By Michael Barone

TO UNDERSTAND AMERICAN politics in the middle 1980s, you need to accept something about the United States that probably will be the first thing future historians will notice about our time, but which almost everyone fails to see or even denies today:

We are a nation at peace.

Not only -- though this is crucial -- are we not at war, nor likely to be involved in a major war any time soon.

We are also a nation at peace, to a greater extent than we realize, with ourselves. Beneath the turmoil and clash of everyday American politics, beneath the sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric, we have been approaching something like a consensus about basic values and policies, and something resembling a consensus on the differences we are willing to tolerate in each other. Amid all the fashionable talk of the politics of alienation, angst and anomie, the election results of 1984 helped to reveal Americans to themselves as reasonably pleased with the nation they have come to be.

If you find this conclusion implausible, pause for a moment and consider the 1984 election returns. Taken together they do not prove that there is a new Republican majority or a terminal decay of the old Democratic coalition, though they provide tantalizing evidence of each.

The most striking thing about the election returns is that they show victories for incumbents at almost every level. First, of course, President Reagan won reelection with 59 percent of the vote. Each of the preceding four presidents had been challenged in primaries; Reagan was not. Two of the four were defeated and the other two, after victories, were soon humiliated.

That may still happen to Reagan, but the ingredients were not apparent in the 1984 results. There was an evenness to the percentages in each state and region that isn't apparent in any presidential election results since 1960. This wasn't a regional victory, nor was there a region vigorously protesting it and providing a base for an uprising as soon as the incumbent slips.

Look at other results. The Senate has only five new members; its last two freshman classes are the smallest in recent history. In the House, mainly, the rule held that an incumbent who provides constituency service and tends to the parochial needs of his district is almost never defeated. The voters of 1984 returned to office 390 House members in 435 districts. That's just one below the all-time high. The changes in governships were not earth-shaking, and legislatures suffered hardly any change at all.

Incumbent victories are not by themselves proof that voters are satisified.

They may just be repelled by the alternatives. But the incumbent victories of 1984 followed a striking shift in the underlying currents of public opinion. Consider the responses to the politicl pollsters' typical opening question, "Are things in the nation today going in the right direction, or are they pretty much off on the wrong track?"

Through most of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the responses were almost always negative, sometimes by more than 2-1 margins. Only with the accessions of new presidents did optimism appear, and then it quickly vanished. That happened again in 1981. But this time optimism reappeared in 1982, well in advance of the economic recovery, at a time when the nation was in its fourth year of recession.

In early 1984, pollsters found most Americans optimistic about the direction of the nation, and over the summer and fall their optimism grew. Obviously this worked to the benefit of that most optimistic of incumbent presidents, Ronald Reagan. But evidently it worked to the benefit of incumbents of both parties running for offices of all kinds.

The result was a ratification of the status quo. The voters voted to continue the policies and spirit of Ronald Reagan -- as modified and moderated by the sometimes different-minded Republicans in the Senate and the very different-minded Democrats in the House. This is quite an extraordinary result. Only once before in American history have voters continued different parties in control of the two houses of Congress for three elections in a row, and that was in the 1880s when the balance between the parties was much closer, and more regionally-based, than it is now.

The voters have shifted the political fulcrum back and forth several times in the last decade, giving wide power to the Democrats in 1976 and giving Republicans control of the legislative process in 1980. But increasingly the fulcrum points seem closer together. The voters seem to have reached a balance they want.

It is a balance that makes sense, at least in terms of the issues of the past. It was quite evident in the 1970s, well before the Republican victories of 1980, that the public wanted limits set to the expansion of government. In response, a Democratic Congress in the Carter years cut rather than raised the capital-gains tax and phased out controls on oil prices.

Yet it was also apparent, early in the first Reagan term, that the voters didn't want significant cuts in programs like Social Security that help the vast middle class. The Republican-controlled Congress shied quickly away from any such proposals.

Fiscal realities sometimes intrude, as do prompt bipartisan moves like the tax increase of 1982 and the Social Security reforms of 1983. But the legislative compromisers move within narrow parameters. The evidence is that the balance between the public and private sectors -- the major domestic subject of political debate in this country for 50 years -- is today pretty much where the public wants it and has voted to keep it, much to the frustration of ideologues of left or right.

So is the balance on foreign policy. Here of course other elected officials have only a marginal effect on a determined president -- or on determined executive- branch officials who have the confidence of the president. Yet they can set some limits, and do. The Congress, for example, has made it clear it will not give carte blanche to the MX missile or to covert U.S. activity in Central America. It has helped to move the Reagan administration away from the reflexive defense of Salvadoran military leaders typical of U.S. right-wingers and toward a not-so-subtle backing of Jose Napoleon Duarte, whose domestic economic policies are quite different from any you'll hear Ronald Reagan advocating.

Americans obviously came to regard the Carter administration's foreign policy as conceding too much to the bad guys. They prefer the more assertive, risky policies of Ronald Reagan, but with their assertiveness toned down and their risks limited by concessions extracted from other politicans.

