The majesty of the American electoral system is to be found in the orderly transfer of power it allows. The mystery of the system is found in the inability of raw votes to tell us clearly what the people want those in power to do.

The meaning of the Republican landslide that took place last Tuesday will be debated for months. But the main thrust of its message is clear now and has, in fact, been clear for some time.

It would be simple (and less painful) it we glossed over this election and explained it in terms of the feeling of citizen helplessness in the face of high inflation, unemployment and the year-long hostage crisis, which culminated in Iran's insulting demand that we respond immediately and publicly to their non-negotiable demands. But these, and other causes, cannot explain the size and scope of the Democratic defeat. One more basic cause for the Republican sweep is more entrenched and more profound, and has been growing gradually.

There is a powerful feeling abroad in this land that things are not right, that we somehow have lost our power to control current events, and there is a fear that, in the process, we have lost our future. Government has become both a cause and a symbol of that frustration. In subtle yet pervasive ways, government has too often become an enemy when it should be a friend.

It is critically important that all of us understand the nature of the protest that was lodged on Election Day. President-elect Reagan's rhetorical call to "get government off our backs" is one part of his appeal. But we ought not magnify the meaning of that appeal. To read the election results as a repudiation of government would be a tragic oversimplification; we do better to read them as a repudiation of government excess.

The voters are saying that government has become objectionable not because of the progress it seeks but because of the havoc it wreaks in the process. They are saying that they believe government now chews up people rather than problems. They are saying that government has become too intrusive, too inevitable, too intimidating.

Two years ago I wanted the national convention of Americans for Democratic Action that we had created a government in which "programs were more important than the revitalization of society." And two weeks before this election, I spoke to an AFL-CIO union in Chicago and warned that "while the American people haven't turned their backs on our goals, their stomachs have been turned by some of our methods."

Now more than stomachs have turned. The heads of great senators like Bayh, Church, Culver, McGovern and Nelson have rolled. If we are to save other senators and, more important, if we are to save our goals, we need to reform our programs.

If the Democratic Party does not embark on that reform, then the New Right will continue to present each election as a choice between those who favor more of the same and those who favor change in the form of less governmental control over our lives.

Democrats have allowed it to be the issue because we have insisted, even in the face of reality, that there are no major flaws in the system we created and few problems in the governmental structures we engineered. There are, and we cannot afford to ignore that fact.

What we need to do is reform government and make it recognize the real needs and frustrations of people. What we must do is learn again that a free people are to be trusted and that government need not tell them, in endless detail, how they are to behave in order to achieve common goals.

But what we have done is insist on seeing every effort to reform as an effort to eliminate. And that just isn't the case. For instance, few people want to stop providing aid for the poor, but many want to put an end to a wasteful welfare system that creates dependency and too often fails to deliver aid either effectively or efficiently.

But the "few" may well achieve their goals -- as they did in part Nov. 4 -- unless the "many" are able to more clearly define the issues and more effectively offer solutions. We cannot go on the way we are: pouring money into a giant stream that rolls endlessly toward a dead sea.

We need reforms such as "legislative veto" to provide accountability, by allowing our elected officials in Congress to veto regulations proposed by unelected bureaucrats.

We need to reduce waste by means of reasonable "sunset" legislation, which requires review of programs at regular intevals (we now have loads of permanently authorized programs).

We need "regulatory flexibility" so that local governments and private parties operating programs under federal regulations won't be told that those regulations have been changed in the middle of the program.

We need "grant reform" to reduce the multiplicity of rules governing federal programs.

We need "paper work reduction" to drastically reduce the number of needless, endless forms that so bedevil our people.

We need "regulatory analysis" before major rules are adopted, so their costs are considered as well as their purported benefits.

We need "sunrise provisions" in our laws so that standards of performance are set wherever possible against which government performance can be measured and judged.

In other words, we have to care about what government actually delivers as much as we care about what government promises. It means we can no longer close our eyes to the need for reform and persist in resisting change for fear that those changes may be interpreted as a weakening of our commitment. More effective government performance rather than more sweeping promises has to be our goal. For if it isn't, we will suffer at the hands of those few who do not share out desire for a more just society.