THE EMERGENT AMERICAN CONSENSUS: FACT OR ILLUSION?
Functionalists assume that an orderly and efficient society must maintain a consensus upon basic values. Conflict theorists reply that an apparent consensus merely papers -over the deep conflicts of interest and value found in modern societies. Without trying to resolve this debate, let us ask whether there is an American consensus. . Many commonly held values have been junked in recent years. The American people are not even close to agreement upon nonmarital cohabitation, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, drug use, and many other issues, but there are a-number of areas in which agreement is close .0 complete. Belief in the value of the welfare state the idea that government should maintain a "safety net" under the citizen-is shared by nearly everybody. Nearly seven out of ten Americans agree with the rather generous proposition that "the government should make sure .that everyone has a good standard of living" [Public Opinion, 5:32, October/November 1981]. Disagreements center upon the limits and the operating procedures of the welfare system. Three national administrations (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan) have entered office breathing anti-welfare-state rhetoric. Each slowed -the . growth of welfare and "income-transfer" costs modestly, but none seriously attempted to dismantle the system.
Thus, it is conventional to say that three Republican presidents ratified" the welfare state. Profit.-making business is accepted as deo sirable by most Americans. If American labor unions were dedicated to class conflict along . the Marxist model, they would have taken advantage of the business recession of the early 1980s by forcing corporations into bankruptcy and state ownership. Instead, they made contract concessions to help their em-, ployers survive. While business practices are often criticized, few Americans wish to see profit-making business disappear. The work ethic is alive and strong. By more than three to one, Americans agree that "people should place more emphasis On working hard and doing a good job than on 'what gives them pleasure" [Public Opinion, 4:25, AugustlSeptember 1981). Welfare clients and poor people identify with the work ethic as strongly as the non poor [Goodwin, 1972, p. 112]. An occasional intellectual argues that a strong work commitment is no longer necessary in modern societies [Macarov, 1980), but few other people agree. 'Not all persons fully follow the work ethic for a number of reasons (we lack space to explore this here) [Yankelovich, 1982], but the acceptance of the ideology is nearly universal. This list could be considerably extended, The functionalist can find enough value consenses to be reassured that Ame~can society is not on the verge of distintegration. The conflictsociologist can find enough conflicting interests to remain convinced that conflict is the b¥ic ,social reality.