NEW YORK. — THE URGENT problem in American politics is that the center can hold. It held last week against an angry but ragged charge by millions of what the Constitution quaintly calls ''We, the People . . . ''
''I got the message. I got the message,'' said survivors from Sen. Bill Bradley to Rep. Newt Gingrich, shaken men who almost lost their jobs. Mr. Gingrich's predicament was the most fun and the most revealing; he had shouted to throw out the incumbents (meaning Democratic incumbents) for so long that he forgot he was one, too.
What message did they get? Be more careful next time.
Next time they will make sure they have more money and fewer controversial votes and positions, more rules to keep outsiders where they belong, outside. They will spend more time back home stroking voters. They will hire more pollsters and consultants.
What message, then, should we get?
We must understand that we are in big trouble if professional politicians cannot be thrown out of office after standing by as savings-and-loan thieves took hundreds of millions from taxpayers, after refusing to handle the most basic part of their job, writing out a true and honest federal budget, and after not being able to explain sending hundreds of thousands of troops into the desert.
The center of the modern political profession, we must also understand, has nothing to do with ideology. The words Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, left and right, have very little to do with last week's election drama. ''In'' and ''out'' are the operative words. Those who were in wanted to keep everyone else out -- and that is one thing they have done pretty well.
The men and women now at the center of this business, the insiders, are a small group: candidates, consultants and pollsters, money men and television-station owners.
It's just a few thousand men and women who have made a self-starting self-machine that goes of itself, driven by the power of government, lubricated by the money that flows from corporations and individuals who need government sanction of any sort through politicians and on to consultants and vendors of television time.
Twenty years ago, there were people called ''political activists,'' millions of them who did public things for private reasons from knocking on doors and licking stamps in campaign offices to lying down at the gates of weapons factories and trying to steal FBI files. They no longer really exist, or they are few. Political consultants, who now run most important campaigns, hate people who do it for free. So, if you see a campaign office on Main Street, it's probably just there to keep volunteers away from the real action -- or to provide pictures for television.
''Political activist'' is now a euphemism for contributor. In general, the new American politicians are interested in only one thing from the people: their money. They don't pocket it. (Well, maybe a little because public and private life meld in their class.) They collect it and advertise the amount, first to intimidate possible challengers, then to hire the consultants and buy local television time to attack anyone foolhardy enough to think of running against them.
The rest of us are pretty much out of it, whether we vote or not. The goal of incumbent politics is to leave voters with about the same power to change things as non-voters have. Judging by last week's vote counts, it's working -- for ''them.'' The machinery, it seems, has broken down only for ''us.''
Whom to blame? Ourselves or the system itself?
It's not the people's fault. It can't be. In democracy, the people are right. That's what democracy is. The system is rigged: Electoral democracy is being taken from the body politic drop by drop.
Election laws are more and more a contract between the existing parties, the Democrats and Republicans, to make it nearly impossible for new parties to seriously challenge their franchise. The laws and regulations governing political fund-raising and spending serve as a compact between office holders to protect all of their positions by protecting each one.
Democracy should be the most flexible of governments, able to self-correct. Some of that is happening -- the rush toward more initiatives and referendums and term- and tax-limit propositions are a direct challenge to office holders from the people out there. They may be a crude weapon, but the opposition, professional politicians, are men and women against gun control but all for voter control.
We have to fight back as our powers and rights are nibbled away by political greed, but it will not be easy. In a real and self-protective way, many office holders already see voters as their real enemy. Politicians are fighting for their lives professionally and their way of life. Only the people can take that away from them.
Almost 20 years ago, a Democrat named Richard Tuck -- ''Dick'' Tuck to his friends -- lost a race for the California Assembly and gave the ultimate concession speech, short and to the point and true: ''The people have spoken, the bastards!''
The successor generation of American politics would never be that crude. In truth, they don't much care what the people say, as long as the rules and money networks make sure the people are there only to be seen, not heard.