AS I SET forth on the morning of Sept. 11, a neighbor called out to remind me to vote. "Vote for what?" I asked. It was, she informed me, primary election day in Montgomery County, where I have lived for almost 30 years.

I had forgotten and wanted to say, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." But that would have gotten me in trouble. She is a friend and a precinct boss, the Jiminy Cricket of the neighborhood who is always pointing us to our civic responsibilities.

She was aware that with one or two exceptions I never know any of the local candidates, that I have no interest whatever in the register of wills or such ballot issues as the method for electing members of the Democratic Party Executive Committee and that however it turns out, my taxes are going up faster than the high rises in Bethesda. She generously handed me a sample ballot with check marks by the names of the goo-goos. I stuck it in my pocket, drove off to the polls, punched the cards according to her instructions and asked myself, "Why in the hell am I doing this?"

A week from Tuesday, the whole nation will ask itself the same question; and the next day we will begin our binennial rite of self-reproach over "low voter turnout." But maybe we shouldn't be quite so concerned.

Life is a very complicated proposition in these last throes of the 20th century, so complicated that we have learned to deal with it through endless divisions of labor. We no longer deliver our own babies, bury our dead, grow the food we eat or build our homes. We hire people to do those things and a thousand other tasks that separate us from self-sufficiency. The car mechanic, the brain surgeon, the weaver, the plumber, the computer doctor: We are dependent on them all because the things they do are either beyond our capacities or too time-consuming.

That is the truth about politics and government in America today, and it has made the idea of "self-government" absurd. The governmental apparatus that has been created for us is the largest and, in many ways, one of the least accessible institutions in human history. Even the numbers we use to describe it are beyond the comprehension of all but a few: It consumes trillions of dollars, a third of our gross national product. (What is a trillion?) It directly employs nearly 20 million people, more than all the manufacturing enterprises in the United States. The variety of activities in which they engage is beyond our grasp.

How do I, John Q. Citizen, govern this monster? How do I make "informed" decisions? Do I need a B-2? What is a "throw-weight" and what should I think about it? Why haven't policies A, B, C, D, E and F eliminated "welfare dependency" and created a self-sufficient post-welfare class? What really is wrong with our system of education? Why did the S & Ls fail? Why are fewer deliveries and short pants the only change in the Postal Service during my lifetime? What and who do PACs buy with their money? Who writes the laws? Who fixes the potholes in Interstate 95?

As a people of genius, we have devised by default or design (it doesn't matter) a solution to these problems of bigness and complexity: a division of labor. Since we can no longer govern ourselves even in the abstract sense, we have created a professional class of people to perform that function. They relieve us of the need to pretend we understand what Leviathan is all about.

This class includes the politicians whose names and faces flit across our consciousness and our television screens from time to time. We grant them, mostly by passive acquiescence, lifetime tenure -- just as we grant, through civil-service protections, lifetime tenure to those faceless men and women in the bureaucracies who govern in fact, if not in theory. Ronald Reagan was going to dismantle all that, he and his enemies claimed. But it was beyond his control, as it is ours.

The governing class includes as well the thousands of lobbies, lawyers, associations and "public-interest" busybodies who swarm around these governmental institutions and manipulate them in various ways in our name. Finally, the governing class includes the "media" which, like the tick birds on the rhino, ride along on the beast under the illusion that it responds to their direction.

As for the "sovereign citizen" from whom all just powers are derived, he is, as most of us are, best described by Walter Lippmann. We resemble, he said, "the deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to keep awake. He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on; rules and regulations continually, taxes annually, and wars occasionally remind him that he is being swept along by great drifts of circumstance. Yet these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible." We are not merely deaf and half-asleep. A great many of us are hollow logs so far as public affairs are concerned. We have no opinions of any kind on many of the great issues of the day and those we have are often worthless.

