THE MOST important political idea of the mid-1980s is cultural conservatism.

Republican or Democrat, the first 1988 presidential candidate to genuinely grasp the timeliness of this idea -- not just make some pro forma utterances about school prayer and abortion -- could very quickly find himself with a powerful national constituency. Indeed, the Democrats could have the most to gain, winning back the conservative blue-collar voters they have alienated with their assault on traditional values. It is worth noting that two potential Democratic candidates -- Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona -- while not cultural conservatives, have begun to use the language of the movement from time to time.

What is cultural conservatism?

First, it might be worthwhile pointing out what it is not. It stands distinctly apart from the Reagan administration -- not because the administration is too moderate, but because it is, on the whole, often trivial. Two Cabinet members -- Education Secretary William Bennett and Attorney General Edwin Meese III -- have articulated culturally conservative themes such as the central role of character development in education. But beyond defense and economics, Ronald Reagan's "second American revolution" died with the rhetoric of the 1980 campaign and was replaced with little more than good public relations based on president's attractive personality. Many key White House advisors appear to be utterly unaware of our cultural and national breakdown.

At the same time, cultural conservatism stands apart from other Reagan critics on the right -- such as the New Right. In fact, it is in part a response to the New Right's failings. To be blunt -- and I speak as one of the founders and leaders of the New Right -- it has no issues, in most peoples' minds, beyond school prayer and abortion.

Cultural conservatism also rejects the argument that the free market is the only answer to most problems; it disputes extreme libertarians who espouse a "do your own thing" philosophy; and unlike the Religious Right, it does not ask anyone to believe that traditional values are absolutely true, only that these values succeed in providing for citizens in our culture.

As to what the movement is: We believe that there is an unbreakable link between traditional Western, Judeo-Christian values and the secular success of Western societies. These values, which include definitions of right and wrong and ways of thinking and living, have brought about the prosperity, liberty and opportunity for fulfillment that Western societies have offered their citizens. These will be lost if we abandon those values.

Here is why this idea of cultural conservatism is the wave of the political future. Despite calls to "feel good about America," the principal trend during the last 25 years has been breakdown. One after another, the political and economic achievements of our society have begun to crumble. We have lost the first major war in our history. Our ability to compete industrially has faded, and we have returned to the status of international net debtor for the first time since 1914. Our standard of living, measured by what the next generation can expect in housing, transportation and education, has started to fall. The body politic is crumbling into competing and often mutually hostile groups, where the cries of special interests drown the general voice.

Breakdown is even more evident on the social and cultural levels. Public education produces many high school graduates who can neither read, write nor do basic mathematics. College and university students seldom receive a real education in the writings and thought that built Western civilization; most are merely trained in rote techniques.

Our education standards have dropped dramatically compared to other nations. Society's most basic unit of acculturation and civilization, the family, is falling apart; 40 percent of all children are growing up in single-parent homes, and the divorce rate is about 50 percent. In our cities, a permanent underclass has emerged, characterized by alienation, anomie and a subculture based on instant gratification through sex, drugs and crime. Murder is now the leading cause of death among black males aged 15 to 24.

Among the elite, the concepts of duty and service, which alone make elites legitimate, have suffered badly from a "Me Generation" morality. As a consequence, our society is increasingly leaderless. Cultural conservatives reject the concept of "liberation" as it was used in the 1960s and '70s: the notion that traditional limits on behavior violate individuals' rights and produce unhappiness. As cultural-conservative theoretician William S. Lind writes, "Limits, which seem unnatural, are in fact wholly natural, because they reflect what people have learned over the ages about their own nature."

There is a close, causal link between the abandonment of traditional ways of thinking and living since about 1960 and the national decline that has marked the same period. Increasingly, America seems to suffer from what might be called "the ancien regime syndrome." Despite our country's wealth and human potential, its institutions seem unable to function effectively.

Thanks to democracy, our ancien regime cannot ignore its own failures indefinitely, nor does real change require a revolution. Voters armed with a new idea can throw the rascals out, as they have in previous reforms such as the Progressive movement and the New Deal. They seem ready for change; they voted strongly for it in 1976 when they elected Jimmy Carter, and again in 1980 with Ronald Reagan, although they have not gotten much of what they voted for. They might well respond to such a platform regardless of the party which adopted it.

How will the political parties respond to a movement with concerns and ideas such as these?

The Republican Party leadership is still largely focused on economic matters, and, with the exception of Ronald Reagan himself and a few others, it sees only dimly beyond Wall Street and the Washington Beltway. Few of the Republican candidates identified for 1988 have shown any inclination in the direction of cultural conservatism.

The situation with the Democrats is potentially more interesting. While the Democratic Party's elite is dominated by the remnants of the liberation movement of the 1970s, its rank and file is more conservative culturally than the typical upwardly mobile Republican. In particular, the blue-collar voters the Democrats lost so disastrously in 1980 and 1984 have strong cultural-conservative instincts. It would be risky for a Democratic candidate to try to reach around the elite to the party's broad membership and to cultural conservatives who now think of themselves as Republicans, but the success of one who did so might be dramatic.

Survey data show Gary Hart's still largely undefined push for "New Ideas" is very popular with the electorate. Hart recently published an article entitled "Beyond Economics," which raised some real cultural-conservative themes and, by its very title, issued a challenge to the purely economic conservatives.

