"Every mob, in its ignorance, blindness and bewilderment, is a League of Frightened Men, that seeks reassurance in collective action." Thus wrote Max Lerner some years back. But what's dismaying about these last two political mobs in Detroit and New York is that no one seemed to be frightened, at a time when the Soviets have four nuclear warheads for every county in the United States; and neither did anyone express bewilderment, although these are the most bewildering times we've yet lived through. But ignorance and blindness still reigned.

Although political conventions are traditionally mindless, those of 1980 had an especially macabre quality, because they were emblematic of a nation that was losing its reason. And the foolish hats, stupid slogans, loud bands and screaming, empty-eyed animalistic faces no longer gave off the impression of delegates who had interrupted sane lives for a week of hysteria and drunkenness, but of those who were mindless all year long, who lived that way, who had never thought consecutively for 10 minutes in their lives, who knew nothing of the difficulties facing this country, and wouldn't know how to respond if they did.

At both conventions, "passionate certitude," to use Yeats' phrase, was dominant. And although the forms this mindlessness took were superficially different -- the Republicans heavily into evangelical cults, the Democrats into cult-like single-issue politics -- the impression one got of a zombie-like intellectual passivity was essentially the same. So, in terms of stupidity, there wasn't a lot to choose between the Kansas Pentecostalist who thought that God, if correctly manipulated, would fry Russia and give us everything, including good parking spaces, and the urban lesbian thug who seemed to believe that, if the government would only help to murder a few million more unborn children, everything else, including the GNP, would automatically turn out swell. Thus, our national political conventions came across as dervish mobs of the Big G -- God for Republicans, Government for Democrats -- alike in believing that the Great External Solver, moved by the true believers' hysteria, would come down and make everything okay.

"A mob," Thomas Fuller wrote, "has many heads but no brains," and such was the feeling one got from watching scores of interviews with those delegates: an overwhelming impression, not merely of one fanatic, fool, dullard or knave, but of delegate after delegate who showed no knowledge of, nor interest in, the world or national situation, and no inclination whatever to summon up any thought about what was to be done. The group -- whether video cult, or union or NEA -- always had a position paper on that tucked away somewhere, and as for the rest of it, all the average delegate had come to do was to grunt or shriek the name of one candidate and go home.

Laced in among these were the professional politicians, who did seen to be fairly well versed in the issues. But with most of these, one had the sense that, while they knew where Senator A or Bloc B stood on such questions as the retargeting of nuclear warheads, the decline of U.S. productivity and the collapse of our education system, this was all they knew, and that they would have regarded it as a chump's chore to actually take thought about what ought to be done. Politics, for them, seemed mainly a matter, not of thought, but of "positioning" oneself among various competing screamers. Although there were occasional outstanding exceptions -- men like John Glenn and Mac Mathias who'd made a life's work out of trying to come to terms with reality -- these were out of it, and would never be up there on the podium as national nominees, because they did not have the time, let alone the inclination, for tickling, feeding and flattering that headless ape, consumer democracy, let alone leaping into its lap and licking its fingers.

Moreover, the media seemed to have the same mentality the delegates did, and lavished their most intense, verbose concern on such questions as whether Ted Kennedy would come to the platform with Jimmy Carter, and what form their hand clasp might take and, later, what the little nuances of expression on the senator's face might mean for the future of Western civilization.

Real thinking, then, for observers and participants alike, was no longer something you did for yourself, but a menial task you hired others to do for you. And under the circumstances, it was no wonder that the apotheosis of each convention came when a millionaire read a speech that had been written for him, from a teleprompter that worked perfectly, to rapt followers who hadn't the slightest notion as to what was being said. And so it was that our political conventions came across as festivals of unreason -- "Star Wars" worlds peopled mostly by animals, children, androids and machines. But it was less fun than "Star Wars," because it was real.

These mob scenes did not come to us causeless. We live in a civilization under stress, wherein the threat of annihilation and the disordering impacts of radical change and opportunist leadership have made us feel helpless. This stress has caused many of us to revert to a childishness that runs deeper than the wearing of silly hats -- a true-believing passivity that looks for magic, or for daddy, to come to the rescue, and that stubbornly refuses to think about what's out there. This is understandable. But it is the mentality of a mob, not of a free nation. And what we really have in common, what really unifies us, is neither our righteousness nor our incessant demands but the need to take control of our imperiled lives, whether the Force is with us or not.