Politics is usually seen as a series of debates. Yet in the long run, what politicians --and voters--agree on often turns out to be more important than what they argue about. It's hard to make sense of the politics of 1983 if you're looking for heated debates. What's happening--and where we may be going-- become clearer when you look for consensus.

And that's what the voters, accidentally or on purpose, have asked the politicians to produce. In 1982 they saw to it that the Republican president had a solidly Democratic House as well as a Republican Senate to work with. As a result we have had a kind of national coalition government, reaching decision by negotiation between Republican leaders and either the Democratic House leadership or House Democrats who, on a particular issue, can attract enough of a following to make with the Republicans a majority on the floor. This coalition government has given us a gasoline tax, a cut in future Social Security benefits, a compromise on the MX missile and disarmament--all considered politically impossible not so long ago. It has given us something close to a consensus on the budget: the House and Senate spending figures are not so far apart, and the president's adamant opposition probably ensures there will be no significant tax increase.

But its work pales in importance next to the ideas that suddenly seem to command almost universal agreement. These include consensus on:

1. Education. The National Commission on Excellence in Education and other commissions reporting this spring have articulated a consensus on which school boards and politicians at the state and local level have been acting for several years now. Our schools are not doing a good enough job teaching basic skills or encouraging distinction. More money is needed, but it's not enough by itself: there must be changes in teaching methods and in the structure of the teaching system (e.g., merit pay). It's hard to find anyone who will disagree publicly with the diagnosis, although politically interested parties will speak out against some solutions: Ronald Reagan doesn't want to spend more federal money; the National Education Association doesn't want merit pay. But policy here is really made on the local and state levels, and the movement for the past several years has been in the direction the commissions have suggested--regardless of national politicians or lobbies.

In one area--bilingual education--a consensus is emerging in Congress, the administration and the crucial states of California and Texas that a variety of approaches is needed to help students whose native language is not English to learn English. Support is evaporating for the rigid bilingual approach, which in practice--though not theoretically, its advocates argue--tends to keep children in foreign-language instruction longer than needed --in many cases indefinitely. The Hispanic lobbying groups that backed this approach still go through the motions, but halfheartedly; it's apparent their constituency is rapidly assimilating into the English-language culture and moving up the economic ladder faster than it can be mobilized as a Spanish-language constituency.

2. Limits to the public sector. Not one of the Democratic presidential candidates is promising a guaranteed annual income, national health insurance or Social Security benefit increases. No one in the Reagan administration is talking about significant further cuts in federal domestic spending. At the state level, we see similar stasis: even states in great economic difficulty are raising taxes to maintain many if not all state services, while the richest states show no propensity to increase spending vastly. After the rhetoric of the 1980 campaign and the budget fight of 1981, an equilibrium seems to have been reached.

3. Civil rights. Here consensus is not so apparent. Yet there are signs one might emerge. The Reagan administration has belatedly acknowledged that existing civil rights laws are not fully obeyed (by finally endorsing extension of the Voting Rights Act and by bringing a lawsuit against Alabama's state universities) and that new laws may be needed to fight discrimination (fair housing). On the other side, the Joint Center for Political Studies published in June a paper signed by many distinguished black leaders which concentrated not on the issues of busing and quotas (where the administration position has been hostile) but on the economy, the black family and education. There's no consensus yet, but there may be increasing attention to civil rights issues on which these two sides do not begin in total opposition to each other.

These results in the battle of ideas are going to be important long after the results in the battles of events. The gasoline tax, Social Security compromise, and MX missile/disarmament agreement will shape people's lives and public policy in important ways in the next several years and for perhaps a decade. But the emerging consensus on education and, perhaps, civil rights has the potential--if acted upon--to improve vastly the quality of American life 20 and 40 years from now.

In each case it has been reached in large part because the Reagan administration, with popular support, has put a barrier in front of where liberals wanted to go. In some cases the response has been just to stop; in others it has been to change direction. But the result has not been a simple ratification of the Reagan position. In some cases the Reaganites find the consensus leading on a course they would never have chosen by themselves.

It is possible that the Democrats, if they win back control of the government in 1984 or 1988, will change course and the consensus will vanish. But there is not much evidence --aside from some ritualistic homage to the goals of some lobbies--in the words and actions of the Democratic presidential candidates that this will be so. There's even less evidence in the actions of the Democrats where they are in control, in the House of Representatives and in the governments of many states. If anything, they are helping to fashion this consensus. For consensus by definition is not produced by one party alone, and this consensus is not one that seeks, as many Reaganites did, to disassemble our makeshift welfare state or to renounce entirely government action as a means of solving some national problems.