Unity's appeal

The 1984 American election will likely be one of the whole and not of the parts. By that we mean the electorate is more unified in its outlook, more concerned with the broad progress of the nation's economy and influence in world affairs, than with the issues or subgroups that could potentially divide it.

A police clash with single-issue conservative demonstrators and homosexual anti-demonstrators in San Francisco on the eve of the Democratic National Convention by no stretch of the imagination reflects America's mood for this election.

There is nothing like the smoke of cities burning in the 1960s when urban minority youth went on a rampage, nothing like the searing split in national conscience over Vietnam that led to the street brutality at the Chicago convention of 1968. The generational divide that gave us flower children and militant seniors has passed, with young adults now moving briskly into the system and altering it as they do so.

The Democratic convention that opens today should reflect on its own scene. The most assertive parts of its constituency, women and blacks, are inside the hall, one of them represented not only by delegates but by a likely vice-presidential nominee and the other by a presidential nomination finalist. Hispanics, too, have made strides. None of these constituencies are outside, trashing the streets. Each is trying to succeed by influencing and transforming the political system from within.

America in 1984 appears to want to focus more on what unites it than on what divides it.

The Democrats would make a sad mistake to imagine that ''defeating Ronald Reagan,'' their rhetorical touchstone so far, would do much for them or the country. Reagan simply does not polarize American voters, along party or class lines, to the degree commonly claimed. Surveys show 4 out of 5 Democrats like Reagan personally, and nearly half say they back his policies. Of those earning under $10,000 a year, three-fourths say they like him and 43 percent like his policies. Such responses just ''don't fit the model of partisan polarization,'' observes political analyst Everett C. Ladd Jr.

In many ways, Reagan's support in '84 looks like Dwight Eisenhower's in 1952, a year in which Americans voted for a man who suggested an easing period, with secure leadership, after the great upheavals of war. Reagan's projected share of Democratic, independent, and Republican voter support is about the same as Ike's in that year's election. So is Reagan's standing among white-collar and blue-collar voters. Ike won with 55 percent of the vote, and Reagan has been registering a shade under that in Gallup's Reagan-Mondale trial heats. This is less than the 60 percent-plus margins of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972 - but those were elections of division, not unity.

Factional appeals are inherent in both major parties. So it is to be expected that the Democratic interest groups - women, labor, blacks, Hispanics, educators , environmentalists - will have waged their micro national campaigns to the convention's end.

But the public outside the hall, even the Democratic public, bears only partial resemblance to the crowd within. Stereotypes apply less than ever before. If the party thinks that Italian-American Geraldine Ferraro will draw blue-uollar votes, it might want to ponder why her fellow Italian-American New Yorker, Mario Cuomo, did better among college-educated voters than among high-school-educated blue-collar voters in his race for governor. Traditional ethnic lines between the parties are hardly discernible now.

There is a wide discrepancy among public surveys pitting Reagan against Mondale today, ranging from 7 to 20 points or more (a range that should cause the polling community some concern about its methods). Internal polls in both parties have been showing a 20 to 25 percent Reagan margin. If that lead continues, Democratic professionals worry, it could have some impact on the congressional races, where the Democrats have been holding an edge about in proportion to their advantage in incumbent seats.

A more unified election - that is, an election responding to broad themes rather than one geared to class or regional or interest-group appeals - could be more of a broad stroke election that would carry congressional and other election races along with the presidential outcome.

For the first part of this century, the Republicans were taken by voters to be the party that most closely met the needs of the whole. The Democrats under Franklin D. Roosevelt won the title of the party of the national idea. For the past half decade or so, the mantle of the party that most embodies the sense of the nation's purpose has been up for grabs.

The Democrats should argue this week the positive case: here is our concept of what America as a group wants to achieve, and here is how we propose to help achieve it.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.