America's Growing Cultural Divide and Its Implications

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The United States is unique among the world’s largest and wealthiest countries in that it emerged relatively recently on a sparsely populated continent.

It was founded primarily by self-made businessmen, rather than by aristocrats who had inherited their wealth. Those founders favored competition and freedom over privilege and certainty, and the country continued to attract immigrants who responded to those values.

So, while there were demographic differences within America’s population related to income, education, and other factors, there emerged “a common culture,” especially among the great mass of people who thought of themselves as middle class.


The idea of having almost everyone in the same social class, with few (if any) social barriers to upward or downward mobility, was uniquely American. This unique characteristic was noted in 1830 by Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of American democracy.1

As he stated, “The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to, they speak to them every day.”

The reason for the lack of barriers between economic classes that Tocqueville observed is that Americans have had shared values and experiences that transcended economic differences. Among these values are a respect for marriage, honesty, hard work, and religion.


But now, that is changing, replacing America’s “common culture” with a “cultural divide.”

This growing divide is not a matter of race or ethnicity, and can, in fact, be seen most clearly when the changes from 1960 to 2010 are studied within the non-Hispanic white population in the U.S.

In 1960, America had a tiny upper class, representing less than 1 percent of the white population, which could be termed “wealthy.” At the other end of the spectrum, nearly 20 percent of the white population was considered “poor” in 1960. That left almost 80 percent of the population firmly in the middle class — either as part of the “working class,” or of the traditional “upper middle class”

Beginning in the 1960s, changes began to show up in five metrics:

  1. Marriage
  2. Single Parenthood
  3. Industriousness
  4. Crime
  5. Religiosity

As Charles Murray documents in his new book, Coming Apart,2 before this change began, studies of the upper middle class and the working class revealed that they possessed a “cultural equality,” despite their “economic inequality...

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