Washington — Protest and confrontation have ebbed in America. In the nation's capital -- now the focus of the ultimate American protest for freedom that began 205 years ago this Fourth of July -- relative quiet prevails in the streets and malls.
The number and frequency of open public marches, rallies, and demonstrations in Washington have held virtually steady at a low level the past three years, report city and federal officials.
Sophisticated lobbying, direct-mail fund raising, and membership drives have largely replaced mass gatherings as a way to influence national policy.
President Reagan's style of negotiating with Congress reflects the new tone of civility.
"We're in a kind of era of good feelings," observes Max Friedersdorf, White House emissary to Capitol Hill, commenting on Mr. Reagan's largely genial relations with Congress despite sharp differences on budget, tax, weapons, and other issues.
"This President is simply not a confrontational president," Mr. Friedersdorf says. "He simply will not havem bad personal relationships." The public, too, does not want the President and Congress at each other's throats, he says.
The rest of the country seems to mirror Washington at the moment. Antinuclear groups failed to show up in June at a rate- hike hearing at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New England. The environmentalists' new style appears to be their quiet lobbying with Congress and the press.
"It's so quiet," says New England opinion analyst Richard Bennett, about the relatively low levels of public reaction to events like the New Hampshire governor's vetoing of the state budget and mass strikes by state employees. "The biggest concern the past two weeks in New England," says Mr. Bennett, "was the gypsy moths."
The ebb in mass protest could change quickly, warn US Department of Justice officials who monitor racial and community tensions in major cities. Blacks, particularly, are less optimistic about their prospects.
But at the moment there appears nothing like the discontent and rebellion that led to the great civil rights and Vietnam war protests of the 1960s and early 1970s in Washington and elsewhere, experts say.
Among professional opinion-movers, mass protests have lost their appeal, says James H. Lake, a Republican lobbyist.
Civil rights and Vietnam causes were driven by an enormous welling up of popular feeling at the grass roots, not by small groups of elitist activists, Mr. Lake says. Thinking they could copy the attention-getting success of those movements, groups like the farmers and Moral Majority have tried to stage Washington rallies, but without much success. The farmers, indeed, have returned to the slower, quieter role of lobbying.
"This is a very different climate from the late '60s and early '70s," says John Shattuck, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "Civil rights, civil liberties issues are now overshadowed by economic issues. We're no longer in a period of protest in the conventional sense."
Nonetheless, the emerging issues still require public activism, say Mr. Shattuck and other spokesmen for liberal causes.
The ACLU will launch a fall campaign with 10 major conferences on rights issues such as the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, attempts in Congress to change the Constitution, and abortion.
The AFL-CIO has scheduled a major "solidarity" rally in Washington Sept. 19, as a way to counter the Reagan administration's early economic program successes.
"If they bring out a quarter- to a half-million people in September, that would have an impact," says Leon Shull, executive director of Americans for Democratic Action. "If only 15,000 or 20,000 show up, it won't have much of an impact at all."
"The method now for getting attention is not the massive demonstration," Mr. Shull says. "I've been out talking around the country with public interest, educational, and charitable institutions," he says. "I find a lot of interest in hearing a rebuttal to the Reagan economic program. The media in the hinterlands want to hear the other side. We're getting very substantial increases in contributions and memberships."
The ranks of young activists have dwindled, and the issues have changed, says Jay Angoff, a lawyer with Ralph Nader's Tax Reform Research Group in Washington.
Issues like homosexual rights and even the Equal Rights Amendment are not as central to the nation's problems as economic issues, Mr. Angoff says. "There ought to be demonstrations against acceleration of the depreciation allowance -- but it's hard to come up with a catchy slogan."