Peter De Vries, the novelist, says there is nothing like a calamity to make you forget your troubles. California, currently suffering a mudslide of troubles, now has not a calamity but certainly a distraction, one that will drain political energies.

After the 1980 census, California Democrats revved up computers and devised a reapportionment plan. In 1982 California Democrats gained six congressional seats, perhaps five of them because of the gerrymandering. Republicans cudgeled their brains for a saucy riposte. Then they consulted a computer of conservative tendency. It devised a redistricting plan the voters will approve or disapprove Dec. 13, if the courts permit the vote.

The Republican plan would alter the balance of power in the state that supplies more than one-tenth (28) of the 268 Democrats in the House of Representatives. The Republican plan does not involve, as does the one the Democrats got passed, districts shaped like doodles or swans having seizures. But it would make Republicans more competitive. This would force more Democratic money to be spent in California, where out-of-state Democrats come to graze for funds. So Democrats are gearing up to fight the initiative with a stamina born of fear, and with perhaps $5 million.

Since the Supreme Court distilled democratic virtue to a four-word slogan ("one man, one vote"), politicians have become clever at devising highly partisan plans that satisfy the court's sterile rule. The rule is compatible with plans that drastically minimize representation of particular political and ethnic groups and maximize the power of whatever party dominates immediately after a census.

Computers, which are symbols of California's forward-facing life, are the six- guns in this otherwise old-fashioned shootout. But drawing district lines is a flesh-and-blood political task. And if there is no limit to reapportionment battles--the natural limit being one battle per census--the battles will maximize political insecurity. And they will absorb energies that should be devoted to governance.

A California Democrat says, insouciantly, "Republicans just can't take a joke." I like his spirit: all--or at least a lot--is fair in love and war and politics. Otherwise we shall die of boredom and Common Cause.

However, a lawyer who wants a court to block the initiative says Republicans are breaking the rules. He has a point. But California has conflicting rules. California's constitution says the legislature should reapportion once, and only once, after each census. But California's constitution undoes itself by promiscuously allowing referenda and initiatives.

If Democrats spend $5 million fighting this initiative and lose, it will serve them right. Liberals, much more than proper conservatives, celebrate California's institutionalized populism that encourages "the people" to take lawmaking into their own hands. An irony of recent politics is that the people have been making unliberal laws. Five summers ago, California's tax-cutting Proposition 13 signaled the nation's swing to the right.

Since then, state services (adjusted for inflation and population growth) have declined 15 percent. California is one of three states (Florida and Texas are the others) that had half the nation's population increase in the 1970s, and half of California's growth came from Mexico. In the last three years, domestic automobile makers have closed most assembly plants in California, where half the automobiles sold are made in Japan.

For years California pumped money into education to sustain high-technology economic growth. Today this richest state ranks just 31st among the states in per-pupil expenditures.

Although California is associated in the nation's mind with movies and missiles, it is the nation's leading agricultural state. But it is running short of water, and recently a Los Angeles area fog had the acidity of lemon juice. Inventories of California's wineries have swollen to 90 million gallons. Drink up, America--and use wine to wash down avocados. The "avocado glut"--add that to your list of contemporary crises --is at 455 million pounds, and rising.

Three of the nation's largest anxieties --the gap between revenues and outlays, declining educational standards and farm surpluses--are writ large across California. Yet Californians seem fated to squander upwards of $30 million (state funds and political contributions) on a vote about something--reapportionment --that should be left to legislators.

Substantively, the Democrats deserve to lose. Procedurally, the Republicans do not deserve to win. Surveying the misappropriation of civic energies on both sides, Californians may feel like the De Vries character who says: "In the beginning, the earth was without form, and void. Why didn't they leave well enough alone?"