Richard Morin, The Post's polling director, published an article earlier this year on the "Ignorant '80s." Nearly half of our people, he reported, do not know if the United States and the Soviet Union were allies or enemies in World War II. A third don't know what the Holocaust was. Millions don't know whether we supported North or South Vietnam in the late unpleasantness or whether we were for or against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. A majority can identify Judge Wapner of "The People's Court," but fewer than 10 percent can name the chief justice of the United States. Half of us can't name our congressman and my guess is that 90 percent cannot name their state senator or representative on pain of death or dismemberment.

"Boobus Americanus," H.L. Mencken called us, and in terms of our civic roles he was right. Millions of us are not merely politically illiterate, we are functionally illiterate as well. The American Newspaper Publishers Association, fearful that the readers among us are vanishing, estimates that 27 million Americans read below the fifth-grade level and that 60 to 65 million read below the ninth-grade level. By comparison, you need approximately a 12th-grade education to read the Outlook section with a modest degree of comprehension.

This is the raw material of the American electorate which hand-wringing reformers fear is growing "alienated," "apathetic" and otherwise disabled from performing the tasks of citizenship. I have preached that sermon myself based on the relatively low voter turnouts of recent years. Curtis Gans, an expert on that subject, used a graphic description for the results of the 1986 off-year elections: Republicans 17 percent, Democrats 19 percent, non-voters 67 percent. That is about what we should expect next week. Is it possible that those voting minorities have evolved through some inexplicable sociological process into a "professional" voting class that serves, like the warrior class in many societies, a specific and useful function? Perhaps we should regard them as our surrogates, specialists who know that the wills register is not some guy in the Orioles bullpen and who provide that element of informed and semi-informed consent which our democratic system requires.

That is an undemocratic notion but it is essentially the theory on which our nation was founded. It denied that there is any law of God or nature ordaining that larger and larger turnouts of increasingly uninformed and uninterested citizens save or strengthen our democracy. Is there reason to accept the contrary argument that the "public," voting en masse, intrinsically or mystically brings to the political process some form of moral enrichment and uplift? Or is this uninvolved "public" cynically regarded as an inert and pliable mob available for "delivery" to the highest bidder or to the most skillful manipulators?

For many years, Lippmann wrote, we hung our belief in the dignity of man "on the very precarious assumption that he would exhibit that dignity instinctively in wise laws and good government. Voters did not do that, and so the democrat was forever being made to look a little silly by tough-minded men. But if instead of hanging human dignity on that one assumption about self-government, you insist that man's dignity requires a standard of living in which his capacities are properly exercised, the whole problem changes.

"The criteria which you then apply to government are whether it is producing a certain minimum of health, of decent housing, of material necessities, of education, of freedom, of pleasures, of beauty, not whether at the sacrifice of all these things it vibrates to the self-centered opinions that happen to be floating around in men's minds." The "public" as in "public opinion" and the "public will" and "public consent" may, in fact, be a figment of our imagination. Jay Rosen of New York University, like Lippmann before him, propounded that subversive idea a couple of years ago: "Suppose that the real problem is not with the polls, but with the assumption that there is something out there to measure. . . . The press, the pollsters, academics who study the polls and everyone else who refers to the public as a living, thinking, speaking thing help paper over the doubts that might otherwise exist about what a public is and whether it exists. The most convenient assumption is that the public is "out there" following the issues, forming opinions and expressing its will . . . . {But} on some issues, at least, there is no functioning public realm in America -- no national forum in which leaders can talk seriously about problems they themselves see as serious."

James Carey of the University of Illinois put it in starker terms: "Despite the fact that the public is regularly invoked as the final justification for the press, the simple fact is that the public has disappeared. There is no public out there . . . . In professional circles talk about the public continues, but no one knows what they are talking about."

That is true of the voter turnout issue. We talk about it constantly, form commissions, organize conferences, produce monographs, pamphlets and books. But none of us knows what we are talking about or whether there is a real problem "out there" or whether it has or needs a solution.

If they held an election and nobody came, that would be cause for concern. But we are not at that point and there is no reason to assume it will ever be reached. Our democracy limps along. My neighbor will remind me to vote, and I will cast the ballot for her choice for register of wills. Whether I have enriched the democratic process, I leave to the next study commission.

Richard Harwood is the ombudsman of The Washington Post.