American politics, as the successful practitioners of that dark art understand, is about Change. By nature and birthright, most Americans are congenital optimists who believe change is just another synonym for progress.

During the period running roughly from 1930 to 1970, Democrats held the near-exclusive franchise on optimism in our national politics. They promised a bigger, brighter tomorrow where everybody would have a date for Saturday night and gas money, too. During that same 40 years, Republicans seemed to spend a lot of time telling people that things were not going well and the only way they might work out was through our following a national policy of cold showers and root canal work.

Of course, in the late 1970s, the two parties totally reversed their roles: Democrats said we should lower our expectations and look to a bleak future, while Republicans said they would lower our taxes and we could all look to a brighter future. The question the graduate student in anthropology in the late 21st century may ask is when and why did the Democrats stop believing in progress, improvement and change?

The "why" part is elusive, but the "when" part is pretty easy. It was about 15 years ago. That was when the better-born and better-heeled liberal Democrats (a number of whom had fled their native GOP in embarrassment over the Goldwater candidacy and/or the Nixon-Agnew presidency) and their loyal disciples were able to transform the Democrats from the party of the lunch bucket to that of the dinner party. Some of these better-heeled folks are not quite as keen about Change as those not so well-off. Nor do they necessarily consider it always to be progress traveling under an alias.

For example, most of these people feel we have made all the progress possible in the important matter of wearing apparel, a subject on which an overwhelming majority of them hold undoubting preferences for traditional clothing. That's the kind that features natural fibers and wrinkles, and is best- suited for a big-budget household with a skilled laundress on its payroll.

Among working-class Democrats of the same period, the group that constituted the voting base of the party, other qualities were more prized in their wardrobes. These folks preferred clothes that were durable, easy to care for and unappetizing to moths. Such clothes were not made of natural fibers but of miracle materials, some of which enabled the wearer to sleep in a garment made of them without its even wrinkling.

In what can only be called an aesthetic Pearl Harbor, without warning or provocation, working-class Democrats suddenly were attacked and ridiculed by their social superiors within the party for their devotion to these non-natural fibers. Think about it: lifelong Democrats were turned into objects of derision and eventually, in many cases, into Republicans, all because of what they wore. Their outfits made them outcasts.

Unlike nylon and rayon before it, polyester became not proof of national progress but circumstantial evidence that its individual owner was gauche, unsophisticated and probably unlettered. Polyster, as in "pink polyester pants suit," became the all-purpose put-down for use by natural-fabric bigots.

In any given year in just about any given precinct, of course, a majority of such bigots are registered Republicans. But the polyester offensive was a case of more powerful Democrats attacking less powerful members of their own party.

By condoning the raid of the sleek upon the meek, the Democratic Party lost sight of, or interest in, the legitimate preoccupation of working people with practicality, progress and their pocketbooks. The stage was set for the 1980 and 1984 election campaigns, in which the GOP, essentially by respecting those interests and recognizing the people who held them, was able to capture millions of working-class voters.

When the Democratic Party became a fashion show, it seemed to go out of style.