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America's Anxiety Attack : The Cold War is Over, the Family is Collapsing, the Economy is Going Global and the Melting Pot is Boiling--When Everything's in Flux, What's a Nation to Do?

May 08, 1994|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times. His last story for the magazine was on the New York mayoral race

President Clinton feels it every day as he sifts through the intelligence cables and economic reports that struggle to make sense of insistent change at home and abroad--and typically leave him with as many questions as answers.

"I think I feel in my job the way a lot of average people do in their lives," he says, leaning against a high-backed chair in the Oval Office. "They feel on the one hand these changes are exciting and may augur the beginning of the most interesting time in human history. On the other hand, they can be very threatening, both in general terms and personal terms."

Warren Bennis, an adviser to some of the nation's largest companies, feels it in the anxiety of executives who gather expectantly at management conferences, like pilgrims at a shrine, to tug at his sleeve. "Why are they all there?" asks Bennis, a USC management professor and a prolific author. "They think someone knows what the hell is going on. They are spending $3,000 and looking for the new world order, and there is no new world order." Frank Luntz, a pollster for Republican political candidates, feels it whenever he gathers average Americans into focus groups to talk about their lives. "They're scared," he says. "They don't like it because they can't predict the future. People feel they don't have control over their own lives--that they can no longer shape their future."

In America, this is an age of uncertainty. In its economy, foreign policy and social structure, the United States is between worlds--in a limbo where old rules no longer apply and new ones have not yet been written. The future is arriving before we are ready to bury the past, and the result is hesitancy, indecisiveness and inconsistency, as policy-makers, institutions and individual Americans struggle to understand the new realities. "We are groping in the dark for the new structures," says Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, "and the old keeps falling apart." It is as if we have closed one door but not yet opened another.

Four trends, each of which has been gathering force for years, are converging to unsettle these times. One is the restructuring of the economy under the combined pressure of advancing technology and integrating global markets--a vise that is forcing companies to re-examine their most basic operations and has undermined the upward mobility that Americans have long considered a birthright. Next is the global migration of workers from poorer to richer countries, which, in the United States, is bringing more than a million immigrants, legal and illegal, across the border every year, complicating already difficult questions about the racial and ethnic distribution of power. The third is the erosion of the traditional family, a trend that has seen the share of single-parent families more than triple in the past 30 years. And finally, the end of the Cold War has obliterated the foundations of our foreign policy and thrown open elemental questions of how America relates to the rest of the world.

Individually, any of these factors would be wrenching. Together they are inducing the widespread sense of vertigo that marks this, the Entropy Decade. "People feel like there is nothing they can depend on, there is nothing certain," says Stanley B. Greenberg, Clinton's pollster.

These trends intertwine and reinforce each other. The Cold War's end has meant a shrinking of the defense industries, intensifying the pressure on the economy. Workers facing declining living standards have resisted immigration. The technological advances that have diminished the demand for low-skill labor have combined with the enormous rise in the number of children born to unwed mothers to drastically worsen conditions in poor urban neighborhoods.

To a substantial extent, these trends set the political agenda--pushing us to seek new rules for U.S. foreign policy, new policies to revive the growth in living standards and new welfare reforms to deter out-of-wedlock births. They shape the political climate, feeding partisan turbulence and the edgy alienation audible in the angry cacophony of talk radio. They determine the most influential voices of our time: An age of uncertainty lavishly rewards those who can convincingly draw a map of the future, people like Robert Reich or Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and would-be tollkeeper for the information superhighway.

Even President Clinton increasingly seems to perceive his task as representing the future to the present--easing insecurity not only through concrete policy steps but by persuading Americans that he has a vision for the future and a course to arrive there. And yet, he, too, sometimes feels almost overwhelmed by the rapidity of change--and frustrated at government's limited capacity to recognize and respond to it.

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