Understanding America

Listening to the concerns and aspirations of the American people

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Overview

The Americans who become policymakers and pundits are, generally speaking, drawn from a remarkably narrow sliver of the national population. They tend to be academically gifted and career-oriented. Their lives tend to follow a particular script that takes them far from home, to selective colleges and then white-collar jobs in a small set of coastal cities. They get married to each other and have children on a schedule conducive to their professional goals.

None of these characteristics are necessarily bad ones—to the contrary, in many cases they are quite admirable, and ones useful to effective policymaking. The problem emerges when the people exercising political power all have the same characteristics and, in contact only with each other, come to assume that the people they serve must all be like that, too.

At American Compass, we work to understand the wide range of values that shape American lives and the ways those conflict with the assumptions that guide national policy debates. We develop tools to help policymakers better understand their constituents and the areas in which their policy agendas are falling short.

For instance, rather than generating the usual partisan fodder, our public opinion surveys explore Americans’ life circumstances and priorities. Our Home Building Survey examines the family structure and caregiving arrangements that Americans of different education and income levels prefer, while our Not What They Bargained For Survey examines the employment conditions of American workers and the labor-management relationships they desired. A two-part survey, Failure to Launch and Failing on Purpose studies the paths that young Americans take through the education system and the purposes they and their parents most want that system to fulfill.

We also publish a range of qualitative and quantitative analysis on the state of American politics and society. Our Party Foul collection features leading scholars from both the left and right critiquing the “deadly sins” of their own parties, while our Compass Point essay series includes discussion of issues like overreliance on experts. Each of the entries in our Atlas series provides a data-based view of some element of the American landscape, from economic growth to inequality to higher education.

We are especially proud to have published The Edgerton Essays, a collection of two dozen essays by working-class Americans answering in their own words the question, “What do you wish policymakers knew about the challenges facing their families and communities?” As the collection’s editor, Patrick T. Brown, wrote in its conclusion, “Political leaders, researchers, and commentators will all need to work harder if they want to understand the daily concerns of politically disconnected voters in the middle of the income distribution and develop an agenda that speaks to them.”

Start Here
8/19/2021
The Edgerton Essays

Perspectives from the Working Class

Featured Content

Browse all content in the Understanding America library

Conversations

J.D. Vance and Chris Arnade on Government Of, By, and For the Elite

10/13/2020

The authors of “Dignity” and “Hillbilly Elegy” reflect on Ruy Teixeira and Henry Olsen’s essays, describe the dynamics that lead to a politics disconnected from the economic and cultural mainstream, and identify possible glimmers of hope.

How the Decline of NASCAR Mirrors the Decline of American Communities

4/22/2022

American Compass’s Wells King joins Emily Jashinsky to discuss his American Conservative cover story on the decline of NASCAR.

Reaganism Live with Oren Cass and Kevin Roberts

1/26/2022

American Compass’s Oren Cass and the Heritage Foundation’s Kevin Roberts join the Reagan Institute for a conversation about the future of conservatism.

Adam Smith or Alexander Hamilton?

9/8/2021 Oren Cass

At ISI’s “The Future of American Political Economy” conference, American Compass’s Oren Cass discusses political economy and the American System’s lessons for today.

Research

Failure to Launch

6/9/2022

In the popular imagination, young Americans leave home to attend college, where they earn degrees that launch them into careers. The actual experience is radically different.

A Guide to Economic Inequality

4/27/2021

American inequality is higher now than at any time since WWII. The gap is wide and getting wider. Read what the data show and why it matters.

Home Building Survey Part I: State of the American Family

2/10/2021

Across all classes and regardless of parental status, 60 to 75% of Americans say that the government should do more to support families.

Essays

With All Due Respect to the Experts

5/20/2022 Oliver Traldi

We need and value expertise, yet our public square tends to amplify precisely those least worthy of our trust. How should we decide who counts as an expert, what topics their expertise properly addresses, and which claims deserve deference?

The Decline and Fall of NASCAR

4/20/2022 Wells King

America’s most Southern sport has betrayed its own fan base, writes American Compass’s Wells King in this cover story.

The Snowflakes Aren’t Melting

10/22/2021 Michael Brendan Dougherty

Most so-called snowflakes accumulate not in society’s quiet valleys where we might expect to find gentler souls genuinely struggling to cope with conflict, but rather atop the peaks of elite institutions to which our most aggressive strivers have clawed their way.

The Government Should Keep Its Hands Off Your Medicare

10/15/2021 Michael Lind

The path to a more secure and generous American welfare state lies not in rejecting the work ethic and the distinction it makes between contributory social insurance and non-contributory social assistance, but rather in embracing it.

The Five Deadly Sins of the Left

10/13/2020 Ruy Teixeira

Identity Politics. Retro-Socialism. Catastrophism. Growthphobia. Technopessimism.

The Three Deadly Sins of the Right

10/13/2020 Henry Olsen

Market Fundamentalism. Snobbery. Hubris.

Commentary

Washington Is Showing How Much It Really Cares About Blue Collar Families (Not Much)

11/14/2021 Chris Griswold

American Compass policy director Chris Griswold discusses the “blue-collar blueprint” for infrastructure and how DC politicos fail to listen to their actual blue-collar voters.

Statistical Gnosticism on the Right

4/21/2021 Oren Cass

Some right-of-center analysts have absolute conviction that basic statistics describing some of America’s challenges are obviously wrong

A Letter to My Boomer Parents

2/12/2021 Micah Meadowcroft

I’m writing this as a letter because we’ve often had this conversation aloud, but this lets you return to it at your leisure. Nothing that I say here will be new to you, but I’m writing this so that others can read it, too. Because there’s something to the intergenerational warfare narrative of our moment, it is fitting to frame these issues as a grown child’s reflection on the status of his parents.

Don’t Kid Yourself About What Elections Reveal About America

11/9/2020 Oren Cass

American Compass’s Oren Cass argues that elections tell us simply who will govern us, not who we are, and it is critical to understand our fellow Americans who voted differently.

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