The quality of political discourse in the United States goes from bad to worse when presidential candidates are absent from the ticket. But 1982 ought to have been an exception. Ronald Reagan is one of the few programmatic presidents ever elected, and there were nationwide and international crises to help make the Reagan program an issue common to hundreds of congressional campaigns. Instead of the exception, however, we got the norm--a hemorrhaging of national arteries toward local tributaries. Things were so bad that a national debate had to be staged by a television news celebrity with senators not up for reelection and members of the House from safe districts.

More than anything else, this sorry state of political discourse is, I think, attributable to the decline and collapse of liberalism. Liberalism was for so long the dominant mode of thought that its collapse gives the conservatism of the Reagan administration power without opposition. Since conservatism is in power for the first time in this century, Americans are unfamiliar with it and have no way of appreciating it as a mode of political thought. There was never a time when Americans were more in need of such an evaluation. A virtual reconstruction of national politics is needed, and this is going to require more than mere revival of the Democrats or the two-party system. It will require a full-scale examination of the premises and modes of thought that guide parties and public choices -- something Walter Lippmann widely called "public philosophy."

The first thing to note is that the alternative modes of thought are neither dual nor symmetrical. Politics is not a game; political discourse cannot be simply a matter of two sides squaring off against each other. Issues with two clearly defined sides occur rarely in nature; and when they occur in campaigns, Congress or courts, they are already at a very advanced stage in their development. Conversion of complex problems into two-sided issues may be the most creative contribution made by the political process. When that is done well, democracy can really work. But the systems of thought that guide analysis of problems are not so neat. The right and the left are not correlatives, and liberalism is not a mid-point between the two.

When I think of conservatives I think of people who feel confident about moral absolutes. They feel that moral absolutes can be known and that, once known, they ought to be imposed by law on everyone else. When I think of conservatives I think of people who may talk about cutting taxes and getting government off our backs, but nevertheless require very strong governments to impose moral codes concerning religion, sex, family, police power and patriotism as well as contract and property. When I think of conservatives, I think of people whose dream of a good society approximates the American South before World War II, when, as Ronald Reagan put it, racism was not a problem.

The conservatives I know personally are very decent people, but our relations remain amiable so long as we don't discuss religion, sex or politics. Although I think their ideas are dangerous, I would not want them banned from government positions, and I wouldn't vote against them for tenure in my academic department if they were otherwise qualified. All the while I have a lurking suspicion that their gratitude for my tolerance is mixed with contempt for my uncertainty about moral absolutes.

Not every conservative fits this definition to a T, because not every conservative is extreme or purist. But that in itself is an important point. Conservatism is its own dimension of political thought, and there can be a continuum from weak to strong conservatism without regard to any alternative mode of thought. In other words, the left cannot be defined by adding a "not" to each of the tenets of the right.

When I think of the left or leftists, I think of people who are genuinely more optimistic than the right about the capacity of individuals to shape their own lives. I think of people who espouse equality as an absolute and who measure injustice by distributions of wealth. Beyond that, the left includes people -- Marxists and non-Marxists -- who see in government a conspiracy of wealth and privilege against all others. But at the same time, people of the left are just as committed to their gods as are the people of the right, and they tend to be just as certain that moral principles can be known and ought to be imposed on others through government. It's just that their moral principles are not the precise opposites of those of the right.

By the same token, the right and left do not occupy two extremes with a middle made up of liberals. Liberalism is wishy-washy, but it is not a compromise between left and right. It is another dimension altogether, with its own continuum ranging from moderate to pure or extreme. Perhaps it is one of the distinctive marks of liberalism that the idea of an extreme liberal sounds almost like an internal inconsistency. A purist or extreme liberal would be one who rejects all absolutes because one can never be certain about them. A pure liberal would be a pure proceduralist, willing to sacrifice equality for due process, willing to bring the entire governmental process to a halt with some kind of participation scheme. Liberals are people who believe that governmental programs can be beneficial without being coercive.

The farthest extreme of liberalism would lead to a form of totalitarianism, just as would be true of the farthest extreme of conservatism or of that most important "ism" of the left, socialism. But the liberal path is completely different. Right and left totalitarianism would be moral totalitarianism -- an Islamic republic, a Christian republic, a socialist republic -- in which the government puts all of society under surveillance in order to bring all individual conduct closer to accord with a moral code. Authority is asserted over good and bad conduct.

In contrast, the most extreme liberal republic would be an empirical republic. Liberal authority is asserted not over conduct deemed good or evil in itself but conduct deemed good or evil only in its consequences. Although liberalism has no moral absolutes about which it can be certain, liberal government nevertheless can become total by responding to all theories about what kinds of conduct cause injury. Liberals don't have to take a moral position against prostitution or abortion or even murder. They need only show that such conduct may tend to cause harm. The causal chain can be a very long one, as, for example, the 20 years it takes for certain chemicals to have a toxic effect. Even such seemingly absolute values as property or equality will find liberals making practical rather than moral arguments.

The nadir of liberalism was probably reached with Lyndon Johnson. After Johnson, there were no priorities among policies; there were only wish lists. And there were no priorities among procedures; liberalism in fact lost its ability to distinguish between procedures and processes. Everything was good to do, as long as access to interests was kept open. Government became a vulgar matter of "from each according to his contribution, to each according to his claim."

