SOME CALL THEM special-interest groups. Some call them single-interest groups. Whatever the name, it's agreed that they're a shame. "Strident and self-righteous," as one senator terms them, the single-issue groups are accused of fragmenting the political consensus, whipsawing conscientious public officials with non-negotiable demands, and generally playing havoc with responsible government and politics.

But if single-cause groups are an evil, they are a necessary evil. In fact, rather than hoping that they can be curbed, as some members of Congress have proposed, it may be better to let such groups flourish and exasperate politicians as much as possible.

I say this in the belief that American politics has reached the point where it has to get worse before it can get better. Specifically, it must become more painful and difficult for politicians and officeholders. And because single-interest groups are making it more painful and difficult, they are helping create the conditions in which responsible politics and government may be reborn. Twin Perils

THE COMPLAINTS about single-interest groups are abundant, if sometimes overstated. When Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts declared last October that "the Senate and House are awash in a sea of special interest campaign contributions and special interest lobbying," he was probably mixing dreadnaughts and dories, if apples and oranges do not suit his nautical metaphor.

He cited as evidence the growth in political action committees and in their contributions to congressional campaigns.

It is true that the $76 million reported spent by 1,911 independent, non-party groups in the 1978 elections were records, both in dollars and in numbers of organizations. But many of the largest spenders -- the AFL-CIO, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the American Medical Association, for example -- have broad political and policy agendas.

Nevertheless, there are certainly narrow, one-cause groups -- the opponents of gun control, most notably, but also some conservation, arms-control and equal rights amendment advocates -- that raised and spent substantial sums.

The concern about their influence is not misplaced. Groups like these -- or the right-to-life organizations, which depend on volunteer workers rather than dollars for their influence -- can effectively threaten officeholders with political retaliation because of stands on a single question.

They have demonstrated a capability -- at least in some states and some races -- to upset not only individual careers but also powerful party organizations. For example, the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, a rich source of national leadership for the past generation, has been riddled by infighting between pro- and antiabortion groups.

When admitting the destructive power of single-interest groups, however, it is important to stress that their rise represents the second stage in the demolition of the party system in the United States, not the first.

The first stage came in the 1950s and 1960s, when ambitious office-seekers found that they could bypass the party and win office from the courthouse to the White House on their own. Now, in the 1970s, issue-concerned citizens are applying the same lesson -- not to gain office but to force their policy views on the government. Like the candidates, they are bypassing the party structure and "taking their case directly to the people."

The result is that independent, autonomous officeholders are confronting independent, autonomous interest groups in a kind of unmediated power struggle that leaves the national interest in shreds and helps persuade voters to express their dissatisfaction in the most dramatic way possible -- by not voting.

What is not generally perceived is that single-issue groups and single-shot candidates are twin perils to responsible politics and government. In reality, the Gun Owners of America Campaign Committee is no more narrow or selfish in its aims than was the Carter-for-President Committee. The League of Conservation Voters is fundamentally no different in this respect than the Committee for the Re-election of the President. One has the single interest of seeing a certain policy adopted, the other of having a certain candidate elected.

That is an alien notion, I know. But it may be more easily understood by following a short historical trail to see how we arrived at this point in our politics. Breaking the Pattern

IN THE innocent days of the 1940s or 1950s, what would a young man eager for public office do? In most places, he would decide first whether he felt more comfortable as a Democrat or Republican, and then present himself to a party screening or slating committee.

After examining his credentials, the party elders might offer him their support for supervisor or sheriff, for prothonotary or (at a different level) president. But they also might say, "Doubtless you are all the things you claim, but we already have a good candidate for senator, so why don't you run for clerk this year and we'll see how you do in that job." In that way, the party maintained its members' loyalties and fresh ambitions were channeled into useful roles.

The young man, of course, understood that he had acquired certain advantages and taken on certain obligations upon being embraced by the party.

His campaign costs would be met in whole or part by the party, which collected contributions from supportive citizens and interest groups. Party precinct workers would push his candidacy as they made the rounds. He would be cloaked with a label, Democrat or Republican, which had broad significance for voters, so that even if they did not know him, they would know he was (or was not) "their kind of candidate."

At the same time, the young man knew that he was no longer a free agent. He had acquired obligations to help promote his party and win votes for his ticket-mates, whatever he thought of their individual merits. A degree of loyalty was expected. His disagreements with party leaders would be expressed privately or, if publicly, in muted tones. When they needed help, he would be available.

He also knew that when the party was popular, he might benefit from the "coattails" of its leaders, and when the party lost the public's confidence, he might be booted out of office -- no matter how conscientiously he had done his own job for his constituents.

That is roughly the way the game was played for most of American history in most places in this country.

But after World War II, the pattern changed. It changed because certain smart fellows discovered that they could achieve their ambitions without going through all this rigamarole. Sen. Kennedy's brother John probably wasn't the first, but he was an important trend-setter.

When he returned to Boston from Navy service, Gov. Maurice Tobin and other Democratic Party elders invited the 29-year-old novice to go on the ticket for lieutenant governor. It was a flattering offer, but one Kennedy could refuse. His goal was the House of Representatives, and he plunged into a 10-man primary without asking anyone's permission. While his father pulled strings to mollify some of the old-guard politicians, Kennedy and his young friends put together the organization of political amateurs and volunteers that won the campaign.

