THE DEMOCRATS don't have to get more conservative to win elections. All they have to do is get more ecological.

Not whales-and-wetlands ecological. They already do enough of that. Cultural ecology is what they need -- an understanding that just as redwoods and snail darters exist as parts of whole systems, so do human beings.

Admittedly, when you think of ecology you still think of plants and animals, not human culture; of dune grass or strip mining, not a high school basketball team or the Protestant work ethic or a steel- mining town in Pennsylvania.

But assume for the moment that we talked as easily about the dangers of messing with culture as with nature.

For instance, a natural ecologist worries that raising crop yields with insecticides will pollute ground water, tainting fish eaten by birds whose eggshells will be too weak to mature, and so on, in ever widening circles. In the same way, a cultural ecologist might worry that lowering teen-age pregnancies with sex- education courses will undercut parents as teachers of the morality supported by their churches, and this will undercut the churches, and so on, in ever-widening circles affecting a whole system of belief, authority and community.

In other words, we are talking about the long-term and all-too-often unforeseen effects of social engineering.

Given the Democrats' history as the party of the common touch, you'd think they'd have been especially sensitive to cultural ecology. But the same Democrats who seemed willing to throw their bodies in front of bulldozers to protect a tree seemed unconcerned about uprooting such cultural forests as neighborhood schools or union-won seniority systems, except to the extent that they examine them as voter issues with techniques like multiple-regression analysis when they design election-year ad campaigns.

The Democrats understood that it's not nice to fool Mother Nature. But they forgot that it's Mother Culture that sends people to the polls.

There was a lot of fooling with Mother Culture in the '60s and '70s. Busing fooled with neighborhood traditions. Expanded welfare payments fooled with the work ethic. Affirmative action fooled with majority rights and ancient prejudices while we handed out "minority rights" to any group that could afford a bullhorn and a Xerox machine.

Meanwhile, Democrats watched whole steel towns turn to wastelands and talked about re-training, high-tech and worker buyouts. They looked at human systems and analyzed them as economic ones. "They never told us what was real," Billy Joel sings ironically in "Allentown" -- "Iron and coal, chromium steel."

All this must frustrate Democrats, particularly the liberals who have given the party its identity.

They know there are lots of voters out there in America who agree with them that you can't trust conservatives and Republicans to keep corporations from ripping us off, and who don't want to spend American lives, or very much money either, on anticommunist crusades in the Third World. But how can the Democrats back away from all the cultural commitments that cost them votes?

It wasn't always this way for the Democrats. Once they were the social and cultural conservatives. They were the party of saloons in the North and segregation in the South while the Republicans plugged away for social changes like Prohibition, civil rights and an equal- rights amendment to the Constitution.

After Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, it was the Democrats who became the party of civil rights, feminism, federal regulation, the Miranda decision, housing projects, rent control, affirmative action and constant intervening in the mores and customs of the whole society -- "acid, amnesty and abortion," as the Republicans put it in the 1972 presidential campaign.

They also became the party of ecology. By now, environmental concerns and whole-system thinking are a tradition among the Democrats. And ecology, which looks at the world as a system, isn't that far from cultural conservatism. It asks us to respect what already exists and to understand that small changes can have huge consequences decades down the road. The thing is, no one has applied it to cultural issues in America as a whole.

There were some exceptions, of course. Liberals worried a lot about the cultural ecology of a number of minorities, urging that Southwest Indians be allowed to take peyote, or Eskimos be allowed to kill whales that are on the endangered species list, or blacks be exempted from taking the same standardized tests that whites took, or that government protect ethnic neighborhoods from "gentrification" -- the same neighborhoods, as it happened, that their slum-clearance programs had missed.

But maybe the liberals felt comfortable giving the privileges of plants and animals only to minorities. The rest of the culture got treated differently.

It was as if the government assumed that we had inexhaustible cultural resources, the same way that a coal company might have once assumed that we had infinite land to strip mine and water to pollute, so ravaging something as small as, say, West Virginia wouldn't make much difference.

Cultural resources aren't as easy to point to as clean water or a swamp, but they were there. And liberals certainly seemed to see them as resources they could exploit indefinitely.

These were resources such as the patriotism we drained away in national frenzies of self-recrimination; willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of oppressed people, even when that meant racial quotas and a new brand of discrimination because of race; ability to suspend judgment when told that the only differences between the sexes are genital; and so on.

With the second election of President Reagan, most Democrats seemed to perceive that we'd been abusing our cultural resources for too long. Could they convert this perception into a philosophy of cultural ecology?

The trick would be to turn the scientific principle of ecology into a metaphor, in the same way that Einstein's physics got people arguing that everything -- physical, moral, whatever -- is relative. Or the way that 19th-century sociologists read about evolution and applied the concept of survival of the fittest to civilizations -- Social Darwinism.

Think about it. Maybe it's nothing more than an intellectual whim, a conceptual gadget. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine going too far wrong, giving people the same rights we give to snail darters.