IF C. WRIGHT MILLS were alive today, updating his classic study of how America works, "The Power Elite," I think he might be struck by the reactionary distemper which now afflicts the influential ones.

The term "power elite," like some elements of the book itself, sounds crude and too conspiratorial for the rich complexities of America, but so do the other words we use -- "establishment" or "governing class" -- to describe the upper strata of business and government, politics and communications and academe, the people who set agendas and shape mass opinion and made the big, broad, final choices for the nation. As with the wind that bends the trees, we know it is there, even if we can't see it, even if we can't pin it down.

"Reactionary" is a crude word, too. But, having thought about it, I think it accurately describes the foul mood of those who run things. They are increasingly preoccupied with their own malaise -- which naturally they project onto the nation as a whole -- a gloomy mindset which says America doesn't seem to work right anymore.

In the nature of things, when the "power elite" feels angst, it soon becomes a national illness. Only the various "cures" which the influentials are now prescribing would diminish the democratic rights of average citizens and enhance the power of -- guess who? -- the powerful.

This gloom has been building for some years now; in Washington, it has become the accepted premise of everyday conversation, reflecting the malaise of leaders who look back and discover that the followers are no longer following. The latest expression of anxiety comes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, an authoriatative organ of establishment sentiment. In it is an article entitled "To Form a Government" by superlawyer Lloyd N. Cutler, who is temporarily influential as inside counsel to the president but will return shortly to his old role of outside advocate for autos, drug companies, media and other corporate giants. Cutler has been worrying in public for years that the government no longer works. It can't make decisions. Can't form consensus. Can't follow coherent, long-range policies. Can't resist the pressures of "single-issue" groups.

Therefore, some modest proposals for change -- actually, radical revisions of our constitutional system -- are placed on the table for discussion: longer terms of office for president and Congress, the presidential power to dismiss Congress and call for new elections, even a nutty idea to disenfranchise all citizens from voting separately for their congressional representatives. Fortunately, these "cures" are wildly impractical, even coming from such a wise and practical man as Cutler, so I think they are interesting only for what they reveal about the establishment's state of mind.

Cutler's agenda (and other similar prescriptions) have two antidemocratic objectives: First, to centralize decision-making, preferably in the White House and regular political parties, and thereby make it more manageable. Second, to insulate the government decision-makers -- both the president and Congress -- from the messy demands and grievances of mere voters. Cutler naturally does not state his purposes in those terms. He only wants to make things work.

A skeptic like C. Wright Mills might ask: work for whom? Obviously an influential corporate lobbyist's life was much simpler when he could speak to the "leadership" on Capitol Hill or have his clients contribute to the treasury of the party in power, or even consult with the man himself in the Oval Office. Come to the table and state your terms, offer a reasonable compromise, bargain and settle.

Now, in this unruly age, a lobbyist for any interest must call at many doors. Must talk to all the fickle young members of Congress who refuse to take orders from their elders. Must deal with the cranky bureaucrats who may be unimpressed by the lobbyist's influence. Even must take into account those insolent renegades from the ruling class who have arrogantly set themselves up as "public interest" advocates, who can always file a lawsuit if they don't like what the government has decided.

What ails the power elite? Cutler's complaints have been expressed by many others. They use terms like "ungovernability," "the twilight of authority," "an excess of democracy."

An excess of democracy? Yes, I think that is the heart of the complaint. What we are hearing from these various influential voices is a complaint against the last 20 years of political evolution in this country, an era dominated by democratizing changes -- opening the processes of government, the national legislature, even the selection of presidents. Reactionary distemper, I called it, because their prescriptions for change are really a plea to go backward, to put the genie back in the lamp, to recreate the unchallenged perogatives of the "power elite" which Mills saw in the 1950s.

What happened to American governance in the last two decades to aggrieve the leadership class and so complicate its life? Looking backwards, it is fairly breathtaking. As I skip down the list, I think you will see that the many disparate changes add up to a significant era of small-d democratic reform. Not millenial, but significant. Still fragile and incomplete, still subject to repeal if Americans are persuaded that counter-reformation is somehow in their interest. Here is my list:

Access to government decisions and independent review. This sounds dull and inconsequential, but I'm convinced it is central to the frustrations of the power elite. As one who came to Washington in the 1960s, when information and even decisions, not to mention participation, where routinely denied to citizens not represented by the established interests or expensive lawyers, I am still amazed by how much the processes have changed in 15 years.

There's no question about it -- outside skepticism voiced by citizen groups or competing interests or even the press does complicate decision-making and slow it down. If a federal agency fails to enforce the law, those gadflies from the Sierra Club might file a lawsuit and, chances are, a federal judge will agree with them. Ralph Nader, the environmentalists and citizens groups won these reforms, case by case, and now the prophets of ungoverability are trying to undo them, case by case.

Equality of representation. I don't think anyone anticipated fully the profound changes which would flow from the Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions of the early 1960s. On their face, they merely banished the fundamental corruption of democracy which both political parties had tolerated and exploited -- the malapportionment of legislatures and Congress, cheating millions of Americans, mainly in cities and suburbs, out of their rightful voice.

Once done, however, the hoary regimes which controlled cities and states were doomed, unable to deliver safe seats and loyal hacks to fill them. Once this new generation of more independent representatives began arriving to claim seats in Congress, it was inevitable that reform would follow. Why take orders from the party leadership when it was not the party that sent you to Washington but coalitions of voters and interests?

Popular selection of presidential nominees. To oversimplify matters, the major candidates are now chosen by random voters, not city bosses, not state party chairmen, not power brokers and money men in Washington, Los Angeles and New York. The power elite hasn't been able to get a handle on this; it is regularly dismayed by the nominees the voters select, but this summer it demonstrated its impotence in the vainglorious campaign to derail President Carter's nomination. Both Carter and Reagan are popular candidates in the sense that each organized his political support largely outside the traditional channels of established political power. The power elites despise Carter, even as he struggles to do their business, and I imagine it will be grossly disappointed in Reagan, too, if he becomes president.

The rise of independent political action . The civil rights movement, beyond all its other accomplishments, taught citizens of every persuasion and interest that political-power could be organized outside the orthodox channels of political parties, corporations, labor unions, economic interest groups. From environmental action groups to the pro-lifers, from anti-nukers to the Moral Majority to the Proposition 13 folks, these are citizens seeking some level of effectiveness in politics, on an issue they care enough about to mobilize their own troops and take to the field, without any invitation from the established sources of political issues. I would ask: Why are the environmentalists or prolifers disparaged as a "single-issue" constituency while the auto industry or the drug manufacturers are not?

The loss of deference. Vietnam and Watergate, the CIA and the FBI and the Imperial Presidency. This has been a rough two decades for public trust, as everyone knows. The scandals and revelations have unleashed a vicious paradox for political leadership. Citizens (or at least their surrogates, the press) demand an intimate knowledge of our leaders and their behavior. Yet the better we know them, the less we stand in awe and trust. That is a genuinely troublesome consequence for democracy, I concede. But on the other side of the ledger, the public has a lot less tolerance now for public crimes, committed in the name of "national security" or other euphemisms for presidential power.

From this list, I would say that -- given changing times and temperaments none of these reforms, except for reapportionment, is truly safe from retreat. Any sober reading of American history suggests that most cras of great reform were followed by periods of retrenchment and reversal. Wise citizens should decide for themselves whether the influentials are right in their diagnoisis of "ungovernability" or whether the real malaise is at the top, a lost confidence among the thinkers and doers which needn't become a national pessimism about democratic values.