Now that the election is over, I find myself thinking less about who won and who lost than about how we have changed the concept of winners and losers.

In July New York Gov. Mario Cuomo told the Democratic convention a tale of two cities, one rich and one poor. All fall, the Democrats talked about a nation increasingly divided into haves and have- nots. The brilliance of the Reagan campaign was in redefining the haves as the winners and the have-nots as the losers.

The resounding cheer of this election -- "USA! USA!" -- was more than a soundtrack for grandstand patriotism. It was an Olympic call to middle-class Americans to root for the strong, the wealthy, the healthy, the independent -- to side with the winners.

Once, the people who lived in the Other America were called the needy and regarded as victims. But there is a line, a fault line, that separates the old "victim" from the new "loser."

In our political dictionary, a victim is blameless while a loser can only blame himself. In our political landscape, we may ask the government to lend a hand to victims, but not to waste handouts on the losers. The "needy" may elicit guilt and help from more affluent neighbors. But losers get only scorn.

If I had to write the subliminal script for this campaign, it would include at least one responsive Republican reading:

What do you call a black who cannot make it into the middle class without a government program? A loser.

What do you call a single mother who cannot succeed without child care or job skills? A loser.

What do you call an elderly person who didn't put away enough for a comfortable old age? A loser.

The Democratic Party became the party of these losers, those who admitted need, thos who looked to the government for help. In his concession speech Mondale said, "Tonight, especially, I think of the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless and the sad." They were the only economic group that gave the Democrats a majority.

Much of the emotion behind this win- lose event was fear. The Republicans offered themselves as the party of optimists, of an unlimited future. But optimism lies in ideals. In a vision of a society with room for everyone. In the notion that we can give to the others without taking away from ourselves.

This was not an optimistic election year. It was, rather, the prototype of campaigns in an era of limits. The middle class knows that the gap between rich and poor is growing. The young see the slide of downward mobility. The momentary high of this economy was as seductive as the man who gave us a choice between identifying with the haves and the have-nots.

In this campaign, anxiety spoke. The anxiety of the people trying thold on to what they have. This is not the stuff of "selfishness." I never liked that "selfish" name-calling in this campaign. The poor voted for the Democrats for selfish reasons. The rich voted for the Republicans for selfish reasons. The problem was that Mondale never convinced the middle class that he was in their best interest. The people in the middle didn't trust the Democrats with their money.

Americans are not fundamentallly ungenerous. Show us hunger in Ethiopia, and we respond to the victims. But in an era of limits, people think of their own survival first. In the scramble, the people in the middle of the growing gap are less willing to share.

The success of the Reagan campaign is that he legitimized this tightening and salved our collective conscience at the same time. If we are going to limit opportunities for those stuck in the Other America, it is much easier to think of these people as failures. If we are going to chip away at social programs for the have- nots, it is easier to name them losers.

We used to call this blaming the victim. Now we call it winning.