, observers today would cast a colder eye on the possibility of relief from government action. Though some of the riptides of 2018 are obviously political — like arguments over immigration, tax reform, and the Supreme Court — others, like those already discussed, spring from a more primordial place. Politics per se cannot account for the passion now attached to identitarianism, nor to the despair incarnate in today's rates of substance addiction, nor to the related fact that psychiatrists and psychologists have been reporting for many years that mental-health trouble is on the rise, especially among women and the young. Politics did not create these problems. The sexual revolution did. That's why politics alone will not solve them, either.

The case for hope lies elsewhere, and it begins, paradoxically, in the very debasement in which we find ourselves. There is something unnatural and inhuman about the way many human beings now pass their days. The same has also been true during other eras in history — often when society was on the verge of great renewal and reform movements.

The gin alleys of London gave rise to Victorian moral renewal. The rough mayhem of an earlier America spawned a Great Awakening that continues to echo through the sturdier corridors of American Protestantism. Earlier waves of American drug addiction — cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, even nicotine — are no longer focuses of great public concern because the crises passed. As Wilson noted that evening 20 years ago, explaining his own optimism despite his unflinching analysis, "America has been told that it would be destroyed by slavery, alcohol, subversion, immigration, civil war, economic collapse, and atom bombs, and it has survived them all."

If the examples of history offer one kind of ground for hope, up-to-the-minute reality holds out another. The recent sexual-harassment scandals, by their very inescapability, have made it harder for many people to continue denying the pernicious effects of the revolution itself. Up until now, to question any aspect of the fallout around us has been to consign oneself to the public dunce chair — the one that sits in the religious corner, where secular people expect to see zealots wearing medieval hoods.

Since the scandals have come to light, it's a little harder to caricature the suggestion that putting a few limits on sex might be an idea worth revisiting. In November 2017, after the scandals had been rolling out for weeks, the Washington Post published a piece that would have been unthinkable in that secular standard-bearer pre-Harvey Weinstein. "Let's Rethink Sex," by columnist Christine Emba, criticized what she called "America's prevailing and problematic sexual ethic — one that is in no small part responsible for getting us into this sexual misconduct mess in the first place." This is surely only one example of more revisionism to come, and from outside religious orbits. Put differently, Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, and the rest may yet succeed in doing what generations of clergy have not: getting a new hearing for religious traditionalism.

Whatever else it has wrought, the revolution has divided and scattered ineradicably familial beings — human beings — like no other force in our time. Twenty years after Wilson's "two nations" speech, there is more evidence than ever for the charge. There's a reason why "loneliness studies" are now the hottest academic stock in sociology. There's a reason why "happiness studies" document over and over what most people could have asserted without embarrassment the day before yesterday — that people who live in families and practice religion tend to be happier and more productive than those who don't.

Occam's razor bends toward truth. Traditionalists and other contrarians have been right to argue that the revolution would lead to rising trouble between the sexes and a decline in respect for women — just as James Q. Wilson remains right that family, and lack of family, have replaced money itself as the nation's most accurate measures of real wealth and poverty. Future decades will show whether the secular sex scandals of 2017 and 2018 amount to a passing drama soon to be replaced by some other, or an actual turning point in secular society's understanding of the sexual revolution. But the empirical record remains even clearer now than it was 20 years ago — and it will still be clear 20, or for that matter 200, years from now, whether generations mired in denial acknowledge as much or not.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author most recently of It’s Dangerous to Believe. This essay is adapted from a speech given in Washington, D.C., to Legatus, a Catholic business association, on November 29, 2017.


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