THE ELECTION results of 1980 were widely viewed as presenting a vast opportunity for the New Right to legislate its social agenda. As the 97th Congress left for home, this had not come about. We are not among those who grieve over this development. But it is worth wondering why the so- called social legislation was a bust.

The first thing that happened was that the social agenda was put off while attention was focused on the economy. The president was determined, it was said, to get his major budget cuts and tax revision through before tackling the Right's controversial and divisive social-issues wish list. Thus, it was not until the second session of the 97th Congress that a real effort was made to get these things done. When the time came, little happened.

Congress did not act to reverse the Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion, though a variety of statutes and a constitutional amendments were considered. Nor was school prayer reinstated. The president delivered on his promise to send a proposed constitutional amendment to the Hill, but it never even moved beyond the subcommittee level. Busing, always an emotionally charged issue, was debated at length, but in the end, a very bad bill authorizing the reopening of cases long thought to be settled, was not enacted. Nor was a proposal to gut the already minimal federal law on handguns. The Voting Rights Act did not die in August, as it might have, but was extended and even strengthened. And, in spite of a 25 percent funding cut and severe criticism of its board of directors, the Legal Services Corporation lives and works in aid of the poor.

True, some social programs have suffered severe setbacks in the appropriations process. True, some government enforcement efforts -- especially in the civil rights area -- have been scaled back. But the Congress that just adjourned did not do what had been anticipated on the many social-issue fronts. And, since it is a fairly safe guess that the influence of Sen. Jesse Helms and his followers peaked many months ago, there seems little likelihood that the next Congress will view these items as top priority. In spite of a well-organized opposition, most Americans and their elected representatives appear to have accepted many of the dramatic changes of the '60s and '70s and have, without furor or fanfare, decided to hold onto them.