The elections of 1982 are over; the candidates and the parties celebrate triumph or else silently lick their wounds. It is a good time to ask what the battles have all been about. What are the real stakes, beneath temporary gains or losses in power, beneath individual strokes of good fortune or bad, for which men and women have played and millions of dollars have been poured out?
I have my own theory, which has been given a fresh edge by the lead article in the recently published autumn issue of Foreign Affairs.m By the historian William H. McNeill, it is entitled ''The Care and Repair of Public Myth.'' McNeill argues that societies are held together by interlacing conceptions and beliefs which energize their forces and direct their aims. These systems, these visions and images of themselves, may be true or not true when tested against the realities of the world; but while they function in good order, society holds together and operates with an effective elan. When they break down or become confused, disorder reigns in the private as well as the public realm.
For convenience this body of common belief may be called a myth. It was a myth in 1940 that England was unconquerable (though Churchill by sheer force of will and eloquence gave it validity). It has long been a myth that France is the embodiment of the West's cultural values and achievements. Closer to home, it is a myth (though some deny it hotly) that the United States is the most economically productive nation in the world. These unproven, often implausible, myths serve a vital role in history and in the lives of men. Without the myth of Britain's unconquerability behind him, even Churchill would have been unable to stave off the German Luftwaffe.m And American progress has long been sustained by the people's innate belief in the superiority of their economic system.
These are positive myths. There must be some negative myths also, though usually we tend to be unconscious of them. That a world state cannot be created; that nuclear arms cannot be effectively controlled; that inflation is a process as inevitable as life - these are complex passions that try to rule us, being given form by assumptions rarely analyzed and embodied in the actions of men deemed to be ''practical.''
To return now to our question about the meaning of national elections: they may be said to be the means by which the public myth is shaped and reshaped, is modified or affirmed. Every candidate is possessed by some image of what his community is or ought to be; every constituency reads into the words of men and parties some conception of its destiny. When men and women go to the polls it is with a dim realization that they are in some way, however subtly and indirectly, delineating the grand contours of the common belief.
In high moments of politics the process is very evident. Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932, held an image of the United States quite different from that of Herbert Hoover. The citizens in that fateful year chose not a man or a party but a mythical conception of their future. Going back twenty years earlier, we can say that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson - whose proposed policies were superficially similar - spoke for national images sharply defined and as sharply opposed. Wilson, in particular, evoked by his powerful oratory an ideal of America, simple, disinterested, pure. This ideal galvanized the country and permitted it a period of great accomplishment - until the ideal itself faded and another concept of the national myth began to prevail.
What we have passed through this autumn lacks the clarity and decisiveness of such past events. Relatively small men have been contending over relatively small issues, and the outcome (which I do not know at this writing) can hardly do more than cause ripples upon the political scene. Yet once again, in Professor McNeill's phrase, we have been giving care to the public myth. We have perhaps been repairing it and bringing it nearer to the center of truth. To see politics in this way is, I suggest, to give meaning to what otherwise must often seem empty and self-seeking. It is to redeem the process of democracy and to dignify our own small effort to choose wisely and well.