It worked for him not only in that first House race, but in later campaigns for the Senate and the presidency -- and he was not alone.

Jerry Ford did the same thing in Grand Rapids, taking a House nomination away from a Republican incumbent. Richard Nixon launched his career in California with the same sort of volunteer effort. Jimmy Carter followed the pattern in Georgia.

They and their counterparts made a number of discoveries. They found that volunteers worked harder and were more persuasive in campaigns than patronage-oriented "soldiers" of the old political machines.

They found that interest groups preferred to give money directly to candidates rather than through the party. They found that people of means who would never have "dirtied their hands" with party politics would contribute to a candidate who had a tasteful cocktail party or after-theater reception. Later, with the development of direct-mail techniques, people like Barry Goldwater, George Wallace and George McGovern found that the wallets of thousands of less affluent citizens could also be tapped to finance individual candidacies.

The new candidates then discovered more powerful ways of communicating with the voters. Radio and television ads, telephone banks and computerized, targeted mailings carried much more impact than the slate-cards precinct captains used to hand out at the polls.

They discovered -- or intensified the use of -- an old trick: door-to-door personal campaigning. If they were willing to spend enough time with the voters themselves before a primary, they found, they could beat the organization-backed candidate.

So individuals eager for public office no longer "submit" themselves to a party screening process. They organize to capture a nomination with a full-time, extended primary campaign, and then they announce, as the most recent product of that process announced to his party on the evening he captured its nomination: "My name is Jimmy Carter, and I am running for president of the United States." A Political Party of One

IN OFFICE, these new-style politicians behave with an independence appropriate to their manner of acquiring office. They are under no obligation to anyone -- and certainly not to others who claim to be "leaders" of their party. This independence of House members has made the job of lining up votes for Democratic legislation far more difficult than it used to be. Those legislators do not feel their fate rests with the voters' judgment on their party, but on them as individuals, and they vote as best suits their individual interests.

Elected executives are no different. Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich ran against the party "establishment" and carried his policy differences with the Democratic city council to the point of forcing his city into bankruptcy. Newbreed governors from West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller to Illinois' Jim Thompson to California's Jerry Brown have been at odds with their legislatures as often as Carter has with Congress.

What really has developed is a system of independent, autonomous candidates and officeholders, each with a political and governmental agenda of his own -- a political party of one.

And now those officeholders are raising a cry of alarm about the invasion of their turf by independent, autonomous issue groups.

"Single-issue politics," says Democratic Sen. John Culver of Iowa, "has, in my judgment, disturbing implications for the nature and quality of political representation in this country."

"Increasingly," he says, "splinter lobbies are forcing upon elected officials and candidates... loyalty tests on wide ranges of peripheral matters... We have vocal, vehement and well-or-chestrated lobbies on abortion, consumer agencies, gun control, labor law reform and a host of other subjects," each judging the officeholder not on his overall record but "by a single litmus test of ideological purity."

More and more, officeholders are demanding protection from what one of them has called the "issues extortionists." They are asking why there is nothing to provide some defense against this crossfire of non-negotiable, special-interest demands.

The blunt answer is that they themselves helped destroy the one institution that historically filled that function -- the political party. The officeholders are now being victimized by people who have borrowed their own campaign techniques to use against them. The Rise of the Vigueries

IN THE old system, the parties served to screen the demands of interest groups as well as to regulate the ambitions of candidates. All groups were invited to present their proposals at platform time, but all understood that platform-writing, like ticket-balancing, was a matter of compromise and tradeoff. Individual goals were likely to be subordinated to the overall aim of maintaining the party in power.

In the last 10 years, however, the issue constituencies, witnessing the success of candidates who bypassed the party, decided they could do the same thing. If your aim was to clean up the rivers, you did not have to establish that as a priority with the Democratic or Republican platform committees. You could form the League of Conservation Voters and run campaigns against "the dirty dozen." So it went if you wanted to ban guns or protect guns, stop abortions or make them more available.

Like the candidates, these groups discovered the effectiveness of organizations built on the disciplined enthusiasm of volunteers. They learned that door-to-door canvassing and church or shopping center leaflets can have tremendous impact when targeted for or against particular candidates.

And they learned even better than the candidate organizations of the 1950s and 1960s how to use computerized direct-mail techniques. It is the ability of these groups to generate mail and money, literally at the push of a button, to support or oppose a particular legislative issue or candidate that makes officeholders most upset.

Richard Viguerie, the owner of the most active direct-mail company, has become, in an astonishingly short time, a political power in his own right. He did his first right-to-work mailing in 1969 and his first antiabortion mailing two years later. But it is only since 1975, he says, that he had begun to "focus in on special-interest clients," and his success so far guarantees an expansion of of the technique.

Most of the recent complaints about single-issue groups have come from Democratic liberals. But Anne Wexler, the Carter White House aide who has given several thoughtful speeches about the problems that single-interest groups create for presidential leadership, has been honest enough to admit that she is herself the product of an important single-interest movement, one that was warmly applauded at the time by Democratic liberals.

