BECAUSE the United States was a young nation when it first engaged in boasting contests with the Old World, claims of ``new,'' ``improved,'' and ``latest'' took priority over longevity. The habit continues. Twentieth-century Democrats have frequently taken advantage of this inclination in mustering votes for the New Frontier, the New Deal, and the New Freedom. Perhaps there was little surprise when their latest champion was bested by something called the New Right. Will the opposition now rush to discover an even newer Left?
If so, it may be confusing the label with the content. Behind its ``star wars'' and its technical proficiencies, the New Right -- religious and political -- rests on traditions of evangelism, libertarianism, and individualism that have cyclically flourished and faded since Colonial times.
The Democrats ought to continue to compete for modern means of organizing public opinion. Philosophically, however, they should neither reach for the mythical middle nor search for the novel. The opposition has its own traditions that embrace values as cherished as those the President evokes with his moral tales of individual triumph.
The Democrats' origins go back to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, leaders whose ideas stretch toward present issues. They offer a clear alternative to the Republican uses of the past.
It was Jefferson, in his 70s, who insisted that creditable behavior was owed neither to self-interest nor to the fear of divine retribution. Atheists, he wrote, are responsible for as many selfless acts as are believers. When God made man a social animal He also gave him a social conscience independent of church membership.
Don't fear the people, Jefferson said. Trust them. Allow them to elect and recall judges. Install the direct, popular election of the president! But, he went on, fear a government that would oppress the people with a burdensome national debt, making all men slaves to taxes.
Jackson, in his most famous speech, admitted that nature did not make all human beings equal. Thus, he said, it behooves the government to refrain from adding to inequities. He attacked the principle of a private bank that would enjoy the favors of a government charter, and this distaste made clear how much he would abhor a nation run by lawyers, bankers, and accountants.
President Reagan's successes show that, among other things, there lives in many of us some nostalgia for freestanding individualism and the politicization of morality.
The opposition can find in its own tradition a number of germane and appealing alternatives: commitment to the general welfare that balances competitive individualism, respect for religious freedom that demands the separation of church and state, and acceptance of large-scale national debt only in times of unarguable crisis.
The majority of politically active Americans have been characterized as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. If this is so, then the Democrats will be well served by their traditions at a time when a rising deficit is not matched by declining social and economic problems.
Rather than chasing novelty, the opposition must sound its most familiar chords, making sure, however, to call them the New Refrain.
Robert H. Walker is a professor of American civilization at George Washington University and author of ``Reform in America: The Continuing Frontier.''