IN AN ELECTION year, we tend to become so preoccupied with events of the moment that we miss larger climatological changes. So it is with the conflict over "family values," abortion, the arts and the like. This week they catch headlines, next week they are old news. It is no wonder that some view these issues as a political froth, hiding such "real" issues of unemployment, national debt and trade policy.

But those who dismiss the conflict over cultural issues as the politics of distraction will miss perhaps the single most important "climatological" change in contemporary American politics: that the culture war is about who we are as a nation and who we will choose to become. Rather than blame it for demeaning democratic discourse, the "war" should be acknowledged as the proper subject of democratic debate.

Republicans trivialized the matter during their convention by invoking the term as a new political slogan ("It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself," said Pat Buchanan). But the culture war is far more significant than politicians and journalists suppose. There is in fact a deeper conflict beneath the various and changing shibboleths of public debate.

Thus, the tiff over Murphy Brown is just an artifact of a deeper dispute over the nature and structure of the American family. The fracas over choice in schools, vouchers, multiculturalism and the like is the practical manifestation of a deeper argument over the core values and national ideals we pass on to the next generation. The abortion controversy points to a more basic debate over the meaning of motherhood and of obligations in a community.

Even the rarefied quarrel over the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus -- the great explorer or the contemptible exploiter -- is a debate over the American legacy. And on it goes through a long list of contemporary controversies: funding for the arts, homosexuality and AIDS policy, sexual harassment, euthanasia, flag burning, the composition of the Supreme Court, church-state issues, affirmative action, political correctness and so on.

Cumulatively, these disputes amount to a fundamental struggle over the "first principles" of how we will order our life together. Through these seemingly disparate issues we find ourselves, in other words, in a struggle to define ourselves as Americans and what kind of society we want to build and sustain. Hardly political froth!

Indeed, the cultural cleavages with which we have become familiar have taken shape out of a major realignment in American public culture. It has brought together a wide range of previously antagonistic cultural conservatives (evangelicals and conservative Catholics, for example). It has also united formerly estranged cultural progressives (namely, secularists and progressive religionists) into a new alliance. And each uneasy set of alliances stands against the other as they both try to write into public policy what amounts to opposing visions of what America is and what it should be.

The older and admittedly roughhewn consensus over the meaning of family, community and nation has collapsed and can never be put together as it was. It will be a long time before a new consensus -- or at least the terms for coping with our present polarizations -- is forged. The culture war, then, will be with us for many years to come. Count on it.

In a dispute as significant as this, it is inevitable that electoral politics will be an important field of conflict. The presidential campaign itself will often be a dramatic enactment of the culture war (or a battle within the culture war).

Electoral politics, in other words, is far more than the process of selecting lawmakers who will administer the affairs of state. Rather, an election (especially a presidential one) is an opportunity by which citizens either embrace or reject certain symbols of national life. It is true that candidates in the heat of an election will inevitably tout their own competence, experience, knowledge and grasp of issues as against the incompetence, inexperience, stupidity and moral diffidence of their opponents. But in the final analysis, candidates tend to be selected by their parties and tend to run principally on the basis of the symbols of collective life they identify with in their rhetoric.

This tendency to identify consciously with the various symbols of national life is of intensified in the context of the contemporary culture war. This larger conflict now provides much of the polarizing language -- the slogans, the dicta, the aphorisms -- through which candidates and parties must, at least in part, define themselves politically.

We saw this in 1980 and 1984 in the bitter, cliche-ridden wrangling between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale over traditional family values, the equal rights amendment, prayer in school, abortion and justice for the poor. While Reagan aligned himself with cultural conservatives by proclaiming America to be "a land of destiny created by some divine plan," Carter contended that Reagan offered a "fantasy America." Carter's vision -- and Mondale's, four years later, of "justice and peace" -- appealed to cultural progressives.

We saw it again in 1988 in the use of Willie Horton as a caricature of Michael Dukakis's idea of criminal justice. Dukakis's membership in the ACLU became a device for highlighting the candidate's secularism and the governor's position on the Pledge of Allegiance became shorthand for questioning Dukakis's patriotism.

Dukakis himself responded defensively: "This election is not about ideology but about competence." To this, George Bush responded that "Competence makes the trains run on time but doesn't know where they're going . . . . The truth is, this election is about the beliefs we share, the values that we honor and the principles we hold dear." Dukakis's rejoinder was to emphasize the symbols of economic justice: "This election," he said, "is not about overthrowing governments in Central America; it is about creating jobs in middle America."

