THE electoral success of George Bush and Michael Dukakis - the two presidential candidates who have been least inclined to take clear or potentially risky stands on major national issues - has led many to conclude that voters are content and uninterested in issues, except for the minority of malcontents who turn out for Jesse Jackson. Yet this conclusion obscures an undercurrent of unease in the national consciousness, a sense of drift and uncertainty just beneath the surface of the campaign. The surge of interest in so-called economic nationalism, the growing preoccupation with the notion of American imperial decline - these are symptoms of a national anxiety, the significance of which may become apparent only later.
This unease is a function of what pollster Stanley Greenberg has dubbed the ``indicators gap'' - the discrepancy between the government's encouraging economic indicators, on the one hand, and the grave doubts harbored by many Americans about their country's economic and social health, on the other. Voters see a contradiction between the indicators and the everyday reality around them, in which security and prosperity seem ever more elusive.
Real after-tax family income has fallen over the past 10 years for all but the top 20 percent of the population, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office study, and United States Census Bureau statistics show that the rich-poor gap is at its widest in 40 years.
Rising rents and deep cuts in federal housing subsidies since 1981 have made decent, affordable housing little more than a dream for many families. Thirty-five million Americans are without health insurance and 20 percent of American children grow up in poverty. In addition, the problems of decaying public schools, racial polarization, and crime- and drug-ridden neighborhoods are all too familiar.
But even for those not directly affected by such realities, these are troubling times. Any current prosperity seems fragile and temporary, and just over the horizon seem to be intractable problems that threaten the very foundations of society and the economy: huge trade and budget deficits; a declining productive base and lagging competitiveness in the world economy; and overinvestment in weapons systems at the expense of infrastructure, education, and research.
Americans sense that their political leaders are not addressing these problems seriously enough, and they worry that they are losing ground to other nations.
All these factors contribute to a sense that Americans' economic future is being left to the vagaries of fate - or to the whims of their foreign creditors. In a recent World Policy Institute survey, 67 percent of voters said their economy has grown weaker compared with other countries. A large plurality said they expect that ``the next generation will not be as well off as I am.'' Moreover, a survey taken in March for the Americans Talk Security project found that 59 percent of Americans believe that economic competitors like Japan pose a greater threat to their national security than traditional military adversaries like the Soviets.
But even when such voter anxieties are acknowledged, the solutions proposed by politicians and opinion leaders - such as ``austerity'' and ``burden sharing'' - seem designed only to shift blame away from those in power and avoid serious discussion of national priorities.
The notion of economic nationalism, originally Richard Gephardt's claim to fame and then the central idea dominating the Democratic primaries, is a partial attempt to respond to these fears. But this idea, interpreted to mean primarily protectionism and trade-partner-bashing, actually misses the point.
Voters want to feel they are taking control of their destiny. But they believe that the effort to revitalize their economy should begin with a hard look at themselves and their priorities, not by blaming others for their problems.
For instance, the Americans Talk Security survey found that the public believes by a 2-to-1 margin that ``improving the efficiency and productivity of US industries, rather than forcing other countries to adopt fairer trade practices, is the best way to reduce the trade deficit.''
Whenever any of the candidates have groped toward themes that even partly addressed voters' concerns about America's economic future - Representative Gephardt with his protectionism, the Rev. Mr. Jackson's message about economic violence, Albert Gore's brief fling as friend of working men and women, and Mr. Dukakis's recent attempts to harness patriotism to economics - he has struck a responsive chord with voters.
But these have been only tentative steps in the right direction.
So far, the two likely nominees haven't found a way to address the prevailing sense of national drift - indeed, they generally don't even seem to be aware of it. The public seems resigned to settling for managerial competence rather than broader vision, for tinkering rather than substantive reform. We appear to be headed for a dreary campaign in which risk avoidance rules out any serious discussion of national priorities.
If either of the two nominees would recognize Americans' deepest yearnings and doubts, and propose a bold national program to reverse the economic and social decline that threatens their future, he might well be rewarded with the highest office in the land.
Adrienne L. Edgar is a research associate at the World Policy Institute, a public-policy research organization in New York.