In the liberal wake, the conservatives are having their hour with the Reagan administration. It is a highly programmatic administration, and most parts of the program are tied closely to conservative principles. That does not mean it is consistent. In power, it reveals itself as a conservatism that favors the free market with deregulation but involves itself in the market in fantastically intricate ways through the tax expenditure budget, monetary policies, price supports, protectionism and defense expenditures. It is supply-side in the matter of tax cuts, and then proceeds to sop up the supply by budget deficits of unprecedented size. These inconsistencies are not lost on the American people, but the underlying right-wing conservatism may be missed.

Reagan conservatives are not really in favor of getting government off our backs; they are merely eager to shift the burden of government from corporations to individuals and from the national government, which is built along liberal lines, to state governments, which in the 20th century are built on distinctively conservative lines.

For example, the proposed constitutional amendment to relieve the appellate courts from jurisdiction over abortion cases is aimed at freeing the states from judicial review and enabling them to put all doctors and mothers under criminal surveillance. The constitutional amendment proposed to permit prayer in the schools is an effort to permit states to regulate the religious beliefs of all children and their parents. The New Federalism seeks to remove the strict social security categories from national programs and to turn over reduced social security resources to the much more discretionary power of the states and state welfare administrators. This would lead immediately to a great deal more discretionary government authority over dependent persons, not only as to their eligibility for support but also as to the moral conduct of dependent mothers and the goodness of the employment and consumer behavior of all persons on public assistance.

The Reagan experiment will be rejected in 1982 or 1984 not because it has failed to revive the economy but because it is truly conservative. The American people are, to say the least, not ready for conservatism. This enormous continental democracy, with all its national and religious groupings, has the same problem it always had -- its pluralism. And its pluralism requires the historic solution -- the separation of private morals from public conduct. This is another way of saying the separation of church and state. It took over 20 years to perceive the weaknesses of liberalism and to reject it so that it would regenerate and redefine itself. It will have taken less than four years to see through conservatism, and it, too, will be rejected, but with finality.

What of the left? One of the big surprises is how little the Reagan administration has contributed to the resurgence of leftist criticism in the United States. Even before the election of Reagan, a great deal had happened to confirm the criticisms and fears of the left. The rise of a large national state in the United States, and the willingness of liberals to use the state to shore up the weakest timbers of big capitalism, provided a very large target for a leftist critique. This "Europeanization" of the American government ought to have contributed mightily to the "Europeanization" of the American intelligentsia. But this does not seem to have happenced. There is a measurable expansion of interest in Marx and Marxist literature among American intellectuals. But they are most likely to be liberals looking for a way to redefine liberalism.

I don't think the explanation for the weakness of the left can be found in its suppression. It is true that outspoken leftists are unjustly treated in universities. But so are outspoken rightists. The shame of the university is not its ideological biases but its preference for social and psychological moderation -- its tendency to "regress toward the mean."

I think the explanation for the weakness of the American left can be found in the fact that it has no existing model on Earth to point to, having rejected the Soviet model a long time ago. If the conservative model is the old American South, or, for some, Saudi Arabia, or pre- revolutionary France, what is the model for the American left? Cuba? Cuba is nolo contendere, because neither Russia nor the United States has given that experiment a chance to show what it could do on its own. France? France's socialism under Francois Mitterrand is exposing its cmatter ofontradictions even faster than conservatism under Reagan.

The American left will probably remain a kind of romantic movement. Its major influence is likely to continue to be not upon the government or the masses but upon the liberals, giving them sufficient guilt complexes about inequality to motivate further policy innovations when and if liberalism returns to power. The left will go on believing that its failure is due to suppressions, despite the fact that the left in other countries tends to prosper as a result of efforts to suppress it. The American left will remain small because it has almost nothing plausible to say about American society or its politics, at least nothing that intelligent liberalism cannot also say.

If conservatism remains in power too long, many American political traditions could be changed, endangering freedom itself. The same could be true if the left ever had its opportunity to impose its version of public morality. But there is another danger at the moment, which is that conservatism may not be able to stay in power long enough. Liberalism is not ready to resume major governmental responsibility. When it comes to political regeneration, there is no substitute for defeat.

But signs of liberal regeneration do not yet seem to be at hand. Liberalism remains empty of standards, committed to everything and therefore to nothing. In this fall's campaign, Democrats confirmed this by offering no alternatives. The June Democratic Conference confirmed it by offering all alternatives. Even if new ideas about liberal directions and liberal priorities were developed, they could very well be blocked by the traditional party system.

The two major parties have been in a shambles even longer than programmatic government. Our two-party system was a wonderful instrument as long as our national government was basically a patronage government. But those parties were unable to adjust to the programmatic government that emerged in the '30s and that would not go away in the '60s and '70s.

A new party of liberalism could have a sense of direction and of priorities that would be impossible for the majority-bent parties of our two-party system. This would not mean that the present Republican and Democratic parties would be relegated to right-wing and left-wing parties respectively. They would remain mainstream parties, as they were before Reagan. But with a strong third party, the two existing parties would be freed of the outmoded mentality that a political party can truly represent a majority in a scheme of government as complex and programmatic as ours has become.

If the electorate is ever again to have any direct relationship to public policies, the party system will have to undergo this kind of fundamental change. But what must come first is a concerted effort to rebuild the intellectual and programmatic foundations of liberalism, returning it to its traditional place as the American civic religion. This would not be the first time that liberalism was down and reemerged stronger than ever. But this sort of thing doesn't happen naturally, and this time it may be more difficult than ever.