What This Election Is Mostly About

THIS is an election about expectations.

Americans expect more from their public leaders than they think they have been getting. They consider their democratic government structure as basically sound, their country's resources in land, education, people adequate to a comfortable living if they work hard.

Chronic problems bother them. "What is the cause of all the crime?" I was asked the other day in Des Moines, as if possibly I might have a ready solution. A million men and women are imprisoned and yet assault, drug use, and abuse continue.

Uprootedness afflicts Americans. Sheer economic-driven change. And growth. In 1932, some 38.5 million Americans voted for Franklin Roosevelt over Herbert Hoover. In 1940, 49.5 million voted for Roosevelt over Wendell Willkie; in 1960, 68.3 million for John F. Kennedy over Richard M. Nixon; in 1980, 79.4 million for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter, and in 1988, 90.6 million voted for George Bush over Michael S. Dukakis. Lowered participation percentages aside, the voting public has doubled since the last great formative political period, the Depression.

Where is home? The population has shifted: from farm to city, city to suburb, back to the city for young professionals and new minorities, from north to sunbelt, and then around again. Florida and Arizona are now the newest states, their economies stimulated by older people.

What is family? One in five married couples today fits the 1950s stereotype of a breadwinning father and stay-at-home mother, the Population Reference Bureau tells us. By the year 2000, half of all Americans will be living in stepfamilies. A quarter of all children lived with a single parent last year - double the percentage of 1970 and triple that of 1960. The most common family unit today is the married couple with no children living at home. The family has changed almost without our notice.

Expectations have to do with time and change, the perceived rate of progress toward where we think we should be. The big structural changes of the past two decades, Peter Drucker says, have been the entry of women into the workforce and the growth of higher education - both of which should have led to improved financial positions for households. Income security, however, feels more tenuous as companies trim down for competition. Such displacement is a common American theme.

We're disappointed in the 1980s. Tax cuts, junk bonds, a strong defense, a stock market that soared and crashed - this was the Reagan decade, heavily fueled by debt. It was much like the false economic stimulus of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, which was followed in the 1970s by Carter's unpopular theme of "limits." The '80s paralleled the '60s, when much had been promised: Vietnam victory, self-realization, lots of spending money for kids with little responsibility. This led to disillusion in the '70s: W atergate, oil shocks, inflation, and the image of Jimmy Carter by the summer of 1979 as another failed president. Reagan came on confidently, along with federal deficits, Irangate, and a chronic budget impasse with Congress.

The 1990s have begun with the end of communism in Europe. Where's the peace dividend? In the pocket of anybody you know? More education but slipping threshold salaries. Even business schools are having to restructure because they recognize their curricula do not meet the needs of the times.

Computers and electronic communications are leveling hierarchies left and right. Workers have a higher direct involvement in their organizations' activities and decisions. Worldwide, industry connections quicken. Lawyers and clients communicate by electronic mail. Politicians have a hard time articulating all this change, let alone reassure the public it will turn out well.

The 1990s will be dominated by the theme of needing and wanting to work. For all the talk about leisure, about lowering intellectual standards, work and striving typify Americans.

The current economic stagnation is no depression. We know how Bush has done but have no idea how Bill Clinton would do as the nation's leader. Both will be measured by expectations that may leave them a little short.

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