SOME BLACKS ARE complaining that the Democratic Party has made the black vote the Rodney Dangerfield of self-interest politics. Despite unswerving loyalty to the party, black Democrats don't get any respect.
In last year's presidential election, as in the five before it, blacks gave nearly 90 percent of their votes to the Democratic nominee. Most other interest groups split their votes, and majorities of many traditionally Democratic groups went Republican.
Now, black loyalty is being rewarded with a call to sacrifice. Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. has told black Democrats to cool it: lower their profile, demand less and help the party shed its image as a collective of "special interests." Leading black Democrats have agreed to go along, albeit with some hand-wringing and furrowed brows.
Their reservations are understandable, but black voters stand to be taken for granted for the rest of this century unless they demonstrate that there is a real "black vote," not just a predictable Democratic vote that happens to be black.
If blacks really are self-interest voters whose politics are defined primarily by race, the most potent way to show it is through genuine two-party swing voting. That would require some serious political independence -- like voting Republican in a few elections. In droves. Soon.
Otherwise, the Democratic National Committee's black caucus could find itself becoming little more than a social club, more cultural than political, while other "special interest" groups wield the real power.
In those circumstances, the blacks might find it less frustrating to abolish their own caucus and become influential players in groups that have real clout -- Southerners, Westerners or women, for example.
The independent course is one for pragmatic politicians. Those who adopt it inherently accept that blacks are 12 percent of the population in a vastly pluralistic society, and that even when the real choice is between the lesser of grim evils, it is better to actively play the political game than to withdraw or engage in symbolic, protest politics. It does not rule out coalitions across any lines. If that means linking up with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the evangelical right on some issue, for example, so be it.
This approach rejects the notion that black votes and black concerns are political leprosy that has destroyed the Democratic Party and would do the same to the Republicans. And it assumes that black voters will continue to be willing to accept the "black agenda" piecemeal. No interest group ever gets all it wants.
If there is a will to play swing politics, there also is a way.
Statistics compiled by the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black- oriented think tank here, show that in 17 major states of the South, Midwest and Northeast, the black portion of the voting age population is anywhere between three and 30 times as large as the median victory margin in presidential elections between 1960 and 1980.
Given a closely divided white electorate, half the black vote could make or break the prospects of either party in Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Missouri, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and eight states in the Deep South. Together, the 17 states contain 221 of the nation's 538 electoral votes, with 268 needed to win the presidency.
Swing constituencies have shown they can be powerful, even as minorities of minorities. Reagan won only 41 percent of the union vote in 1980, but that was enough to deny Jimmy Carter the two-thirds majority that Democrats usually count on from that group. When such denials were multiplied among other special interest voters, the GOP had won a victory.
Much of this is viewed as a change from special-interest voting to general-interest voting. The union members who voted for Reagan voted on something other than his position on union issues. Why can't blacks vote on something other than race-based issues? They can and do.
The point here, however, is that special-interest voting is not becoming passe, only certain special interests. Political realignment introduces some new players, others simply switch teams or show up in different uniforms. There is room for a black interest group in American politics.
Blacks, who gave only 68 percent of their votes to John F. Kennedy in 1960, are showing they will vote for Republicans -- even in the Deep South, where many contend the modern Republican Party grew up primarily in response to the Democrats' embrace of civil rights.
In Mississippi, for instance, Sen. Thad Cochran made a direct appeal for black votes in his reelection campaign that soundly defeated former Gov. William F. Winter, a liberal Democrat.
Up north in Pennsylvania, Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh and Sen. Arlen Specter, both Republicans, have sought and attracted black votes that ordinarily go to Democrats. In New Jersey, Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who enjoys favorable job performance ratings from more than half the state's blacks, is hoping to get 20 percent of the black vote in his reelection bid this fall.
One swing constituency already targeted by some is the Buppies -- Black Upwardly-mobile Professionals. Generally, blacks have not followed the pattern of other ethnic groups, which switched voting patterns as they entered the middle class. Many Republican strategists hope the Buppies soon will.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson laid some groundwork for an independent black voting block during his campaign last year for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson developed an elective base that was sometimes divorced from -- and even hostile toward -- the Democratic Party.
Only seven years ago, moveover, Jackson proferred to the Republican National Committee the idea that blacks and the GOP could form an "alliance" of "mutual need" and declared that "blacks will vote for Republicans who appeal to their vested interest and engage in reciprocity."
It would be foolish to expect a sea change of black voting in 1988. Milestone political events -- Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Roosevelt's New Deal, Johnson's Civil Rights bill -- have accompanied every other major shift or intensification of black voter behavior.
No leading Republicans are proposing any such landmark offerings to improve the black condition and lure the black vote. Moreover, aside from Sen. Gary Hart's call for a "new crusade" for economic opportunity aimed at ambitious young blacks, Democrats have offered little new, either. They have said only that they will not retreat to the Republican positions on civil rights and government social programs.
Still, there are several reasons to think that blacks can be more effective swing voters in future elections than they have been in the past:
*The Democrats are worki6451ard to compete more effectively for the white vote, especially in the South. The more the two parties have to fight for white votes -- that is to say, the closer the elections -- the more both can be forced to fight for black votes, too.
*In their quest to become the new majority party, Republicans are trying to compete for the black vote. Last year, young conservatives in Congress jumped ahead of the curve on what has become a potent political issue by imploring the Reagan administration to change its policies towards South Africa.
Labor Secretary Wiliam E. Brock, who in the past has encouraged stronger GOP ties to blacks, spoke recently to the NAACP National Convention and embraced continued affirmative action more strongly than most top administration officials have in the past.
*Ronald Reagan will not be running for president. Few blacks could imagine voting for a candidate such as Reagan, who once suggested he thought it possible that Martin Luther King was a communist. The four principal would-be Republican presidential contenders -- Vice President Bush, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), and former-Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) -- carry no such baggage.
*Not only do the Republicans hold no strong negatives, but few of the Democrats have lifelong ties to black causes the way Walter F. Mondale and Hubert H. Humphrey did. Sen Hart is relatively unknown. So is New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. So is Sen. Joseph R. Biden. So are all of the other most frequently discussed Democratic hopefuls except Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
It can be a whole new ball game.