SINCE THE LAST presidential election, the Democratic National Committee has conducted 43 focus groups and commissioned a poll of 5,500 voters to learn how to appeal for votes in the future. At Walt Disney World last weekend, the DNC revealed its first findings. "When party leaders talk about fairness," the DNC direct mail director said, "middle-class voters see it as a code word for giveaway." Fairness, you may remember, was the Democrats' formula for winning as recently as 1982, when Democrats won a majority of votes cast for all offices. Is it a guaranteed vote-loser now?

That depends on the kind of fairness. In 1982 Democrats attacked Reagan Republicans for cutting taxes for the rich and threatening to cut Social Security for the ordinary person; in a recession year that appeal paid off. But that may have been the last time this familiar rule worked. In the 1930s and 1940s the great middle of the American income spectrum tended to see itself as the under- half of society, with interests contrary to those of the rich on the top, and Democrats preaching "fairness" won most elections. But in the America of the 1970s and 1980s, most Americans tend to see themselves as middle class, reluctant in recession years to give new advantages to the rich but more concerned usually about being overtaxed to help the poor. "Fairness," if it means helping the poor, can thus become a drag on Democrats.

It is a paradox that the more success a democracy has in eradicating poverty, the smaller the political constituency for eradicating the poverty that remains. "People are telling us, 'Please don't ask us to care for people down the street before we take care of our own family's economic security,' " one Democrat said. DNC chairman Paul Kirk was quick to add that the party won't leave the disadvantaged behind. But for both Democrats and Republicans, political appeals that work best in the short run speak to the selfish interests of voting blocs -- beleaguered farmers, loan-hungry college students, soon-to-be Social Security recipients who don't want to be dependent on their children. The long-term interests of the nation and of the parties depend on fostering and focusing a spirit of generosity.

At Disney World the Democrats were suggesting programs to help young Americans move upward to be college graduates, jobholders and homeowners -- the kinds of programs that helped create the vast middle class of today and worked well for the Democrats and the nation in the years after 1945. But none of these worthy initiatives translates directly into a formula to replace "fairness."