America is like a barroom drunk. One minute it brags about its money and muscle, and then for the next hour it bleats into its beer about failure and hopelessness -- from Mr. Big to a pitiful helpless giant, half-full to half-empty, strutting to fretting, a huge, lumbering manic-depressive going from Carter's malaise to Reagan's morning again in America to Bush warning us on Nov. 3: "You face a choice, whether to turn the clock back and return to ... the malaise days."

Right now America is in one of its bleating phases, an ugly spasm of guilt, dread and nostalgia. Once more, America is depressed. Like a barroom drunk, it almost seems to be enjoying it.

A Time magazine cover story warns of a "national sense of uncertainty and malaise."

Money magazine's Consumer Comfort poll said in October that "gloom reigns" with an index rating of minus 24, lower even than the minus 19 of April when the headline was "Americans sink into a deep funk."

The Economist reports: "The American dream is in danger, as incomes stand still."

A recent Wall Street Journal story from Kansas City begins: "Here on Polish Hill, where Frank's Place tavern flies the Polish flag beside the Stars and Stripes, they celebrate the rebirth of Poland's democracy -- and fear the decline of America's."

The outlook is bleak, the insights are bleaker. We may very well have nothing to fear but fear itself, but we do have fear itself.

According to a New York Times/CBS poll, about 4 in 10 Americans say things will get worse in the next five years, compared with 2 in 10 in 1984. ABC says that 8 in 10 Americans see the economy as worsening. Seven in 10 predict war with Iraq, and USA Today says fewer and fewer of them like the idea. Though the October jobless rate was only 5.7 percent, up from 5.2 percent in June, CBS News recently ran a week-long series called "Bad Times." Was this because 1990's bad times seem to be hitting unusually hard among the professional class -- neighbors of media types?

In Harper's, Lewis Lapham exerts his prerogative as editor to write: "Although I know that Jefferson once said that it is never permissible 'to despair of the commonwealth,' I find myself wondering whether the American experiment with democracy may not have run its course."

Everything becomes a sign that things are getting worse. At recent fashion shows, some designers explained bright, sexy, playful new clothes as a response to pessimism and unhappiness, the same way they might have explained a fad for black veils. This is how America thinks when it gets depressed. When the gross national product grew at a rate of 1.8 percent in the third quarter of this year, the Wall Street Journal called it "surprising," and said in the same issue that much of the country was in a state of "clinical depression."

Economists don't expect a big recession, but "you never expect a big one," said Stephen McNees of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. A CBS News report reveals the tragedy of the "hidden homeless" -- people who are forced to live with relatives. Once we called these situations "families," but now we see them for what they are -- a sign of decline.

Fears of American decline have produced the declinists (Paul Kennedy, Richard Lamm et al.), who in turn have goaded into being the anti-declinists (Joseph Nye, Richard Rosecrance et al.). The problem for the anti-declinists is that while they may be right that we're not declining, they have to admit that so many of us are pessimistic that they had to write books to keep us from hurting ourselves with self-fulfilling prophecies.

Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch U.S.A., to Sector D.

In Sector D you find: depression, decline, depravity, doom, denial, decay, debacle, dementia, Dukakis, debt, dysphoria, deconstruction, desuetude, dog days, distrust, drugs, dilly-dallying, despair, drivel, devolution, dissipation, danger, dysfunction, downers, degradation, divisiveness, deprivation, deficiency, dilemma, dwindling, dilettantism, dullness, darkness, deep doo-doo, damnation, dearth, death, doubt and disgust.

In Sector D, depression is fashionable. The drug that people urge on their friends is Prozac, but you have to be depressed to get a prescription for it. Being depressed has always had a certain glamour -- it means that you are sensitive, serious, suffering, you are Hamlet, you are Joan Didion. With Robert Bly's seminars for men and John Bradshaw's family workshops, weeping is once more a public sacrament. The fashionable television shows for the intelligentsia are "The Simpsons," a cartoon about futility and ugliness, and "Twin Peaks," in which an entire town is sinking into madness, degeneracy and weeping. It is hard to imagine that only a couple of years ago we were humming "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

The Village Voice Literary Supplement for November ran a group of reviews under the title: "Everything You Wanted to Know About Depression but Were Too Bummed Out to Ask."

In one of the more celebrated books of the fall, John Updike's "Rabbit at Rest," the protagonist considers that "there has been a lot of death in the newspapers lately ... everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years under Reagan of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God." The good news is that as he lies dying of a massive heart attack, he tells his son what it feels like: "All I can tell you is, it isn't so bad."

Another bestseller is "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness," by William Styron. It chronicles his depression, and the depressions of famous friends and acquaintances (he doesn't seem to have any other kind), a condition so painful as "to verge close to being beyond description," and one that can be fatal, it should be added, in 15 percent of untreated sufferers of major medical depression. Once you get over the pain provoked by paying $15.95 for 83 pages, you can sample the strange faux-Augustan tone of Styron's prose, a style you may remember from your high school literary magazine when somebody wrote a short story narrated by a brooding duke, lines like: "It had been my custom of a near-lifetime, like that of vast numbers of people, to settle myself into a soothing nap in the late afternoon."

