Two Nations, Revisited
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.