A Sense of the Future

AMERICA faces a great task of restoration and renewal, regardless of who is elected president of the United States today.

Most of the world still sees the US as a beacon. But at too many levels and among too many people inside the country, something seems amiss. Call it "a sense of the future."

Americans have always been a people confident of the future. Publications from the Wall Street Journal to Mother Jones magazine, however, and individuals from scholars to cab drivers, are raising doubts.

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The issue goes far beyond recent campaign rhetoric; its resolution will require larger resources than politicians can provide. Doubts about the future don't spring solely from concern about the economy, or runaway entitlements, or government gridlock, important as these are. They touch on a felt lack of purpose, the unraveling of traditional middle-class expectations, and a loss of agreement about shared civic and spiritual values that would inform a healthy vision of the future.

For one of the few times in their history, most Americans do not feel the future will be better for their children. Nor are those children overly optimistic.

A recent survey of college students indicated that 90 percent felt their prospects were less bright than their parents'. In 1985, only 50 percent felt this way. Economic concerns make the biggest headlines. The financial binges of the 1980s were an effort to spend the country out of "malaise." Instead, Americans sank deeper into debt.

The trouble is as much in the soul as in the pocketbook. Artists and intellectuals have always been a weathervane of that national soul, in their process of discovery and "making it new," as William Carlos Williams put it. Yet here, too, vision is lacking. "Into the 21st century, bleakly," is how Daniel Bell, elder statesman of sociology, characterizes the US intellectual community's direction.

Intellectuals haven't developed the kind of public voice figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann used to have. A splintering and parochialism has set in. No "unifying set of beliefs" are discussed.

In the art world, the vision of recent minor giants such as Leonard Bernstein, Martha Graham, and Frank Capra have yet to be replaced. Trivializing traditions, says Pulitzer prize-winning composer Stephen Albert, means that for artists, "the future is something we no longer understand, that we can no longer look forward to and deal with."

Good work in the arts is being done, as always. Witness Robert Redford's new film adaptation of Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," which pushes past the merely emotional into a more genuine realm. Yet too often, mediocrity reigns.

Outside of America, the end of the cold war has not brought security. Europeans are squabbling over unity. Marxism's demise did not bring democracy and a chicken to every East European pot. Viperous ethnic strife has replaced socialism. A new nuclear threat confronts the world through black-market sales of Eastern technology and weaponry.

After a century that brought nuclear fission, holocaust in Europe and parts of Asia, instant communications, a moon voyage, and a civil-rights revolution in America, no country can relax into a post-cold-war consumer's paradise. Systems of thought will continue to compete. Fundamentalism, liberalism, capitalism, nationalism, religious faiths, technology - all claim ground.

At the end of this US presidential campaign, all three candidates agree that change is needed in America. The very lack of a sense of the future may be a help.

As they deal with plant closings, racial strife, and doubt, Americans may find themselves desiring to look deeper into the possibilities of what the Bible calls "a spirit in man."

Vaclav Havel, who for years held a flickering candle against the dark machinery of communist Europe, argues quietly that "Modern man must come to his senses."

Is "the brighter future really always so distant?" Havel asked in 1977. Or can it lie close at hand, hidden within?

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