Understanding America

Listening to the concerns and aspirations of the American people

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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
The Edgerton Essays

Perspectives from the Working Class

Compass Advisors
Amber Lapp

Institute for Family Studies

David Lapp

Braver Angels

Henry Olsen

Ethics and Public Policy Center

Ruy Teixeira

American Enterprise Institute


Featured Content

Browse all content in the Understanding America library


Talkin’ (Policy) Shop: The American Appetite for Government


On this episode, Oren and Chris dive into our latest survey results on American attitudes toward the role and scope of government.

Talkin’ (Policy) Shop: GOP Voters and the Realignment


On this episode, Oren and Chris discuss the results of our new poll of GOP primary voters, which shows an economic realignment is well underway.

How the Decline of NASCAR Mirrors the Decline of American Communities


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


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.

Government Of, By, and For the Elite


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.


The American Appetite for Government


Even among Republicans, few can identify major areas where they’d like government to do less

How the Biden White House Cornered Itself


The president’s polarizing policies are ones that divide Democrats and the upper class from everyone else

Issues 2024: Wall Street


For the American economy to boom again, financial markets will have to return to their proper role promoting productive investment.

Issues 2024: Industrial Policy


A strong industrial base is vital to workers and their communities, the rate of technological and economic progress, and national security.

Issues 2024: Worker Power


For 50 years, businesses have been finding ways to succeed while offering fewer secure jobs to American workers, leading to surging growth and profits while wages stagnated.

Issues 2024: Middle-Class Security

10/11/2023 Research

Stagnating wages have prevented workers from keeping up with the costs of attaining middle-class security in America.


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.


How Republicans learnt to love bigger government

3/26/2024 Oren Cass

The era of “the era of big government is over” may itself now be over, writes Oren Cass in the Financial Times.

Remarks on Family Affordability at AEI

6/22/2023 Oren Cass

Oren Cass discusses the Cost-of-Thriving Index and the affordability of middle-class life in America at the American Enterprise Institute.

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.