A hallmark of the American democracy is the basic stability of the US public's views. It is hard for politicians, for long, to go against the general principles and convictions of the American people. Fundamental opinions - about the system itself, one's place in the political or ideological spectrum - change only gradually. It's the public's estimation of its leaders' performance, or the country's economic shape, that shows a greater volatility.
But even there patience tends to work to a prudent leader's advantage.
It's important that leaders keep this stability in thought when looking at the immediate Washington agenda, topped by US-Soviet relations and the authority for marines in Lebanon, as well as when planning for the 1984 presidential election. The underlying steadiness of public judgment suggests there is little point to seeking short-term political gains.
Alexis de Tocqueville first noted the stability in outlook in the then young American democracy back in the 1830s. He wrote in his classic study, ''Democracy in America'': ''I hear it said that it is in the nature and habit of democracies to be constantly changing their opinions and feelings. This may be true of small democratic nations, like those of the ancient world, in which the whole community can be assembled in a public place and then excited at will by an orator. But I saw nothing of the kind among the great democratic people that dwells upon the opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean. What struck me in the United States was the difficulty of shaking the majority in an opinion once conceived of.''
Americans are doers, more than political philosophers or debaters. They are too taken up with tasks at hand to be altering their views with every elite's new fashion, Tocqueville observed.
The past half-dozen years - bridging what was too quickly called by some a sharp new political direction in 1980 - have shown the wisdom of Tocqueville's insight. A two-to-one margin in public confidence in the US government system, a five-to-three edge in optimism in the economic system's long-run soundness, are the same today as in 1977, Public Opinion magazine notes in its recent fifth anniversary edition. Party ties have persisted. Today's leanings - Democratic 45 percent, independent 30 percent, and Republican 25 percent - are within two points of where they stood after the 1978 election. And the ideological spectrum - left 19 percent, center 38 percent, and right 32 percent, in Gallup's surveys - shows a modest three-point gain for the center, five points for the right, against a two-point liberal loss. Americans look pretty much the same after as before 1980.
The biggest spike in the opinion charts came from the Iranian seizure of American hostages in late 1979, when foreign affairs/national defense surged past economic problems as the most important issue facing the country. Foreign affairs has slipped back to its lower ranking since then, though lately it's been coming up.
Throughout the recent deep recession, the public showed remarkable patience. It preserved Republican power in Washington in 1982. This is not to say, however , there still won't be an accounting next year at the polls. But it's likely the public will judge again on the longer range achievements of the White House's and Congress's actions. It may use a rough guage of fairness of burden measured against pragmatic gains. Politicians should not overestimate how closely the public wants to follow each day's turn in the economic debate, or underestimate how fixed are the public's attitudes about the job it wants done.
Frankly, we are more concerned at the moment about how Washington is measuring the leading foreign affairs conflicts - with the Soviets, in the Middle East, and Central America - against long-range American expectations and values.
How deep and long a chill in US-Soviet relations will Americans endure, as a rebuke for downing the Korean jetliner, before their deep longing for arms peace reasserts itself? To what degree will the public endorse a greater marine presence in Lebanon before its feeling the US should not meddle in civil strife abroad takes over? In Central America, how pressing will Americans find the Soviet/Marxist threat a year from now?
Again, a higher appeal to what is stable in American attitudes seems in order.