THE RICH really are different, most Americans believe. The rich are better looking. They're smarter and harder working. And they're more likely than the average American to be racists, cheaters and snobs.

But most of all, they're richer. And that's just fine with most Americans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll and surveys conducted over the past five decades.

Americans -- wealthy or poor, black or white -- admire the rich, the survey found. Most of us who aren't rich would like to be. And while the politics of envy do occasionally play in America, history suggests they never play too loudly or for too long.

All of this is important to remember as rumors of war continue to fly inside the Beltway. Not a shooting war, and not in the Middle East. Rather, the rumor mongers say there's a political class war brewing that will pit the plutocrats against the plebs. It's a war that the Wall Street Journal recently suggested may have started with the Battle of the Budget Bulge that left the summit spending plan dead on the House floor and politicians in a panic.

But it's also a war that's "just not happening," said Tom Ferguson, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Dan Rostenkowski {chairman of the House Ways and Means committee} isn't to be taken seriously as a general in any class war."

Nor will it likely happen anytime soon. That's because Americans believe -- no, they positively embrace -- the notion that income inequality is essentially fair. But only up to a point . . . a point that George Bush and the Republicans blundered across earlier this month in pushing for still more tax goodies for the monied classes.

"The public believes you need inequality for people to take on additional responsibility, to get the training and education for certain jobs," said James Kluegel, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Illinois and coauthor of the 1986 book, "Beliefs about Inequality." Kluegel also noted that support for these justifications cuts across traditional societal divisions such as race: "Whites and blacks, despite differences on many social issues, historically have agreed about the need for income inequality."

The public also believes that equity of opportunity -- keeping the playing field level for all competitors -- is much preferable to income equality.

"Americans are strong believers in equity of opportunity over economic equality," Kluegel said. "Equality is tied in many people's minds, politically at least, with negative outcomes. They link economic equality or nominal equality with the Soviet Union and political totalitarianism."

According to the Post-ABC poll, more than eight out of 10 persons interviewed agreed that "it's important to allow people to make as much money as they legally can because that's what makes the economy grow." And a majority of those questioned were comforted, not outraged, by the fact that, even as the economy sagged, there were more millionaires this year than last.

"Basically, Americans understand moderately well how a capitalistic system works, and they like it," said Benjamin Page, professor of political science at Northwestern University. "They always believed in rewarding effort, and letting people get rich if they work at it."

But there are other competing notions of fairness that complicate the political game. Support for the rich has its limits -- and those limits clearly extend to requiring the rich to shoulder a hefty portion of the nation's bills. An eye-popping 81 percent of respondents told a recent Gallup poll that the wealthy don't pay their fair share of taxes. People may not believe in "to each according to his need" but they do buy "from each according to his ability to pay."

That's precisely the lesson that Bush should have learned during the administration's terrible 10 days that followed the Oct. 5 House vote on the summit budget package.

"The Democrats hit a home run with that one," said John Petrocik, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California and a GOP adviser. "They've taken control of the agenda and now all you hear is that Republicans are trying to protect the rich and Democrats are trying to get them to pay their fair share. Once the debate gets phrased that way, the Democrats are in charge."

That's why "class warfare is not a good term to describe what is happening," said Kevin Phillips, political analyst and author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor," in which he predicts a resurgence of economic populism. "It goes too far. What you have is a reaction to political elites who have failed."

Phillips argues that Republicans are now beginning to pay for the excesses of Reaganomics. The data he collected shows the gap between the rich and poor increased dramatically during the 1980s. (A favorite Phillips fact: The pay ratio between the chairman of the board and the typical factory worker went from 29-to-1 in 1979 to 98-to-1 in 1988.)

Nor does tolerance for the wealthy extend to those whom the public perceive as having gotten their wealth not through meritorious hard work and daring, but through rigging the game. During the 1980s, Phillips said, the public came to associate the rich less with the entrepreneur who created wealth than with "the speculator, the manipulator . . . . Horatio Alger started giving way to the Ivan Boeskys and Michael Milkens."

That's why when economic hard times come, Phillips says Americans will demand "that the rich who got the benefits of the go-go years ought to pay the price in the no-go years." After all, it's only fair.

Well, bad times may be coming -- fast -- but probably not so bad an economic storm as to produce a soaking for the rich. Phillips is forecasting light to moderate showers: "They'll be a bunch of little bangs, mid-sized bangs" but not an economic bang large enough to significantly deepen animosities toward the well-to-do.

