There is no doubt that the economy will be the dominant issue in the election on November 2. But the outcome will tell us more than what the American people think about how congressmen are doing their jobs or, in the larger context, how they view the economic course set by President Reagan. It will tell us whether Americans think enough about their representative system of government to participate in it. They have an opportunity to go out and vote - and give the lie to the cynical view that they are increasingly uninterested in self-government and do not value perhaps the most important freedom they have.
The trends of recent years are disquieting. In midterm congressional elections, the high in voter turnout was reached in 1962, when about 48 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. The figure has been declining ever since, dropping to a low of less than 38 percent in 1978. More Americans vote in presidential elections, to be sure, but even here the turnout is abysmally low when compared to other Western democracies. Yet this erosion in citizen participation has come at a time when it is easier to vote, when much has been done to reduce the legal and mechanical barriers to registration.
How to account for this? No one can be quite sure, but many election analysts see signs of a deepening alienation among non-voters, a lack of confidence in the efficacy of government aggravated by such phenomena as the Vietnam war, Watergate, Abscam, and the seeming intractability and complexity of problems. It is probably fair to say, too, that the emergence of television and media campaigning has contributed to the cynicism about politicians. Certainly the negative ads now being run in many electoral races - with sometimes unscrupulous personal attacks on candidates - pull down the tone of campaigning and must disgust many voters. So, too, must the huge amounts of money which politicians are pouring into campaigns these days.
To reverse the disillusionment is the great need if American democracy is to have a new burst of vitality. Much could be done by the politicians themselves - both by setting higher standards of campaigning and, more important, by proving that they are able to deliver on people's concerns. Elections since 1960, point out such analysts as Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, have largely been ''negative elections'' because the populace has voted its disapproval of incumbent leaders.
Yet it accomplishes little to find a scapegoat in the politicians. Americans do have important choices to make next Tuesday and, even if they vote against something rather than affirmatively for something, that is better than not voting at all. Their individual voices do count. In the 1960 presidential election John Kennedy won by fewer than 115,000 votes. In a congressional race in South Dakota in 1978 the Democratic candidate won by only 105 votes. Other examples of squeak-by victories could be cited.
But the point is that voting is a moral duty and responsibility in a representative democracy. When that obligation is unfulfilled or taken casually , the nation has government not by the majority but by a minority. The citizenry in effect abdicates its rights, leaving it to those few who are interested enough to decide how the nation shall be governed and what policies shall be pursued. The end of that path is a terrible one to contemplate.
If it seems hard to give the American economy a quick lift, it at least is possible to give democracy a boost. And, who knows, a big vote on Tuesday could just invigorate the politicians - and the US Congress - as well.