CAMPAIGNING FOR president in 1928, Herbert Hoover called the United States "the land of rugged individualism." Campaigning in 1984, Walter Mondale seems to perceive the United States as the land of special interests, which are represented by associations. Mondale could not be more accurate. From north to south, from east to west, in small towns and big cities, the United States has been overcome by what I would call "a rising tide of associationism."

Most Americans are possibly familiar with the large and politically powerful associations such as the National Education Association, the American Dairy Association and the National Organization for Women. These are the groups that harness enough political power to influence presidential appointments or change the course of legislation on Capitol Hill.

But many Americans probably have not heard about smaller associations such as the Bus History Association, the American Accordionist Association, the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, the American Association of Aardvark Aficionados (not to be confused with the National Association for the Advancement of Aardvarks in America), the Lighthouse Keepers Association, the Possum Growers and Breeders Association, Ducks Unlimited, the Tricycle Racing Club of America, the Trumpeter Swan Society, and the American Checkered Giant Rabbit Club.

These hobbyist associations do their business out in the hinterland, far from the corridors of power. But their existence reveals how pervasive, how deeply imbedded into the social fabric, this movement has become. Every year, thousands of people sign up, pay dues, attend meetings, organize conventions, and publish newsletters as associationists -- that is, as members of associations. There are, in fct, 17,664 associations in the United States today, and that number grows by 1,000 every year.

The rising tide of associationism should come as no surprise. Associations, after all, were popular in the United States in 1835, when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote "Democracy in America."

"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations," de Tocqueville observed, ". . . to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government of France or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association." But de Tocqueville never imagined how wildly the association movement would spread.

Association-watchers, such as myself, break down associations into various sub-groups or categories. There are, for example, 372 musical associations, such as the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. the Southern Appalachian Dulcimer Association, the Viola d'Amore Society, and the Musical Box Hobbyists.

There are also many historical associations -- 375 of them, to be precise. These include the U.S. Truck Historical Society, the Forest Products History Foundation of Minnesota, and the Federation of Historical Bottle Clubs.

Creeping associationism has even spread into the art of collecting -- a hobby once taken up by the most cavalier and solitary of all Americans. Today there are no fewer than 233 collectors associations spread across the land, including the British Beer-Mat Collectors' Society, the Cookie Cutter Collectors' Club, the Figural Bottle Openers Collectors Club, the Cola Clan (an association of Coca-Cola memorabilia collectors), he International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, and the American Collectors of Infant Feeders.

Most associations count hundreds, even thousands, of members from every state in the union, and from foreign nations as well, according to the prestigious, four-volume "Encyclopedia of Associations." The Whirly-Girls comprise 436 women helicopter pilots from 25 countries. Two thousand transportation token collectors -- from the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia -- belong to the American Vecturist Association. And roughly 2,500 Americans, from Billings to Brooklyn pledge their allegiance to the American Donkey and Mule Society (ADMS).

So much for the numbers. More important is the fact that these associations operate with indefatigable zeal. As de Tocqueville observed, "There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society."

When the Whirly Girls are not at the controls of their "egg-beaters," they campaign for hospital heliports, provide emergency transportation, sponsor scholarships for aspiring helicopter pilots, and attend regularly held 'hoverings" (meetings) around the world.

The National Association for the Advancement of Aardvarks in America sponsors National Aardvark Day (March 13), holds an annual aardvark run, and urges people not to patronize zoos that do not keep aardvarks on the premises.

And the American Donkey and Mule Society registers donkeys and mules in its "Stud Book," gives awards to donkeys and their owners for outstanding service in the community, and holds a national ADMS convention. This year, the convention will take place in Marshalltown, Iowa, where more than 1,000 donkey-lovers from all over the United States will be on hand to select the 1984 national champion donkey and national champion mule.

To keep members abreast of all the activities, associations publish weekly newsletters, monthly magazines and quarterly journals. Publications such as Hamlet's Proclamation, the Dracula Journal and the Chrome Dome (for bald-headed men) provide, for many associationists, their principal means of mutual contact, the conduit through which they plot and plan their upcoming activities.

The Cow Puddle Press's International Barbed Wire Gazette targets the serious barbed wire trader. Now and again, the Gazette will include a feature on the "History of the #566 Freese 'diamond-link' Find," or an in-depth look at early brands of barbed wire liniment, for "both man and beast." But the Gazette's barbed wire trends column -- a simple black and white chart listing the latest prices for 544 varieties of barbed wire -- is what keeps readers coming back for more.

More than a few associations have failed over the last decade, but the news that some associations have become defunct should not lead anyone to believe that associationism is now in decline. Groups such as the Save-A-Cat League fell by the wayside, I would argue, only because of the futility and unpopularity of its particular cause. The modern menace -- or hope, depending on your view -- of associationism remains alive and well in the United States today.