The American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution just released Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security, a report on how to reduce poverty and inequality in America. I was one of fifteen experts on the working group that drafted the report. Our recommendations deserve serious attention. We trust that they will motivate a new assault on America’s leading social problems. Equally significant, however, is the fact that we were able to agree upon this report. How did a diverse group of experts — who normally disagree — manage to do this? The answers suggest why our political leaders fail to do the same — and how they might do better. Several factors were important:

Values. The project was first conceived by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist interested in the moral basis of agreement and disagreement. At his suggestion, the working group began its deliberations with values, which generally get little attention in policy debates. We agreed that social policy serves three main goals: opportunity, the idea that society must ensure the less privileged have a fair chance to “make it;” responsibility, that is, the principle that people must do the best they can to get ahead without government aid; and security, meaning the idea that those who cannot cope on their own deserve support. We agreed that our proposals must serve all these values or at least not violate them. Thus, conservatives could not promote just responsibility, by demanding more self-reliance from the poor, nor could liberals favor just opportunity and security, by building up benefit programs, as they commonly do. Morally, it was all three of these values or none.

Expertise. This was a highly expert group, and that also promoted consensus. Senator Pat Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts, and this became our mantra. We had all read most of the same research studies and evaluations about why poverty and inequality exist and what might help solve them. Our report summarizes these facts up front. That agreement made it hard to argue for extreme positions. Very clearly, America’s social problem is deep-seated; it will yield only to a sustained commitment drawing on the best ideas of left and right as well as the private sector.

Trust. Group members generally credited each other with good intentions, even people they normally disagreed with. That was due to the values and facts we had agreed on, and also to the fact that nearly all of us had long histories of working to solve social problems. That gave each of us credibility with the others. Left and right shared a true commitment to overcoming poverty and improving opportunity. Especially, we did not pursue those goals only as a means to some further end, such as either expanding or reducing the scope of government. On left and right, ideology took a back seat to getting the job done.

Compromise: Some of our recommendations reflected compromise between liberal and conservative views. That meant not so much splitting the difference as what might be called policy logrolling. Each of us realized that a consensus report reflecting many views was different from what we might write speaking only for ourselves. I could support a joint position provided it honored my preferred recommendations, even if it also included other views I did not share. It was enough that the report be constructive overall. And consensus recommendations were also more likely to sway actual policy, as we all wanted to do.

Seniority. One reason we could compromise was that most of the group were senior experts who had developed their own views in multiple publications over years. Thus, our own positions were already well known. We could share in a consensus report without fear that our preferred approaches would be misunderstood. For the same reason, our more junior members found signing on more difficult. They were still making their names and feared they might seem to betray their normal allies in the policy wars. For them, to agree was particularly magnanimous.

Our political leaders in Washington are polarized today because for them the forces that drew our group together are much weaker. They are less agreed about values and facts. Left and right each fear that to compromise on any one issue will undermine their campaign for larger or smaller government in general. Members of Congress are more concerned with publicizing their own stances to the voters back home than to work across the aisle to get things done.

Time for our leaders to show the same magnanimity that the AEI/Brookings taskforce did in crafting a common program. To agree at all is more important than to bridle over details. An impatient public waits for maturity to break out.

Mead is professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.