The biggest surprise of this election year is that young voters are going heavily for Ronald Reagan. This was predicted by almost no one except a few Reagan acolytes who were patted on the head and paid no further heed. As recently as six months ago, the Democrats were including young people as one item on their list of target groups (blacks, Hispanics, women, etc.) for voter registration drives. But campuses and singles apartment complexes that were once going for McGovern are now pro-Reagan.

This might not come as such a surprise if you think about the case of Walter Polovchak. Polovchak, as a 12-year-old boy in 1980, refused to go back to the Soviet Union with his parents. They had migrated here, stayed seven months, then decided to return. But Walter liked things a lot better in Chicago than in the Ukraine and wanted to stay. His parents sued. Walter, helped by both the Carter and Reagan administrations, has been able to string out the court cases. He lives on the northwest side of Chicago and looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen next year.

Walter Polovchak learned about America in a flash in 1979 and 1980. Most new voters this year learned about America in a flash at just about the same time. Walter Polovchak liked the America he saw. So did most young Americans, and they plan to vote for the candidate who best seems to share their feelings: Ronald Reagan.

But, you may ask, what about the impulse of youth to rebel against things as they are? Why aren't these young people rebelling? The answer is that they are. Walter Polovchak rebelled quite explicitly against parents who wanted to take him back to the Ukraine. And the new half-generation of voters are rebelling against the old politics.

This rebellion has sometimes, not least in Reagan campaign propaganda, been portrayed as a rebellion against the Carter administration and Democratic liberals. These new voters, it is said, have only really known two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and they prefer the latter.

Perhaps. But what the young voters are rebelling against is not simply one man or his government; they are rebelling against an entire prevailing attitude about politics and government and country, an attitude exhibited by both liberals and conservatives, politicians and ordinary people.

This was the extreme cynicism and pessimism of the late 1970s. When pollsters asked Americans whether their country was going in the right direction or on the wrong track, numbers on the order of 72 percent said the wrong track. Politicians, reading such polls, echoed those feelings; the negative feelings echoed and reverberated year after year.

Yet was America in such bad shape? As the young Americans of the late 1970s and early 1980s looked around them, they saw, with more clarity than their elders, a nation that was prosperous, generous, tolerant and at peace. They heard the liberals denouncing sexism and racism. But girls and young women found themselves with all kinds of opportunities, and racial prejudice seemed confined increasingly to "All in the Family." They heard conservatives denouncing a nation growing weaker and bankrupt. But the America around them was unthreatened by war (and had no draft) and was obviously prosperous. They heard civil libertarians talking of repression. But they found pornography, drugs, abortions freely -- excessively -- available.

The political dialogue of the late 1970s was written by operatives entranced with theories of alienation and malaise. From the tone of political debate, and from the lamentations of voters themselves, you might have thought that Americans were living in the Central Europe of the 1930s. But to young Americans seeing their country afresh, as Walter Polovchak did, this was not true.

So the Walter Polovchak generation has been rooting for America -- in Grenada, in the Olympics and in the Reagan campaign. To some of their not-so-elders, who remember what can happen when patriotism is carried too far, this seems threatening and mindless. Yet who can deny that the United States is, despite its defects, in important ways morally preferable to the Soviet Union? These young people, probably more than those who rooted for the Vietcong, are cheering for the good guys.

The Democrats had a chance in the Carter years to hitch a ride on the optimism and confidence that has followed the undue pessimism and negativism of the late 1970s. But they blew it. Now it is the turn of the Republicans and of Ronald Reagan, a politician so optimistic he was singing this tune even when it did not ring true. The members of the older, Vietnam-and-Watergate generation -- the baby boom generation -- may want to write off this newer generation. But before they do, they should ponder the case of Walter Polovchak. Didn't he make the right choice? Doesn't the Walter Polovchak generation, like the generations of youth before it, have something to teach those of us who are, perhaps uncomfortably, its elders?