Aren't Americans supposed to be losing patience with politics and government in response to rising taxes, a faltering economy and the risk of war in the Persian Gulf?

Maybe so. But it would be hard to prove that conclusion on the basis of the latest election returns across the country.Yes, the voter turnout on Tuesday was lamentably low, with only 35 per-cent of eligible voters going to the polls. But that's usually the case in contests where the president is not on the ballot. Besides, there has long been a trend for more Americans to avoid registering altogether.

Consequently, the apathy expressed Tuesday didn't send this nation's leaders any message that they hadn't already heard many times before.

Instead, if the results of the 1990 election teach anything, it is simply to re-emphasize the great power usually enjoyed by incumbent office-holders, particularly in Congress.

Yes, there were surprises Tuesday, including some in Utah. But the biggest surprise in this state involved the only congressional race in which no incumbents were on the ballot. In that race, the upset victory of Democratic newcomer Bill Orton over veteran state legislator Karl Snow reflects not so much a shift to the left in public sentiment as a deep division among conservatives in the 3rd District. Until that rift is healed, Utahns can forget the old notion that victory in the Republican primary in that district is tantamount to victory in the general election.

The other surprises in Utah involved races for Salt Lake County offices where incumbency does not carry nearly as much clout as it does in congressional offices. Even so, long-thwarted Democrats have a right to take encouragement from the victories of James Bradley and Randy Horiuchi, whose triumphs ended 10 years of GOP control of the County Commission and marked the first time in a decade that any incumbent Salt Lake County commissioner has failed in a re-election bid.

At the same time, though, Republican challenger Aaron Kennard ousted Salt Lake County Sheriff Pete Hayward, who had held the office 12 years. In this and other non-commission races, three of the four Republican incumbents won re-election.

In the Utah Legislature, Democrats gained four new seats in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate. But these gains were not nearly enough to crack GOP domination of both chambers.

The strength of incumbents was even more apparent in Congress, where more than 95 per cent of the current office-holders won re-election despite plenty of anti-Washington sentiment around the country.

In Congress, gains by Democrats were well below the average mid-term losses for the party occupying the White House. Even so, the upshot is still at least two more years of divided government. What's more, those Democratic gains can be expected to make it somewhat harder for President Bush to exercise a veto and make it stick. Consequently, it could also become harder for the White House to negotiate legislative compromises with Congress.

Another possible lesson of Tuesday's election is that voters are more displeased with institutions than they are with individual public servants. When it comes to the budget, taxes and the sour economy, certainly there's plenty of blame to be shared by both Congress and the White House.

Sadly, another lesson of the election is that Utah likely can expect more negative campaigns - campaigns that put less emphasis on the issues than on what supposedly is wrong with one's opponent. Though the 1990 campaign was far from the dirtiest Utah has seen, there certainly was no shortage of over-heated accusations and cheap shots. Too many office-seekers and their supporters have not learned how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Until the mud-slingers are punished more severely at the ballot box than they have been so far, negative campaigning can be expected to continue. But it's hard for the voters to deter such tactics when various candidates in both major political parties resort to them.

Apart from the surprises already mentioned, the winners in Utah on Tuesday were just about along the lines of advance expectations, with incumbent Congressmen Jim Hansen and Wayne Owens triumphing in the 1st and 2nd Districts.

Though Genevieve Atwood missed in her attempt to become the first Utah woman in Congress since Reva Beck Bosone served there from 1948 to 1952, it's hard to think of Atwood as a loser. The same could be said of Kenley Brunsdale. It takes real grit to run against such seasoned campaigners and proven vote-getters as those faced by Brunsdale and Atwood.

Another aspect of the Utah election merits special attention - the defeat of the initiative to eliminate the sales tax on food. Its rejection in the face of public displeasure with higher federal taxes should send a couple of pointed messages. One of them is that good intentions are still no substitute for good judgment. Another is that the public is tired of being dragged to the polls by proponents of grandiose tax schemes. Utah rejected another food-tax cut in 1980 and a sweeping tax limitation plan two years ago. Enough is enough.

Meanwhile, what a relief that an often needlessly nasty battle for votes is finally over. Now that the American people have spoken, the challenge is to start healing the wounds inflicted during the 1990 campaign.