That movement -- Wexler's home ground -- was the Vietnam peace movement, which mobilized around that one issue so effectively that it drove a president from office. What worked for the peace movement is now working for the right-to-life movement and other single-cause groups. A Therapeutic Value

FOR LAWMAKERS subjected to the computerized power of single interest groups, it can be a frightening experience. Suddenly their offices are flooded with mail warning that unless they vote a particular way on an approaching issue, "we will defeat you next time you run." Suddenly their campaign organizations pick up reports of the district being flooded with disparaging letters -- not by their opponent but by some organization they never knew was there.

The politicians' pleas for protection, however, must be scrutinized with care.There are important constitutional rights involved here; the right to petition the government applies equally to organizations with computer mailing techniques as without.

Moreover, there is a therapeutic value in letting the politicians experience the dangers of the kind of politics we have today -- a primal struggle for control among single-shot candidates and single-interest groups.

To be sure, it is a brutal, ugly kind of politics, and it is helping turn off the American people in massive numbers. The people are not issue ideologues. They are not candidate fanatics. They are what they have always been -- reasonably broad-minded, practical and progressive.

What they hear in the last 10 days of a campaign, whenever they turn on a radio or TV set, is a babble of voices saying "vote for me, vote for me, vote for me." What they read, whenever they open their mail, are injunctions to "vote for this, vote for that." Being sensible, most of them are covering their ears against the din, shutting their eyes to all the commands, and tuning out this self-serving racket by turning away from the polls.

What is missing from our politics is the mechanism which once helped organize those voter choices in a sensible fashion, which channeled the individual ambitions of eager aspirants and the conflicting claims of various interest groups into a coherent ticket and platform. That agency was the political party, and it is in a shambles today.

The destruction of the political parties began with the individual officeseekers, and it is they who keep the parties weak today.

They loved free-lance, individualistic politics -- until the techniques of free-lance, individualistic politics were turned against them.Now they are saying that something dangerous has been unleashed. They are right -- but about 20 years late in their discovery.

The first reaction among office-holders was to try in 1978 to curb the influence of single-interest groups by reducing the amount of money their political-action committees could contribute to congressional campaigns. Their second ploy -- sure to be repeated this year -- was an attempt to expand taxpayer financing of individual campaigns beyond the presidential level to House and Senate contests.

But before any curbs are put on the role of single-issue groups and before any more public funds are given to single-shot candidates, it seems reasonable to expect officeholders to demonstrate that they are prepared to sacrifice some of their own precious autonomy.

It really has to be one way or the other. If individual candidates are to be allowed to play their own games for their own ends, with blithe disregard of the effects on the governmental and political system, then single-interest groups are not to be denied the same destructive freedom. If single-issue groups are to be brought back within the constraints of party politics, then the candidates must, too. Franklin's Choice

THE TESTS of their seriousness about reconstructing the party system are very clear:

Are they prepared to submit their own credentials to serious screening by party leaders, or will they continue to insist on their absolute right to pursue any office any time the desire strikes them? Will they continue to legislate increasing numbers of primaries, thereby adding to the incentive for full-time candidates to bypass the party endorsement process, or will they cut back on that destructive change in the nominating system?

As nominees, are they prepared to campaign as members of a party ticket, rather than set up a private political organization of their own? Are they prepared to defend the record of their party, or just their own work on behalf of their own constituents?

Are they prepared to raise money for their party and partake of the party treasury, or will they keep all the funds they can gather for themselves? Will they channel public campaign subsidies through the political parties, rather than giving them to individual campaign committees, as is the case now?

Will they accept a responsibility to cooperate with the leaders of their own party -- both legislative and executive -- in carrying out the party program? Or will they insist that they are free agents on every vote, responsible only to their own conscience and constituents?

My guess is that few candidates or officeholders are ready to sacrifice their own freedom of action to rehabilitate their party. But it may be that when more of them have been bullied by single-issue lobbyists, threatened by single-interest mailings, and beaten by single-interest machines, they will perceive their need for the protections political parties once offered against these ideological buccaneers.

There is no way to put the genie of single-issues groups back in the bottle. But they are not new to our politics. From the anti-Masons of the 1830s to the anti-saloon leagues of the 1920s, such groups have flourished. In a pluralistic society, with a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and association, they have an inevitable and proper role to play.

What is different now is that the political parties are not strong enough to play their equally essential role. As Anthony King, the British journalist and political scientist, has observed, the threat to American government is not partisanship but hyperpluralism. Political parties function to build coalitions, but in today's politics, to use King's phrase, "they are only coalitions of sand."

The lesson the officeholders have to learn was stated at the beginning of the republic by Benjamin Franklin: Either they hang together or they hang separately.

Give them a few more years of the rigors of single-shot candidacies and single-issue movements, and even the dullest politicians will discover the need to reinvent political parties.

In office, these new-style politicians behave with an independence appropriate to their manner of acquiring office. They are under no obligation to anyone -- and certainly not to others who claim to be "leaders" of their party.