And belief in the equity of opportunity works against the poor as well as the rich. Americans have consistently opposed any form of program that would redistribute economic resources, be it money, housing or college admissions on the basis of class, race or sex. A survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked people in 1985 how they felt about this statement: "It is the responsibility of government to reduce the difference in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes." Only 22 percent agreed.

These convictions explain the hugely negative reaction of white, middle-class America to affirmative action plans that include anything resembling quotas, a view expressed even by those who support increasing opportunities for have-nots. These beliefs, however, have also provided doctrinal cover for some of the dirtiest facts of American life, namely racism and the tolerance of wretched poverty in the midst of wretched material excess.

"If everybody has the same opportunity, that legitimizes having inequality as the outcome," said Mary Jackman, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Davis. "Democratic systems in general have emphasized that notion, and over the past 100 years it has displaced a belief in equality. With the changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it seems to be the prevailing ideological idea in the world today." Indeed, polls in Western Europe and even Hungary have found consistently high levels of public support for the essential fairness of economic inequality.

Jackman and other scholars trace the intellectual roots of American's infatuation with opportunity back to an even more fundamental tenet of the American Way: the belief that there should be no limits on the individual. "The process gets people thinking about how I get myself ahead," said Jackman. "How do I get my family ahead but not how I get my class ahead. Our core ideology works against the development of a class ideology."

But there are some hints that all may not be well with the belief structure on which the Great American Money Machine sits. A recent Times Mirror Foundation poll found the percentage who agreed with the statement that "hard work offers little guarantee of success" rose from 29 percent to 36 percent in just three years, with substantial increases noted among both low- and middle-income respondents.

Still, hopes of great wealth continue to spring eternal, especially among the young. About one out of four persons questioned in the Post-ABC poll thought it likely that they would be rich. Among those 18-30 years old, nearly half -- 45 percent -- thought it was at least fairly likely that they would be wealthy some day.

(Even in the Great Depression, many Americans clung tenaciously to their faith in upward mobility. A 1936 poll by Elmo Roper asked, "Do you think that today any young man with thrift, ability and ambition has the opportunity to rise in the world, own his own home, and earn more than $5,000 a year?" As author Michael Barone reported in his book, "Our Country," 40 percent said yes and another 18 percent answered "yes, if he's lucky.")

Further complicating the politics of envy are Americans' contradictory attitudes toward the super-affluent. In the public's mind, wealth and the wealthy are closely associated with some of the best and worst of human traits. According to the Post-ABC poll, 90 percent of those surveyed said rich people were more likely to be well-educated, 76 percent said they were more likely to be intelligent, 61 percent said they were more likely to be physically attractive. Only 37 percent said they were more likely to be lazy.

At the same time, 74 percent of the 756 persons interviewed earlier this month said the rich were more likely to be unsympathetic to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, 55 percent said they were more likely to be racists, 78 percent said the wealthy were more likely to be snobs and 66 percent said they were less likely to be honest.

"The plain fact is that everybody going back to Old Testament days has had very ambivalent views about wealth," said Ferguson of the University of Massachusetts. "They want money, but they realize the drive is destructive."

So Americans have come to love the sin but hate the sinner. Making millions is just fine, overwhelming majorities say. In fact, six out of 10 persons questioned in the Post-ABC poll said they wanted to be rich, including even bigger majorities of the middle and upper-middle class. And nearly as many -- 55 percent -- say they generally "respect and admire" rich people.

Yet ask Americans whether individuals like corporation executives, financiers and Wall Street types should make seven- and eight-figure salaries, and big majorities say no.

These conflicting views have a political dimension. Half of the respondents in the Post-ABC poll were asked whether they would be more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate who "was a millionaire," all other factors being equal. Just 23 percent said they would be more likely, while 63 percent said they would be less.

But when, to the other half of respondents, the question was phrased differently -- would they vote for a candidate who was "a self-made millionaire"? -- the proportion answering they would be more likely to do so jumped to 50 percent.

And there's a testosterone factor. Among men, the increase was even more dramatic. Only 27 percent of male respondents said they'd be more likely to vote for the millionaire candidate -- but 62 percent said they'd be more likely to vote for the self-made millionaire.

Richard Morin is director of polling for the Washington Post.