The totalitarian's dream, Orwell's nightmare, has long been that the persuasive apparatus of modern technology would enable governments to keep their grip on power forever.

The fall of communism has engendered the confident belief that this is impossible. But recent trends in American elections are enough to make one reconsider.The lesson of Tuesday's election is that for incumbent politicians, remaining in power has indeed become a mere matter of technique, a form of engineering in which success can be achieved with near-scientific certainty.

Re-election rates for Congress have reached levels found nowadays only in Albania, and Albania is about to have a revolution.

According to forecasts of a week ago, an American revolt - to throw the rascals out - was brewing. Not a chance. In 1990, the re-election rate for the House was 96 percent and for the Senate 97 percent.

This at a time when voters expressed disgust with Congress and apprehension about the country's direction. Even S&L poster-boy Frank Annunzio, D-Ill., was returned.

How did Congress become as immutable as the Supreme Soviet? Two factors. One is a campaign-finance system designed to allow incumbents to spend their opponents into oblivion. This year, House incumbents outspent their hapless opponents 4-1.

The second factor is the perfection of modern advertising techniques that permit the near-automatic translation of money into votes.

Accidents can happen, of course.

Sen. Rudy Boschwitz lost to an underfunded challenger. But 1990 was a bizarre, scandal-soaked political year for Minnesota Republicans. Moreover, Boschwitz was the sole incumbent senator to lose.

And true, Bill Bradley got a scare in New Jersey. His challenger, unknown and outspent 20-1, lost by a mere 3 points. But Bradley still won.

The extraordinarily high re-election rate makes nonsense of the idea that an angry country was prepared for change. In the abstract, sure. But not in my district.

Electoral preferences are subject to the same NIMBY (not in my back yard) hypocrisy as other political preferences.

People want toxic waste disposed of, but not in their backyard. They want cheap oil, but no drilling off their shore, please.

They give Congress its highest disapproval rating ever recorded, 69 percent, then return their own Congress members 29 times out of 30.

People want clean air and better schools and brand-new political faces. But if the real thing requires any real exertion, they'll be satisfied with just the idea.

Which is why one office to which election is not yet for life is governor. Incumbent governors were defeated in six states, most notably Florida, Michigan and Minnesota.

A governor is more tied to the real world. His actions have directly felt consequences. A governor like Michael Dukakis knows no amount of campaign advertising can alter his real record. So he steps down.

Congressional life is far more abstract. Its actions have a more tenuous relationship to real life. Except for bringing home some pork, members of Congress are asked principally to strike poses and adopt attitudes.

It is an iron law of media politics that the more divorced from the real world the incumbent's actions, the more certain his or her re-election - because technique can then intervene between the record and the voter.

That is why members of Congress always get re-elected and governors only get re-elected most of the time. It's also why presidents, who are able to start wars and are thought to bring on recessions, have lost re-election in two of their last three attempts.

What's wrong with incumbency?

Chronic incumbency is a prescription for political sclerosis. This is particularly true for the American political system which, with its multiple checks and balances, was uniquely designed to be unproductive anyway (under the apprehension that too much production is a threat to liberty).

Today, this governmental machine, marvelously designed for paralysis, is manned by a permanent cadre of elected-for-life politicians. The result is perpetual motion without output.

What output there is consists of imaginary goods: phony deficit-reduction laws, weird flag-protection flaps, irrelevant death-penalty debates, fanciful education goals.

For the country, the system is a disaster. The real issues, like failing schools and exploding deficits, hardly get addressed, much less solved. Yet for congressional incumbents, the system works.

The message of the 1990 election is that so long as the voters' imaginary needs are met, they will let the engine grind on and the engineers keep their life tenure.