Of course this balance in American plitics won't last. The actors will change but, more important, the issues will too. The voters and the politicians will move on from settled issues to those who are still open; from issues on which the lines are clearly drawn and the coalitions assembled to issues on which arguments are made in all directions and blocs of support are fluid. Or the voters and politicians will move because the underlying assumptions on which they based their policies -- the way they said the world works -- have been proved by events to be false.

But the most basic of these assumptions- -that we are a nation at peace--we must hope will be maintained. The historian William McNeill has described how, through history, military mobilization has been accompanied by government control over the economy: big war machines and big governments go together. Arms races and wars tend to produce command economies, which are less efficient than and grow less than market economies, in this view.

Certainly in a democracy citizens' tolerance of government interference increases in wartime. The mobilization policies of 1917-1918, as McNeill points out, helped inspire the New Deal; and it was World War II, and not the New Deal, that resulted in a steeply progressive income tax with marginal rates up to 91 per cent. For a time in the 1940s it looked as if we might find most of our new housing built by the government, as in Britain; have most of our workers represented by unions, allied to the Democratic administration; have a system of government economic planning and allocation of resources. None of these things happened, but fierce battles were fought over them, and each had significant support. To a very large segment of the public, they didn't seem illegitimate or unthinkable. In a time when government is drafting young men and sending them to their deaths, it's hard for others to complain that the government is taking their money or doing bad things with it.

Today, as Irving Howe has noted, the political debate has moved to the right of where it was 40 years ago. But no one thinks it even worth arguing any more that the government should build housing or allocate capital or even (witness the failure of the labor-law reform bill in the Democratic Congress in 1978) encourage labor unions.

That shift to the right has come during 40 years of peace. Uneasy, to be sure, and a peace punctuated by limited wars in Korea and Vietnam and minor skirmishes elsewhere. But Korea and Vietnam, however much they may have shaped the attitudes of the young men who fought in them (or, in the case of Vietnam, didn't fight), have had nothing like the effect on the general society of a major war like that of 1941-45.

No war since then has had that kind of impact on the United States. Korea and Vietnam if anything tended to erode rather than strengthen the idea that government had legitimate claims on the persons and money of citizens.

Now we have surely the last president whose attitudes and beliefs were shaped during those war-influenced years. Ronald Reagan was plucked from a successful movie career and drafted into doing makework; his high postwar-earnings were taxed at or near the 91 percent rate. Beginning as a New Deal liberal and supporter of the war effort, he became an opponent of big government and an advocate of cutting taxes. He came to office in an America 35 years away from major war and ready for his message. His politics -- or his politics as modified by the Congress -- is the natural politics of a nation at peace.

So, it can be argued, is his foreign policy. Reagan is a steady opponent of the draft: no government compulsion here, either. We have, in effect, a free-enterprise military, filled by young men and women motivated by a mixture of economic incentives (job training as well as pay) and by the spirit of national pride which even Mondale admitted Reagan has helped to inspire in the America of the 1980s. The fact is that Reagan's foreign and defense policies have cost the nation mostly money -- money which the prosperous America of the middle 1980s seems confident it can afford.

If a nation at peace is less tolerant of government intervention than a nation at war, so also is it more tolerant of diversity in its own ranks.

A nation at war is, literally, in uniform. It stresses the things that bind it together. It necessarily celebrates its unity and homogeneity. The America at peace in the 1980s does quite the opposite. The conformity that so many observers noticed about the America of the 1950s has not always been a feature of our history, which is full of cantankerousness and eccentricity, variety and diversity. It was an artifact of the shared experiences of depression and, particularly, war, which made Americans want to be more alike.

There were still divisions -- regional, ethnic and racial, economic -- but, as the years went on, those divisions tended to blur: the end of racial segregation made the regions more alike, the decline of discrimination in daily life and the ongoing march of the generations submerged many ethnic and racial differences, the rising tide of affluence put the very large majority of Americans into an economic class that only a few enjoyed in the Roosevelt years.

Yet at the same time, these increases in affluence and toleration were leading to promoting greater cultural variety: Americans could afford to choose their own identity.

The result is that increasingly our politics has become based on our cultural variety. We have tried to treat cultural issues as if they were nuisances -- as if they ought not to be political issues at all. If you could poll working politicians on abortion, for example, you would find that most hope the issue will just go away. Gun control is seen as a nuisance by most of its supporters -- a way for the opposition to divert voters who would otherwise be there on the "real issues." School prayer, marijuana legislation, nuclear power, homosexual rights -- all are derisively labeled "peripheral" issues or denounced as "single issues," on the sole basis of which, voters should not make their decisions.

Politicians, particularly Democrats who still think their party has a "natural majority," want elections decided on New Deal economic issues and along the old ethnic and regional lines.

But for most Americans the unsettled -- and unsettling -- issues of cultural values and ways of life are more important and pressing than the mostly settled issues of economic policy and ethnic division.