Clearly the Reagan and Bush successes were linked to their ability to identify with such powerful symbols -- a lesson not lost on Bill Clinton. The caginess of Clinton's campaign has been in seeking to win back cultural conservatives without alienating his progressivist support. This is highlighted in photo-ops of Clinton coming out of a Baptist church with a Bible in hand; his many references to his mother during his acceptance speech; his references to the "New Covenant" and the like -- all appeals to family, God and Puritan idealism.

At the same time, his strong pro-choice position on abortion, his economic definition of family values, his emphasis on economic justice and even his wife's wisecrack about "staying home and baking cookies" are nods toward the progressive left. His effort to straddle the cultural divide of this great culture war is what provoked Buchanan to call Clinton and the Democrats "cross-dressers," but also a thinly veiled effort to show Clinton's support for gay rights. So far, much of the Bush campaign has been guided by tried-and-true formulas from the 1980s, identifying with the ideals of cultural conservatives. This can be seen in the strong pro-life position the Republicans have embraced. It can also be seen in the celebration of "traditional family values" highlighted by Dan Quayle's bashing of "cultural elites" and the Hollywood establishment. And it can be found in the stance to keep women out of combat and homosexuals out of the military -- all code for a championing of heterosexuality against homosexuality, traditional gender roles against "radical feminism" and the intact nuclear family against families "in all their diverse forms."

The dynamics of this culture war are also visible in the role given to ideologues -- front-line activists with no government experience: Kate Michelman versus Phyllis Schlafly, for example; or Jesse Jackson versus Pat Robertson. During the 1988 campaign, Robertson would talk about "bringing God back into the public schools," limiting "gross pornography," returning to "the faith of our fathers and the traditional standards of family life in America." Jackson would speak about creating a coalition of "the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected and the despised" by seeking "justice, peace and jobs." Robertson today is working to give control of the GOP to "pro-family Christians," and claims that his Christian Coalition has a quarter-million members in 49 states.

For politicians, the propensity to appeal to the symbols of the culture war is so great that in due course, the candidates themselves actually become symbols of opposing ideals. Even their names and faces become a shorthand for articulating certain ideals of national life -- inspiring admiration and devotion for some; provoking disgust or hostility for others.

For the Democrats, the candidates' wives play this important role at least as much as the candidates themselves. Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore (founder of the conservative Parent's Music Resource Center) allow the Democrats to appeal to both feminists and traditionalists. Marilyn Quayle, by contrast, serves to solidify conservative sentiment (despite the fact that she too is a lawyer).

The tendency to personify American ideals is another reason why the character issue is so important to the electorate. To be taken seriously, it is not enough for a candidate to speak of "values" or a "vision"; both must be credibly enacted in their biographies.

In this light, one understands the greater significance of the various personal attacks. The reminder of Clinton's avoidance of Vietnam-era military service (in contrast to Bush's own World War II service) contains the cryptic suggestion that Bush is a real patriot, while Clinton is not. The attention drawn to Bush's knowledge of the Iran-contra deal as well as his reversal of his no-new-taxes pledge is meant to deplete the value of the trust Bush says he puts so much stock in. The suggestion of marital infidelity alleged by opposing parties is shorthand that the respective candidate's claim to represent family values is a sham.

In that way, the issues of the culture war provide the subtext for almost everything said -- even the most banal. The ballyhoo politicians are given to in the heat of their campaigns seem rather silly at first blush. They are, after all, posing as leaders of the most powerful and most emulated democracy in the world and are addressing issues of great consequence in terms that often have no more weight and content than an empty styrofoam cup.

Much of the problem with public "discourse" -- if it justifies the term -- stems from the exigencies of modern campaign tactics. The way media technology frames "news" and the fact that negative campaigning works are just two of the widely acknowledged problems. Within the contemporary discourse, one risks being branded a "right-winger" by even invoking moral criteria. Indeed, the very word "morality" has become a right-wing word. It should not be.

Still, candidates and their parties can provide a leadership that recognizes the seriousness of the issues. They can insist upon carrying on the debate at a higher plane, which means, among other things, refusing to respond to an issue like abortion in a 16-second sound bite. They may risk the wrath of the special interest groups by acknowledging the mystifying complexities of these cultural issues and offer a vision for public policy that speaks to the nation as a whole for the long term.

Such leadership requires great courage. It also demands wisdom -- a wisdom that recognizes that however well the term "culture war" may describe the battles being waged in America today, the term cannot be embraced as a call to arms. It is, then, time to stop the drum-beating. What we require is serious and substantive argument inspired by a leadership that is both bold and rhetorically circumspect. For in a democracy, how we contend in public life is as important as what we contend for.

J. D. Hunter is professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and author of "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America" (Basic Books).