Of course, as a campaign platform, cultural conservatism tends to lack the statistical and econometric crispness we have come to expect from campaigners ever since John F. Kennedy dazzled press conferences with his command of facts. But fact-mongering and value-free scientific analysis have failed to cure our problems, and have often been part of their cause. We believe that America has to look to values if it wants to solve the specific problems that confront it. Government has an important role in upholding the society's moral fabric -- by its own example; by its use of the "bully pulpit" inherent in government; and, sometimes, by legislation such as a bill raising the income-tax child deduction to $4,000, or a judicial reform act designed to return control to state and local levels over many public policy questions, such as abortion, school busing to achieve racial balance or administration of state prisons.

The need for a government role is obvious, William Lind writes. "In a 'free market' of values, the limits, restraints and self-discipline traditional ways of living require cannot compete with aggressively promoted self-gratification, sensual pleasures, and materialism. . . . Human nature leads most men to put today's pleasure above tomorrow's unless there are immediate costs in doing so -- costs in terms of peer pressure, social acceptance, and, in appropriate cases, governmental sanction."

Cultural conservatives are working to develop an agenda. Their goal is to be ready by the end of this year to sit down with prospective presidential candidates and explain what they believe and how their beliefs translate into national political terms.

Some specific issues:

*Why don't American products compete well? Because corporate cultures have emphasized managerial "efficiency" in ways that treat workers as things, rather than people, ways that ignore traditional human needs. Not surprisingly, the workers care little about the company or its product.

*Why have massive welfare programs failed to create a Great Society? Because the culture among many welfare recipients has ceased to reflect traditional values, i.e., values that work.

*Why do we tolerate a level of violent crime unknown in any other developed nation? Because the elite, lacking values beyond mere personal success, have no moral basis for setting or enforcing standards.

*Why do we have epidemics of venereal diseases and the growing scourge of AIDS? Because many people have come to believe that private behavior has no public consequences.

At the beginning, this movement is bound to accentuate strains within the conservative movement, and within the administration.

Granted, the administration has some solid achievements to its credit: it has ended the accelerating inflation of the late 1970s; it has made some modest improvements in our defenses; it is belatedly moving to give some serious support to freedom fighters in Afghanistan and Angola; it has addressed the problems flowing from judicial activism by shifting the judiciary toward restraint; and the economy is growing again, albeit slowly. But otherwise, it has lacked an agenda that addresses the breakdown of our society.

If many cultural conservatives are disappointed with the Reagan administration, they are directly at odds with some other elements in the conservative camp. They disagree with those libertarians who would have government provide no moral leadership at all in a value vacuum.

Cultural conservatives argue that economic growth is important and they generally favor policies to spur growth, such as those advocated by supply-side economists. But they are not reverse Marxists; they do not believe that society is economically determined. If the culture is not sound, a free market of itself will lead only to conspicuous consumption, greed focused on wealth gained through speculation rather than production, and narrow politics based on short-term self-interest. The immense productivity of free market economics in Western and some non-Western societies, such as Japan, stems from the combination of the free market with those societies' cultures -- with an (often non-Protestant) "Protestant Ethic."

This view creates direct tension between cultural conservatives and some economic conservatives. For example, Jack Kemp is seen by some as an economic determinist. This perception may not be fair, but it exists nonetheless and may account for his failure thus far to gain momentum nationally.

The Religious Right can be comfortable with cultural conservatism, especially its tenet that human nature is a constant, but it must accept the fact that some cultural conservatives may not be religious. As for the New Right, it has to realize that even if its positions on abortion and school prayer were adopted as national policy tomorrow, it would be no cure. The disease is the acceptance by the culture of immediate gratification. Abortion, drug abuse, alcoholism, street- and white-collar crime and casual sex are all simply symptoms.

The intellectual challenge is immense, especially because there will be a requirement for novel approaches that reach beyond legislation. The problems created by television provide a good example. Television has had a devastating impact on the culture, not only through sex and violence in its programming -- as real a problem as those are -- but because it is an unresponsive medium. When a person reads a book, he must build images in his mind that translate the written words into a pictorial reality. He must be creative. But television, in contrast, provides everything. The viewer remains passive, his creative and mental faculties inert. There is no past, no future, only a very intense "now," consisting of powerful sensory images provided wholly from without.

No legislation can deal with this problem, and cultural conservatives are asking themselves, "What can?" One possible answer they are exploring lies in the long American tradition of "taking the pledge" -- of making a personal promise to change as part of a voluntary public campaign. Would the American people respond to a campaign asking them to pledge that for one night each week -- or for one week each month, or for one month each year -- no television would be turned on in their house? Would they make that sacrifice -- and in today's culture, it would be a real one -- if not for their own mental development, then for the development of their children?

If the cultural conservatives can appeal with their ideas to the constituency of the Religious Right and the New Right and can then reach out to constituents such as blacks and blue-collar workers who share their views, the changes in the political landscape could be dramatic and could come quickly. This is especially true because of the potential receptiveness of young voters, who are the victims of the breakdown of the family, the loss of quality public education and crises such as AIDs and drugs brought on by the abandoment of traditional values.

Finally, cultural conservatives insist on putting today's political issues into a context built over time, a context that includes both the past and the wisdom contained in it and the future and our responsibility toward it. This belief is neither common nor expedient in an era when only the present seems real. Nonetheless, it is critically important.

Without it, we beggar our children to benefit ourselves, as we are now doing through deficit spending. We wander in the dark, driven by the seeming uniqueness of each new problem, because we do not know how our ancestors dealt with similar problems. Our ancestors were not fools. They may have lacked VCRs and food processors, but they thought profoundly about man's nature and his relationship to society. The very fabric of American government, a distinctly 18th-century creation, testifies to their wisdom.