America's depression is not brought on by plague, flood, famine or war (actually, psychiatrists say the incidence of clinical depression goes down during wars). Instead, it is marked by fear of them, along with either a belief that things were once much better but never will be again (the conservative line), or a belief that things could and should be better, but won't be because of some flaw in the American character, or at least the character of America's white males (the liberal line).

We are guilty, guilty, guilty. We have raped Mother Nature, dishonored the Founding Fathers, abused our children, forgotten our past and mortgaged our future. In other countries, the press takes sides. Here, our value-free, fair-minded, statistics-obsessed media have met the enemy, and it is not one side or the other as much as it is all of us. We don't have problems, we have national crises, which keep adding up in commission reports and media woe-saying to "a nation at risk," as if a quarter of a billion people living in the strongest, richest, freest, most generous and most peaceful country in history were going to vanish tomorrow into the La Brea Tar Pits.

"When you watch the European media and the American media, you realize that everything is a crisis the way the Americans describe it," says an American diplomat in Bonn.

We have bred a governing class -- media, academia, appointive politicians, lawyers -- that is whipsawed by a nasty combination of both puritan dread and WASP-rot nostalgia; a class that can brood simultaneously about auto safety and how expensive Adirondack chairs have gotten; pallid proponents of skinless chicken and historic preservation, of no-smoking laws and the stories of John Cheever. They think that we deserve whatever punishment is coming to us, but like many of their fellow Americans, they also believe that happiness is the normal state of affairs, a belief that is contradicted by most of philosophy and all of history, although unhappy countries, like unhappy families, are unhappy in their own ways.

"America is an underachiever in happiness, when you compare us to countries who are poorer than we are," says the University of Michigan's Ronald Inglehart, author of "Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society."

He points out that according to life-satisfaction surveys, "the Irish are happier than Americans, even though they're much poorer." So are a lot of countries. In fact, some Americans get more unhappy the richer they get. "Once protests were a working-class phenomenon. Now it's the upper-middle and upper classes who do the protesting, particularly the post-materialists for whom quality of life and self-expression are important issues -- younger, more educated people."

Newsweek reports that in the last decade the disease once known as "yuppie flu" has spread throughout the population -- "2 million to 5 million Americans have been stricken" with chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease in which fevers, lymph-node swellings, night sweats, diarrhea and muscle pain get together with mood swings and panic attacks. One woman with CFS had a dog who'd gotten it too. It seems like only yesterday that so many of us were suffering from hypoglycemia, not to mention post-traumatic stress disorder, premenstrual syndrome, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, psychic numbing, holiday depression syndrome and midlife crisis.

In "The Diseasing of America," author Stanton Peele asks: "What has given us the idea that we are so impotent and helpless? Why have we become enmeshed in dysfunctional, exaggerated fears about our environment? Why have we decided that we -- and our children -- cannot control even our own emotions and behavior? ... Why have we become so afraid that addiction is everywhere and that we are out of control of our eating, shopping, lovemaking, gambling, smoking, drug taking, menstrual cramps, feelings after birth, anxieties and depressions, and moods of all kinds?"

Is it possible that something has utterly changed in the national psyche? We are led by media reports to wonder if America is in the midst of a unique nervous breakdown suffered by a generation grown so narcissistic and selfish, "so enamored of ourselves, that we are dissatisfied if our explorations bring us face to face with any image but our own." A generation marked by "desire for stimulants and narcotics ... fear of responsibility, of open places or closed places, fear of society, fear of being alone, fear of fears, fear of contamination, fear of everything, deficient mental control, lack of decision in trifling matters, hopelessness ..."

As it happens, the quotations in the last paragraph were taken from popular publications of the 1880s and the 1890s. In short, we have been depressed before.

"There is that chronic strain in America," says Rutgers cultural historian Jackson Lears, pointing to decade after decade of fears for the republic.

Tocqueville looked at America's best and brightest in the 1830s and saw that "a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures" because they "never stop thinking of the good things they have not got."

In 1854, Thoreau assured his place in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations with: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

In 1881, a book called "American Nervousness" popularized the term "neurasthenia," a disease that affected "civilized, refined and educated" people, said the author, George M. Beard, with a set of symptoms that sound like a combination of depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.

After World War II, we picked up W.H. Auden's phrase, "age of anxiety."

Nowadays, are we depressed because the future looks bleak, or does the future look bleak because we are depressed? Popular prophecies of hard economic times are pretty reliable, but how many of them are self-fulfilling? Do the media describe Americans as disgruntled because media people -- precisely the class at risk for everything from neurasthenia to mood disorder -- are disgruntled? Do Americans tell pollsters they're worried because it's gotten hipper to be worried, a sign of one's intellect and social commitment? Are they angrier because they've been taught to let it all hang out?

