On the day after the Bork battle was lost, with a solid majority of senators publicly prepared to vote against him, The Wall Street Journal editorially breathed defiance. It sounded the call for conservatives to fight on and offered President Reagan strategic advice.

" . . . After the Bork defeat, he must be starting to understand the irrational nature of the forces being deployed against him," the newspaper said of the president. "It's time he used his powers to strike back, starting by ensuring that the Bork opponents are in no way rewarded."

This is a fundamental misreading of what this epochal Supreme Court nomination fight, the most telling political incident of the Reagan presidency, symbolizes about America in the late 1980s. Far from being irrational, the forces producing Judge Robert H. Bork's defeat were both logical and inevitable. That doesn't mean that they fairly depicted Bork's views. It means that they represent the tide of history.

No episode in the Reagan years more clearly illuminates the differences between political ideology and reality, between the nation that has emerged from the long, bloody civil rights revolution that crested in the 1960s and the one envisioned by true believers who cling to illusions about America today.

None demonstrates more vividly the misjudgments of ideologues who have convinced themselves that the land not "inside the Beltway," as they sneeringly refer to the nation's capital, is awash with ideological fervor and inhabited by a people hungering for politically polarizing positions. The truth is that the ideologues don't understand what lies beyond the Beltway, and therein lies the essential lesson of the Bork case.

Contrary to what the ideologues believe, Americans have no social agenda. They don't want preachers in politics, school prayer in public classrooms, perceived extremists on the Supreme Court. They are neither liberal nor conservative; they are practical -- yes, "pragmatic." And every opinion poll, every grass-roots voter survey, reinforces those impressions. If anything defines Americans' philosophically today, it is their belief in moderation and fairness. Most emphatically, they do not want to reopen old wounds and refight past battles.

That is especially so in the South, where the political misjudgments involving the Bork case are most striking and where the opposition of generally "conservative" senators killed the nomination.

Bork lost because the Reagan operatives failed to understand the forces that created the present South. Lyndon B. Johnson understood them when, in his great New Orleans presidential campaign speech in 1964, he told southerners what they knew in their hearts to be true: that the day of appeals to racial hatreds was over. No region in America welcomed that message more than the South, blacks and whites.

"Now, the people that would use and destroy us first divide us," Johnson said. "There is not any combination in this country that can take on Russell Long, Allen Ellender, Lyndon Johnson and a few others if we are together. But, if they divide us, they can make some hay. And all these years they have kept their foot on our necks by appealing to our animosities and dividing us . . . . All {southern voters} ever hear at election time is nigra, nigra, nigra!"

One of the voices of racial division that year was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. He is the same Thurmond who had led Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party in the 1948 presidential election and waged a bitter, divisive segregationist campaign presaging violent racial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. He is the same Thurmond who later symbolized the switch of white southerners to the Republican Party and the reigniting of southern racial polarization.

In the Bork confirmation hearings, Thurmond strongly defended Bork's judicial record by praising his moderate, mainstream views and indignantly rejected the notion that Bork harbored racial prejudice or was tainted by racism.

In the aftermath of the venomous nomination fight, such bitter-enders as The Journal editorialists are urging Reagan to take the Bork case to the country. They think that voters will respond as angrily and ideologically as they have to "the Senate's total irresponsibility" in rejecting Bork. Fight on, they urge, for "obviously this would become a big issue in the presidential and senatorial campaigns in 1988."

They don't understand that the battle ended long ago. Perhaps that's the price of not understanding what lies beyond the canyons of Wall Street.