If you want to know what is ailing the Democrats all you have to do is dip into the considerable outpouring of articles and analyses on the subject being produced by Democratic functionaries, subsidiaries and friends. The instruction, however, does not lie in their message. On the contrary it is to be found in their strange approach and tone. For most of this material that I have seen, though purporting to be a prescription for a cure, strikes me instead as being just another symptom of the dread disease. That disease is detachment, remoteness from the issues under discussion and want of feeling for the people involved in them.

The election postmortems in fact remind me powerfully of all that stuff we used to read 10 years ago or so, when the press and the professors rediscovered the existence (and mounting displeasure) of the American middle class. Their treatises were conceived much in the spirit of Tacitus on the Germanic tribes or Margaret Mead on the Samoans or Darwin on Galapagos Islands wildlife, for that matter. They were somewhere between late 20th-century travelogues and anthropology, written for an audience that would presumably find the most normal, traditional human instincts exotic reading matter and who would receive the information that such people existed in large numbers as news.

The Democratic soul-searching since Nov. 6 has been much like that. "The people," that grand old political formulation for "us," has become "them." There are giveaways when this is happening. Look for politicians holding seminars to discuss what needs to be done to their "message." Look for talk about how a party needs to become more "centrist" or to move farther this way or that on the abstract political yardstick. Look for heavy use of the word "perceived." It all indicates that you are entering the realm of detached and second-hand political experience, of hypothesis as distinct from knowledge or feeling. You are in the presence of a bunch of salesmen-generals moving glass pins around a wall-size map. They are making a strategy, not taking a position. They are looking for ways to extend their influence to a segment of the population they neither speak for nor understand.

This is harsh stuff, I know, but I believe it goes to the core of what is wrong with that collection of individuals and groups now known as the Democratic Party. There is no central, basic "we want" there. There is instead "they want," which is quite a different thing. And I don't think any amount of program-redrawing and position-adjusting will address this dismal situation.

Now, anyone who was not locked up in a closet for the past year and a half will know that in one sense, at least, there was plenty of "we ant" among the Democrats. I'm referring to the highly aggressive, competitive constituent units of the party, the ethnic, professional and cultural interest groups that banged each other's brains out in a contest for perquisites and position in the campaign and promises of special consideration in the event the ticket won. In those pre-election days, when you would hear strident arguments and behold protracted negotiations about who from which bunch would get how many seats on the leader's plane or whether, without seven specific pledges, some group would campaign for the Democrats at all, I used to wonder whether they had misread the old saying to go: to the vanquished go the spoils. Maybe they simply thought the spoils got distributed before the election, not after.

But whichever it was, it is surely true that spoils were the key to it. And spoils traditionally go to leaders, to a group's fortunate elite. The unashamed, exclusive, even obsessed pursuit of them is quite different from the demands in a popular, "we want" campaign. It is a sign of the decline, not the vitality of a political movement. I am aware that on the other side, much of the want was for personal enrichment and advancement or for other benefits that could by no stretch of the imagination be described as a public good. But beneath it all, for better or for worse, and cutting across the elements of individual ambition and rapacity, there was some common public purpose that the politicians and their constituency shared.

That, I believe, is what was principally lacking in the Democratic campaign, has been absent for many years now -- and continues to elude the repair squads that have been called in to get the motor running again. You can tell this is so by another index besides that of the spoils-seeking. It is the capacity -- huge among the Democrats in recent years -- to tinker compulsively with procedure, with the tiniest little aspects of the rules and regulations, as if they would find political salvation in a new set of internal relationships. For the most part this has resulted in merely rearranging the placecards at the head table. It has also made the Democrats look foolish and to some degree irrelevant to people who have legitimate gripes and desires and who see the Democrats as being not so much concerned with these as they are fascinated with their own internal institutional structure.

I will tell you this: you will never remedy or even alter this situation with position papers or midterm conferences in which all the caucuses pretend to have agreed on some mealy-mouthed reformulation of their hoary positions and I don't care if you cut down every pulp-bearing tree in America to print the revised positions on. It won't work. Of course the Democrats need strong, clear thoughts on what they want for America. But these won't come from committees. They will come in association with someone -- a rising candidate, a person who can express true popular political instincts and values, who will in fact embody and reflect them, rather than appropriate them from the consultants' book of centrist ideas and symbols.

This period seems to me most analogous to the time after Adlai Stevenson's second wipeout by a popular president whose second term created the conditions for the Democrats' return to office. I don't know if they will be ready or able to take advantage of a comparable opportunity if it arises. They have much to throw out and much to learn, and I get a feeling that the latter is not what's being taught at those post-election seminars.