Is there a melancholy that is part of the American psyche? Being American means being prey to a sense of being overwhelmed by time, space and opportunity, of failing to think big enough, of having missed your chance, a sense that produces the astonished fatalism of Faulkner, the bewildered corruptions of "The Great Gatsby," the ending of the '60s movie "Easy Rider" where Captain America says to Billy, "We blew it." Are things worse in 1990?

"In general, people are more pessimistic now," says Gerald Klerman, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College. "People get depressed when there's a gap between expectation and fulfillment. This is particularly bad for females -- the women's movement raised expectations very high for women. Reality has not fulfilled these expectations."

Even after allowing for changes in the way we diagnose clinical depression, and for the fact that mental illness isn't kept a shameful secret the way it once was, a lot of psychiatric epidemiologists think there's a lot more depression in America since World War II, an increase of two to three times, an increase far greater than increases in schizophrenia, panic disorder and phobias.

"Who knows?" says Klerman. "It could be almost anything. It could be something in the air from radioactive testing. It could be food additives. It could be a virus -- if there was a virus, we could have a vaccine."

And if there was a virus, we might find that chronic fatigue syndrome and depression are part of the same thing. "I think that when all is said and done, the increase in fatigue will be seen as an increase in depression," Klerman says.

Reality, oh grim reality: In the last few years, we've heard the depressing news that depressives tend to be more realistic than normal people. They see themselves as others see them, they predict their performance on tests better, psychologists report. This is the depressive's equivalent of Hunter Thompson's First Law of Paranoia: "There is no such thing as paranoia. Your worst fears always come true."

As the most beautiful sunset in the history of the world unfurls, glitters, blooms, stabs and generally spreads out against the sky like everything but a patient etherized upon a table (to quote one of the poems that has glamorized depression for generations of American students), Frederick Goodwin, the psychiatrist who runs the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, sits in his 12th-floor office overlooking greater Rockville and says:

"Vulnerability to depression is a constant. It doesn't change. But the incidence of depression has increased since the 1960s and the age of onset has lowered. What might explain it? There were the traumas of the early and mid-1960s, and fundamental changes in society. There was a loss of the compact between people and government. Gender differentiation broke down. There was a doubling in the divorce rate. We now are seeing the first generation of kids coming to adulthood who were not raised by their mothers. We are seeing adults who survived because of advances for kids who used to die in infancy, adults who might have survived with somewhat compromised nervous systems.

"We've had a decreased impact of religion and patriotism, and an increase of cynicism about public institutions. We had a tremendous increase in mobility after World War II. External sources of self-esteem were stripped away. Allan Bloom {author of "The Closing of the American Mind"} has cited increasing moral and cultural relativism. It's hard to get an anchor. A lot of depressed patients cannot forget injuries, and the legal system plays into that with its concept of injury liability, and there is the politics of victim empowerment that runs the risk of reinforcing that way of thinking."

Goodwin turns out the office lights, the better to study the crepuscular glory over Montgomery County.

"It is useful to say there is a certain contagion factor here, and it affects the whole society. Hopelessness and inability to believe you can change things are part of depression too, and since 1964 we've seen a tremendous drop in research and development as a percentage of gross national product, a drop in investment in roads, bridges and education. That would reflect a general loss of confidence in the future."

However, Goodwin is the first to point out that the sunset is very pretty indeed.

"We're bombarding people more and they're responding to things they hear," says Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. "There's more volatility than 15 years ago. You turn on the tube every night and there's somebody screaming -- if you go back to the '50s, the days of the Camel Caravan, the tone was a lot different. Something has come along, a cynical or skeptical thing has become more fashionable. You see it in assessments of presidents in polls. Back in the '50s, even members of the out party were much more reluctant to be critical of the president, but there's been a change in public rhetoric."

In 1952, according to Gallup, 47 percent of Americans said they were very happy, and in 1982 the number was 50 percent. The highest it got was 57 percent in 1973, the lowest was 40 percent in 1976, but over the long haul, the satisfaction and happiness numbers stay remarkably level. Or the dissatisfaction and unhappiness numbers stay level, depending on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.

Robert Reich, a liberal philosopher at Harvard, writes about the manic-depressive mentality of America:

"Celebrate our triumph over savages and evil abroad! Rejoice in the opportunity open to each of us to gain fame and fortune! Admire our generosity and compassion! See how we have overcome vested privilege! But the same stories can be cast as rebukes, exposing the great gulf separating what we are from what we want to become, or how far we have fallen from an ideal we once achieved. The world is succumbing to tyranny, barbarism, and devastation while we stand idly by! Hard work and merit are sabotaged by convention, chicanery, and prejudice! We are selfish, narcissistic, racist, indifferent -- look at the poor and hungry in our midst! Our democracy is a sham, and everything important is controlled by a cabal at the top!"

Half-full, half-empty. Right now, we seem to be running on half-empty.