For several weeks after the November election a great heaving and ho-ing argument went forward about the Reagan administration's prospective "mandate." The problem was the Democrats. Too many of them refused to admit that they had lost big. The corollaries were evidently too much for them, namely that the winner had won big, that the result was not a fluke, that voters knew what they were buying when they voted for Ronald Reagan and liked what he was selling. The size of Reagan's popular majority, after all, was awesome (roughly 55 million votes to Mondale's 37 million), and so was his "mandate" as president to promote certain governmental policies and values he had campaigned on.

All this was so obvious that it seemed stupid to me and still does for so many who didn't vote for Reagan to deny it. But now we have an additional "mandate" problem: the reach and implications of Reagan's victory are being greedily expanded by many on the winning side. You hear the Reagan "mandate" alluded to increasingly as if it were far more than a grant of authority from a majority of the electorate to conduct the affairs of the executive branch in a certain way. You hear ever more about a place proprietarily known as "Ronald Reagan's America," in which it apparently is considered suitable to behave and believe only in a particular manner. You hear the impressive Reagan majority being referred to not as an impressive majority, but rather, in a breathtakingly immodest leap, as the whole nation: "the American people." The 37 million electoral minority, along with those who may have voted for Reagan but now oppose some particular position of his, are said to be not merely wrong, but actually "out of touch with the American people" -- as if they themselves were something else.

Now it is true that most of our recent presidents have come to us with an idiosyncratic idea of who qualified for membership in that exalted collectivity known as "the American people." Richard Nixon's aides frequently suggested that the "real people," as these lucky ones are alternatively known, all lived in Peoria, while some folks in Jimmy Carter's administration more expansively implied that they all lived in the Middle West and South. So the clubby definition is not unique. And it should also be said that Reagan the man is himself anything but ideologically stringent, demanding or exclusive in his friendships and associations. He is in fact an improbable leader to preside over a campaign of political purification of the culture. It is not his style. And yet, in and out of government, the trend is there.

The pop anthropologists, the superficial commentators in print and on the air, the more devoted and singleminded conservative intellectuals in and out of government -- theirs are among the voices being heard making the pitch. Pay attention to those Yuppie-in-the- street interviews you have been reading, to the solemn intonations on the opinion part of the 6-o'clock news, to certain articulate spokesmen for the hard right pressing the view in their various journals. And note also the irony that certain zealots of the left, who love to believe some sort of right-wing terror is coming and also that the people are vindictive, bloody- minded jerks, join in the consensus. They insist that the vote in November was in fact something much greater than a presidential election. It was, in this view, a cultural referendum and one whose outcome carries certain privileges for the victors and obligations for everyone else.

Back in the glory days of the early 1940s, when the troops were still overseas, shopkeepers and short-order cooks would respond to another civilian's request for some unavailable good or other with the stock and slightly belligerent question: "Don't you know there's a war on?" Something of the same tone -- a little mocking, a little hostile, feeling no need to argue or explain -- resonates in the way the Reagan victory is invoked here and there these days to dispose of all manner of questions and assertions that have nothing to do with it. Is it not clear who won the election? Is it not clear what the American people said? These formulations and variations on them are meant to be "dispository," as the lawyers would say, to end argument once and for all and do away with inconvenient differences of opinion.

I think they are put to two broad purposes. One is to justify actions that otherwise might produce guilt -- actions that would seem selfish or maybe even cruel if you couldn't contend that you were merely following a course of behavior that was validated by the American people last November. Reagan's majority is here exploited in an intellectually fuzzy way as an excuse for individual self-indulgence or social irresponsibility: it's just that go-get-'em spirit of the times. The second broad purpose is to induce cultural conformity, it not being enough apparently to say that one side is in the ascendant; anything that runs counter to or offends the majority mood is likely to be challenged as inappropriate and illegitimate somehow in light of the vote last November. That kind of movie or play or political pitch, whatever it is, just isn't "on" any more; yet there it still is clogging the airwaves and affronting the populace, refusing to accept the results of the election, its own kind of subversion.

I don't believe any government repression is coming or that Ronald Reagan is looking for cultural commissars -- don't get me wrong. But I do believe a silly and smothering general mood is being encouraged by some of his cheerleaders and by others who are merely trendies or opportunists. It would be odd if this kind of conformism were incited by an administration that has captured the national imagination largely because it so eloquently opposes those who would regiment the individual or stifle personal initiative in the name of some central political discipline. And these are the people, too, who were so frustrated and infuriated by the monopoly of left-wing liberal values in public communication over the years. Are they willing simply to turn in one set of mandatory views for another? That doesn't sound like Reagan to me, though it does sound like some of his supporters. I think they do him no favor.