Vince Barabba is a cheery sort of fellow, the son of an Italian immigrant father who likes to quote Plato and muse aloud aboout similarities between problems afflicting Athens in the 5th Century B.C. and America in 1980 A.D. These days, he needs all the philosophy and humor he can find. He's being sued and condemned from coast to coast, and faces the virtual certainty the going will get rougher in the months ahead.

Barabba loves his work, knows it's important, but realizes that it is hard to please anyone. He's the director of the U.S. census. If you want to know how the government works -- or doesn't -- and why it appears more and more to be bogged down in controversy and stalemated by competing national groups, Barabba and his census count offer a case study. It's his fate to preside over the most intensely politicized census ever.

"We have already generated more ink, received more compliments and more condemnation, and produced more speeches and hearings in Congress than any prior census," he says. "I suspect that we will encounter, before our final tabulations, more litigation than any census in the history of the United States."

He's certainly right about the litigation.

Four months ago, a three-judge federal panel turned aside a challenge to the 1980 census brought by 22 members of Congress and two citizens' organizations. They wanted the census to exclude illegal aliens from the official count that brings additional federal funds for the areas in which they live -- and which also affects their representation in Congress. Last week the Supreme Court let that ruling stand.

The Census Bureau was able to win that suit by showing it was only doing what it always had -- with one or two exceptions, everyone has been counted since 1790, whether citizen or not. (The exceptions have included not counting two-fifths of every slave and Indians who have not paid taxes.)

That's only one of many suits. Last month, the city of Detroit demanded that census results be adjusted to reflect any undercounting in this year's tabulations. The nation's mayors have joined Detroit in that action.

A month before that suit, Barabba received a not-too-subtle warning that he and his Census Bureau faced more litigation. He was appearing at a joint press conference with Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco. The mayor expressed displeasure at the way the bureau was failing to count her city's residents: she hoped Barabba would "mellow" and accede to her requests. At the end of the press conference, she turned to Barabba and said: "We may see you in court."

And last week, just as the Supreme Court was disposing of one case against the Census Bureau, Barabba and his agency were hit again. This time, it was a 31-page class action suit filed by Hispanics in Chicago. Virginia Martinez, Guadalupe Jimenez, Herverto Perez, their friends, neighbors and eight groups serving Hispanics charged the 1980 census was violating their rights.

Among the allegations were: failure to provide census questionnaires to thousands of Chicago Hispanics; failure to provide Spanish language census questionnaires to those requesting them; failure to assure an accurate count of Hispanics "by recruiting and hiring sufficient numbers of Hispanic Americans or bilingual employes." All this, they charge, "will seriously injure the plaintiffs and members of the plaintiff class."

How? you ask. By giving Hispanic Americans less political representation than other groups, less government funding than they otherwise would be allocated, generally leaving them "less well served by governmental agencies, businesses, and other institutions which will utilize data from the 1980 census for planning and other purposes."

Thus, the brief -- and thus the argument made by countless other special interest groups. Each thinks it is being cheated. Each fights for its special share.

For the Census Bureau it all adds up to a gigantic headache and collective frustration. Fighting the lawsuits alone is a problem. As Barabba says of the Detroit action, "The cost and time associated with that law suit is really incredible." But more important, these examples show how powerfully single issue groups affect the operation of government these days. It is a lesson that every politician, at every level of government in the land, known intimately, and often painfully. In some respects the 1980 census has become the most bitter political struggle of the times. It is symptomatic of what will be even greater struggles ahead over how the government uses its resources -- and for whom.

Politics and the census is hardly new, of course. And since the beginning of the Republic, the government has been allocating funds based on census figures. The first census director, then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, learned how that worked when he received a letter from the postmaster general, traditionally the most political of cabinet officers. "If there be spare copies of the census of the inhabitants of the state in the office of the secretary of state," the letter read, "the postmaster general requests Mr. Jefferson to favor him with one: it being proper to attend to the population of the country in forming an opinion upon application for new post roads."

But only in recent years, in the age of affirmative action and equal opportunity programs mandated by law in Washington and financed by the federal treasury, has the census assumed such critical importance. In the decade since the last census was taken more than half a trillion dollars has been dispensed into every corner of the country by allocations based on census data. Today, more than $50 billion is being allocated annually by some 100 programs that use census figures. That means every politician from city councilman to senator -- with mayors and governors included -- is financially dependent on the census data. They are equally increasingly sensitive to how that $50 billion is allocated. Not to be so would mean risking the anger -- and pressure -- of the increasingly well-organized and vocal, racial and ethnic groups that clamor for their special slice of the federal pie.

No society has ever been asked to do so much for so many diverse elements of its citizenry. Yet the census battle indicates, the extraordinary results seem to please no one. This raises profound questions about the efficacy of government and its programs, the demands of the citizens and their groups, and the respect (or lack) in which government itself is held by the total society.

Vince Barabba poses a question this way:

"In many ways as we moved away -- and maybe we were never really there -- from this concept of the melting pot of American democracy to the more pluralistic society and the concept of 'My' piece of the action, I think the Census Bureau may be an early indicator of what life in government programs may be like. Most of these minority and vested interest groups are smart enough to understand that the next decade and their involvement with it is going to be determined by their numbers. My guess is that if every agency of government had to deal with our levels of detail relative to the general population the efficiency of government would be less than it is today. Because it's very difficult to think in terms of individual segments of our society in everything you do."

In this and other ways, the present census count is telling us more about ourselves than we want to face.