Those issues do not cut in only one direction. The Democrats expected to be big winners in 1984 off the series of cultural issues they summed up in the phrase "gender gap." Yet it was the Republicans who made large unanticipated gains among two culturally defined segments of the electorate.

Let us see how the gender gap failed to work for the Democrats, and how Ronald Reagan's unexpected strength among the young and the technology-friendly helped him win over what may turn out to be permanent cultural constituencies for the Republicans.

First, the cultural divide that didn't swing the election -- the gender gap.

This is not the first country to have one, nor is it the first time a difference between men's and women's voting choices have appeared in the United States. In France and Italy, women have long been more conservative than men; politics revolved aroung questions of church and state, and women were the ones who went to church.

In the United States, women have typically voted a couple of points more for candidates they considered safer, more likely to seek peace and more adverse to risk: Eisenhower in 1952, Nixon in 1960, Humphrey in 1968, Ford in 1976. They were less willing than men to take chances.

The odd thing about the gender gap of the 1980s was that this time women were voting more liberal than men, and that the difference was celebrated most conspicuously by feminists and others who wanted to remake society. But in another sense the impulse was conservative: to the extent that women, particularly young women without spouses and in the labor market, were voting more heavily against Ronald Reagan than men -- and they were -- they did so because he seemed to threaten the things most important to them, from welfare checks to the legitimacy of being a single parent.

All of which is not to say that the gender gap does not exist and won't continue to exist. All signs are that it does and will. Women did vote more often for Mondale and Democrats than for Reagan and Republicans in 1984, and in some important contests -- the Illinois Senate race, for example -- that made the difference. But underneath the overall gender gap are other gaps. Married people are now a lot more Republican than unmarried people; divorced people vote differently from the widowed, even when you control for age, and so on.

You can almost certainly correlate voting habits with food preferences, and one poll even did so with cars: Volvo owners in 1980 went more heavily for John Anderson than almost any other demographic group, and three-quarters of foreign car owners in the 1984 Massachusetts primary voted for either Gary Hart or George McGovern. "You are," as columnist Mark Shields says, "what you drive."

Those who thought the gender gap would swing the 1984 election to the Democrats made their mistake by ignoring the overall context and the possibility of backlash. The kind of feminism associated with gender-gap enthusiasts did in fact create its own backlash, skillfully exploited by the Reagan strategists who targeted certain types of women as well as men who were turned off by it.

Moreover, to the extent that gender-gap enthusiasts were protesting against things as they were, they found working against them the strong optimistic trend of opinion that was the decisive undercurrent in the 1984 elections.

Working in tandem with the surge of optimism, in contrast, were the two unanticipated cultural trends that worked for Ronald Reagan. The first was the strong Republican trend among voters under 30.

The Democrats, who supposed that voters under 30 in the early 1980s would act just like voters under 30 in the late 1960s, were caught utterly by surprise -- just like the demographers and political conservatives of the late 1960s, who thought that the baby- boom generation (defined as those born between 1947 and 1962) would turn out to be like its parents' generation, complete with large families and conventional, conformist cultural attitudes.

The natural rebelliousness of this generation of youth seems to have been directed, not at the American institutions which Americans generally have been corrosively criticizing for the last dozen years, but at the habit of corrosive criticism itself. They looked around at a country that Democrats and news commentators and grown-ups generally have been saying is in the terminal stages of decay and saw that it was actually a pretty decent place: a nation of widely shared affluence, of tolerance, of achievement.

They gravitated naturally to the one politician who has been delivering this message all along, even when it went against the grain -- Ronald Reagan.

So, though it was not noticed as much, did America's technology-minded citizens. From the Silicon Valley to Route 128, there has been since the 1970s a noticeable movement away from the Democrats and toward Ronald Reagan's Republicans.

The environmental and cultural issues which once attracted such voters to liberal banners now seem settled. The economic policies -- lower taxes -- of Reagan Republicans seem unmistakeably to have stimulated a round of technological innovation and economic growth.

The Democrats tend to see technology, from smokestack industries to nuclear power, from the latest strategic nuclear weapons to the 20th century's proliferation of the automobile, as a threat. But by the middle 1980s, when millions of Americans were buying videocassette recorders and home computers, technology seemed user- friendly. It was making their life better.

Walter Mondale ran a series of ads criticizing President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") as dangerous. But viewers apparently shared the presdent's confidence that this new technology could reduce the chances of nuclear war.

After all, no one was voting for war in 1984; Reagan won because most voters thought he stood for prosperity and for peace, in a nation which they recognized, after years of negativism and cynicism, as a prosperous and peaceful place.

Whether that prosperity and peace -- external peace with the world and internal peace with ourselves in all our diversity -- is maintained, no one can say. But those who are looking for political upheaval or realignment, for a leftward lurch in response to economic troubles or the emergence of a reliable Republican majority in approval of all of Ronald Reagan's policies, seem likely to be disappointed.

The 1984 elections portray us as a nation at peace -- a people who, for a time at least, have reached an equilibrium we would like to maintain.