THE interesting thing about the Robert Bork affair is what it tells us about the strength of the various currents in the American political stream. One hopes that Judge Bork himself realizes that there is nothing personal about the opposition to him. He has become a symbol. Votes for or against him are not reflections on the man himself or on his competence to sit on the Supreme Court. His competence is not the issue. Ronald Reagan's counterrevolution is.
Once there was a thing called ``the New Deal,'' which was in effect a broad social revolution. It transformed the American scene. Three of the main beneficiaries of the New Deal were organized labor, the American black community, and the emancipated women of our times. All are immeasurably better off today. They are endowed with legal and social rights and with economic opportunities that were impossible back in the days of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.
Successful revolutions tend to go too far. What began as the New Deal under Franklin Delano Roosevelt reached its extreme expression in the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.
Revolutionary movements set up countermovements. The countermovement against the New Deal actually began under Jimmy Carter.
The counterrevolution reached its own peak in the reelection of President Reagan in 1984. The very size of that election victory stimulated to greater effort the movements and groups that had benefited most from the original New Deal revolution - organized labor, blacks, and emancipated women. They saw threatened the great gains they had achieved from Roosevelt through Johnson.
Whether Mr. Bork sitting on the Supreme Court would become an instrument of the Reagan counterrevolution is beside the point. Fairly or unfairly, the beneficiaries of the New Deal came to believe he would be an instrument of the counterrevolution.
The phenomenon is to be seen most clearly in the fact that several Southern Democratic senators who have often voted with Mr. Reagan and are regarded as being more or less conservative came out against the Bork nomination. They are doing so on behalf of their own black constituents.
We who took rhetoric in our college days learned about the progression from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. The opposition to Bork is part of the process the American people are going through of working out the proper synthesis of what was best in the New Deal with what is best in the Reagan counterrevolution.
The relationship between black and white communities in the Old South has been changed radically. We can now see that the change is decisive. The Southern Democrats are against Bork because they do not want to encourage any further tampering with the new relationship. The counterrevolution in black-white relations has run its course.
Has it also run its course in most other respects?
We will be better able to judge the answer when we see how the battle over the Bork nomination ends.
The old forces bred in the New Deal have ranged themselves against the new political forces that ranged themselves behind Reagan. This is a mighty test of their respective strengths. One can easily feel sympathy for Bork himself. He has become the battleground over which two contending political armies are fighting a battle to test their respective strengths.
One thing is already clear. No matter who wins, the win or loss will be narrow. This tells us the important fact about the political situation. Something close to an equilibrium has been reached between New Deal and anti-New Deal forces. The Reagan counterrevolution was dominant for four years. It won a tremendous vote of confidence in 1984. But it has won scarcely a battle since. Americans are beginning to experience the limits on the Reagan counterrevolution.