Those of us who spend our allegedly productive hours in and about American politics share a compulsion to classify, to label each nonpresidential election year.

You remember 1974? That was the Watergate election year when Total Disclosure and candidate virginity were prized. Four years later in 1978, an antigovernment election campaign -- with its emphasis on Proposition 13-style tax cuts -- offered, for once, an accurate preview of the presidential election that would immediately follow.

In 1982 when unemployment was at its highest level since Pearl Harbor, the Democrats rebounded from their 1980 drubbing by stressing not a repeal of Reaganism but a compassionate mid-course correction while relying upon the indefatigable Claude Pepper to travel the country terrorizing GOP candidates for their party's "softness" on the Social Security issue. For Democrats, 1982 turned out to be the false spring of 1984.

But now, less than nine months before Election Day, the theme of the campaign of 1986 is unclear and, therefore, unlabeled and unclassified. Pollsters and analysts provide no comfort. Your semi-faithful correspondent is left with an admittedly unscientific means of taking the body politic's temperature: the car on the street. What do contemporary bumper stickers tell us about our political mood in 1986?

As you may already have noticed, there are now, per capita, fewer bumper stickers than there were in the past. Three theories for that decline are offered.

First, the Era of Good Feelings in our national life has both lowered the emotional thermostat and raised the number of bare bumpers.

The second proposed explanation is economic: car owners could be reluctant to deface their cars, which now cost considerably more than most of their parents paid for their first house.

Third, the growing sophistication of political campaign managers who now realize that while they can control the placement of a campaign billboard or radio commercial, they cannot control the location of bumper stickers, and that one recklessly rude driver in rush hour (the jerk with the Smedley for Senate sticker) can alienate dozens of voters.

Early returns from fender-reading provide three distinct social-political characteristics of 1986.

1.Moral Arrogance. How else can you describe the driver of a car with the legible message, Warning, I Brake for Animals and Children. This one is frequently seen on Volvos. Do such drivers mean to imply that the rest of us cruise our area's boulevards determined to run over Bambi and Peter Cottontail?

2.Political Caution. Do you remember when bumper stickers took tough, unequivocal stands on thorny issues, like Get the U.S. Out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S.? That one made it clear where the owner stood and made a lot of people mad.

Today's stickers take tough stands against such issues as driving drunk and using illegal drugs while coming out bravely in support of hugging your children. Whenever governmental intervention is urged, it now seems to be to "protect," "preserve" or "save" either a saloon or the violet-bellied sloth.

3.Privacy Invasion. This is the mobile equivalent of the casual acquaintances who insist on confiding the most graphically intimate details of their personal lives. Of course bumper stickers can embolden the timid and miraculously transform the inarticulate into the glib. But why so tastelessly and coarsely?

Stuck in traffic, our required -- or unavoidable -- reading includes how professions from taxidermist to telephone installer do "IT." Particularly disparaging of education is the Teachers Do It With Class entry.

Less offensive, but nevertheless irksome, is the promiscuous use of the heart/love symbol with breeds of dogs, radio stations and video rental stores. And to be perfectly blunt, I don't give a damn what the driver in front of me would "rather be" doing.

Maybe, there's a clue here about the 1986 campaign, but I confess I've missed it. And do you suppose some 22nd-century grad student in anthropology will conclude, after rummaging through old bumpers, that the most popular political figure of our era was Luray Caverns?