Skip to main content
Blog Post

Introduction to The Social Breakdown

The Social Breakdown

April 18, 2023

“Social capital” is an esoteric and often loosely defined concept, yet it captures a deep-seated intuition and shared sensibility among virtually all Americans: Our relationships have value, and what we do together matters.

Social capital derives from our participation in—and belonging to—society’s “middle layers.” These middle layers are the myriad institutions, associations, and communities between the individual and the state. And they range from our most fundamental units of social organization—families, communities, and churches—to our most tenuous, passing social connections—those found in local coffee shops, grocery stores, or barbershops. When we participate in, or belong to, these institutions, we feel deeply embedded in the American social fabric; we feel that our lives have meaning and that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.

Social capital relies on our trust in others. If we live in a society with high trust, then we can relax our guard, treat our fellow Americans as friends rather than foes, and build bridges to meaningful social connection. Trust in voluntary institutions—such as churches, community groups, and charitable organizations—enables us to tackle problems that extend beyond our individual lives. Moreover, when we can trust authoritative institutions—such as the government or public health authorities—we are better equipped to tackle large problems that require collective action.

Unfortunately, we live in an era when social capital is in decline nearly across the board.[1] Not only are American associations and community groups withering; so too are the relationships in our families, churches, and workplaces. Moreover, we trust our neighbors and governing bodies less than ever before. America is suffering from mutually reinforcing crises of social isolation, nonparticipation, and distrust. Because of the deterioration in social capital, as individuals, we are lonely, resentful, and without a sense of purpose; as a society, we are wholly unable to locate the common good.

While the story of social capital in America is generally one of decline, recent research[2] shows substantial variation[3] in social capital levels depending on where we live, how we were raised, whether we work, and how we worship. This series aims to build on this research, exploring the state of American associational life. The series will also offer some solutions that could improve the state of social capital among those most in need—clearing a path to pursue the American dream and foster meaningful social connections. It is long past time to worry over social deprivation and disparities instead of focusing only on the economic versions of these ills.

This series builds on a rich tradition at the American Enterprise Institute of concern with social capital and civil society. As far back as the 1970s, AEI organized the “Mediating Structures Project.” Led by scholars including Peter Berger, Douglas Besharov, Irving Kristol, Leslie Lenkowsky, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Nisbet, Michael Novak, William Schambra, and Robert Woodson, the project produced the landmark brief To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, which highlighted the importance of middle layers.[4] More recently, Charles Murray’s In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good[5] and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 and Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis[6] have explored the themes of social connection and the breakdown of civil society.

We hope the insights in this series generate renewed attention to the importance of social capital in Americans’ lives and revitalize what we do together.

  1. US Congress, Joint Economic Committee, What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America, May 15, 2017,
  2. Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012).
  3. US Congress, Joint Economic Committee, The Geography of Social Capital in America, April 11, 2018,; and Social Capital Atlas, website,
  4. For the original brief, a collection of reflections on it by social scientists 19 years later, and a response to those reflections by the original authors, see Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1996),
  5. Charles Murray, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
  6. Nicholas Eberstadt, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016).