Washington — Politics is always, it seems, getting an unfair rap. What one hears more than anything is that ''there's too much politics.'' The assumption is that if politics were somehow eliminated from the governing process, the country would move along splendidly.
What is not perceived is that politics actually is the process. It is among other things the debate that goes on constantly among the American people on a multitude of issues. Politicians enter the debate, state their positions, and seek to make the most of their public exposure.
As a number of Democrats now enter the presidential political arena, the criticism one hears is, ''Why so early?''
Perhaps it is never too early for the presidential sweepstakes. Yes, it may get boring. Yes, the voters may well be tuckered out by the candidates and their rhetoric even before the 1984 presidential year begins.
But the fact of the matter is that the debate over issues is a continuing process, and the candidates can and often do contribute to the enlightenment that helps to make that interchange of ideas useful.
Take the nuclear-freeze issue. Its beginnings in the United States can be traced to college campuses and to those often referred to as part of the ''liberal community.'' But the issue really began to take on force when political leaders like Messrs. Kennedy, Hatfield, and some of the early presidential candidates, particularly Alan Cranston, began to call for the US to take steps leading up to a freeze.
Just a lot of useless jabber? Some who opposed the freeze would say so. But it already has had an effect. Listen to the President. To counter the pro-freeze movement Mr. Reagan, as early as his speech in Eureka, Ill., last year, started moving toward a new position on nuclear arms: His early bellicosity toward the Soviets was over. He began coming up with some specific bargaining positions with which to help bring about a nuclear arms pact with Moscow.
No, the President hasn't backed away from his campaign rhetoric on missiles. He still is looking for an actual cutback in missiles, not a cap. But he is talking softer to the Soviets now. And this new reasonableness reflects a relatively new position. He will at least listen to the Soviets on the possibility of reaching agreements that may fall short of his hope for overall reductions. That is the message Vice-President Bush conveyed on his recent trip to Europe.
And now some very knowledgeable observers in Washington predict that the President, perhaps before the year is over, will hammer out a nuclear arms agreement with the Soviets - one that will at least quiet the fears of those who foresee a runaway arms race ending in inevitable tragedy.
Now the Democratic candidates are running around the country, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire where the early contests will be held, talking, shaking hands, raising money. It can be argued that this is turning the race for the presidency into a tiresome bore even before it really begins.
But listen to what Messrs. Mondale, Hart, Glenn, Hollings, Askew, Cranston are saying. They are deploring the lot of the farmer, for one. So the farmer's problems are moving into the headlines.
Is this useless rhetoric? Or has it helped trigger the President's new farm bill with help for the ailing farmer? It can be argued the latter.
Take joblessness in America. It has been here for sometime, and Mr. Reagan has been aware of it. But with all these Democrats now underscoring the depth of the recession - and the hardship it is causing - the President has come around to supporting a jobs bill. He insists that he is not creating a public works program. But his jobs bill is a compromise - or Tip O'Neill wouldn't be buying it.
No one said that the democratic process should always be exciting or interesting. But if it is to work there must be a perpetual interchange of public opinion. Thus politics, in the sense of continuing debate, must go on. It is the job of the politicians to articulate the issues.