THE STOCK MARKET crashes one October Monday; the Soviet leader cancels and then agrees to a summit meeting; the secretary of defense resigns suddenly; American ships patrol the Persian Gulf; the president seems disconnected, out of touch, unaware of events and out of contact with people. And over all this looms the 1988 election, the first in 28 years in which the incumbent has not been a candidate. Not since 1960, when Dwight Eisenhower was completing his presidency, when the U2 was shot down, the Paris summit cancelled and Castro consolidating his rule in Cuba, has there been such uncertainty about what is ahead. We know that the world is about to change and that a year from now we will have elected a new leader. But we have little idea how it will change and who that leader will be.

Despite this uneasiness, voters are not displeased with the current state of affairs. Satisfaction, sometimes guarded satisfaction, with the facts; anxiety about the absence of formulas for governing: This is the mood in which Americans approach 1988. Pleased with the achievements of politicians in the 1980s (tax cuts, slowdown of domestic spending, roads tax, tax reform, defense buildup), they see no need for further changes in those directions but want some midcourse corrections.

Many analysts and most campaigning Democrats mistake these desires for dissatisfaction with things as they are. But Americans are bursting with pride about many of their states and local communities, and they have been giving higher job ratings to their politicians and their government than they have since Vietnam and Watergate. In 1984 for the first time in 20 years, voters enthusiastically reelected an incumbent president. They also reelected the highest and in 1986 the third highest number of incumbent House members in American history; even while ousting the Republicans from control of the Senate in 1986 they cast almost precisely the same percentages for candidates of both parties as they had six years before. Americans in the 1970s voted in protest; Americans in the 1980s have been voting for governing.

But in 1988 voters know their world must change. Forced to choose a new leader from among a dozen candidates they know little or not at all, Americans are faced squarely with the fact that no one seems to have a formula for governing any more. 1988 is not just an election to choose a new leader. It is also a chance for Americans -- voters and politicians, responding to each other -- to get a better understanding of what they want government to do and what kind of country they want America to be.

America today is the product of 40 years without a major depression and without a big-power war, years of economic plenty, peacetime fragmentation and cultural diversity -- a country predisposed to distrust government and to have little interest in economic redistribution. It is a country where each culturally-defined group lives in its own little cubicle, watches it own cable TV channel and shops at its own kind of shopping center, ignorant of how its fellow citizens live and what they care about.

What is lacking in this country is a communitarian spirit. The Americans who voted in record numbers in 1960, veterans of the armed forces and the home front of World War II, did not need to be mobilized for a national purpose; they already had been. Today's Americans do. The economic success of the Reagan years has left Americans uneasy with their own selfishness, concerned about whether they are doing enough for their fellow citizens, worried that we seem to be unable to do anything together as a nation.

Neither the Democrats' historic impulse to redistribute income nor the Republicans' recent impulse to promote morality have provided the communitarian formula Americans are yearning for. Both of these communitarian impulses have done some good in the past. The Democrats helped millions of Americans to move themselves upward on the economic ladder, and the Republicans helped to promote the trend toward restraint which improves the quality of life on all rungs. But both trends seem pretty well played out. From the 1988 Democratic candidates you hear no proposals for national health insurance, no calls for a guaranteed annual income, no demand (aside from Paul Simon's history-inspired public works program) for a guaranteed job that was the stated purpose of the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, which every Democratic candidate in 1976 was required to endorse. There is simply no demand for redistribution in a country where most voters think they would lose by one.

The Republicans' moral agenda has had its successes. But abortion is not likely to be banned in most states, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade; sniggering sexual innuendoes are likely to remain a staple of even family-hour TV and PG movies, even if AIDS has prompted Hollywood to stop celebrating promiscuity; schoolchildren may some day be dragooned into prayer sessions, but history tells us that the strongest unbelievers are those who rebel against the imposition of belief.

Where, in the absence of a persuasive macroeconomic theory and of a consensus on foreign policy, can this communitarian policy usefully lead? The answer, I think, lies in looking at the policies which created the prosperous, peaceful America that was so confident of its formula for success in 1960. These were policies that concentrated not on redistributing income (until this decade there was no significant change in income distribution after 1947) or in helping the very poor. Instead they encouraged and rewarded production and upward mobility. This tradition is embodied in the fabulously successful post-World War II policies of the GI Bill of Rights, FHA home mortgage guarantees, and the family allowance created by steeply progressive income-tax rates combined with generous exemptions for dependents.

These three policies helped change the grade-school-educated, renter, economically stagnant Americans of the 1930s into the college-educated, homeowner, economically dynamic Americans of the 1960s. Instead of aiding and therefore taking the risk of seeming to encourage those who engaged in sociopathic and deviant conduct, these policies encouraged, rewarded and (importantly, I think) honored those who served in the military, went to college, bought houses and raised good-sized families. They helped to stimulate the unprecedented economic growth of the three decades after World War II. These specific policies cannot be duplicated precisely in today's different nation. But they suggest a direction for a communitarian-minded politics, a direction that could be taken by both of today's major parties.

Certainly there is a communitarian element to the talk of "competitiveness" you hear from candidates of both parties. Alarmed by the trade deficit, fearful of being stampeded into destructive protectionism, worried that the long economic recovery cannot be sustained, politicians of both parties have been coming up with lists of proposals that would be seen as making America more competitive in world markets. Implicit is a sense that the Reagan policy of encouraging production through purely individual incentives is not enough to produce continuing and widespread economic growth. The United States, like the capitalist but communitarian-minded societies of Japan and East Asia, needs to work together to build a stronger economy -- and beat the other team.

If competitiveness is one area where a desire for communitarian action has surfaced, another may be where economic and moral communitarian impulses intersect. This is workfare: moving welfare mothers toward jobs by providing economic aid (child care, medical insurance) and moral guidance (good work habits, abstinence from drugs and extramarital sex). The idea is that there are reciprocal obligations, society's and the welfare recipient's. The idea is an old one, but it has struck a new chord with both Republicans and Democrats. Congress is having a hard time passing a workfare law. But the states are experimenting with it and presidential candidates are talking about it. Bruce Babbitt says we should concentrate on policies that help children, Jack Kemp ballyhoos enterprise zones, Michael Dukakis brags of his Massachusetts programs, and so on. A society increasingly made up of rich adults and poor children has an obvious common interest in taking action to help those children raise themselves up.

Then there is education. The insistence on minimum standards was pioneered in the South, where educational levels have long been low and politicians and voters realized they must upgrade their labor forces if they wanted continuing economic growth. The same lesson is now being applied in the North, where for some years the idea gained ground that the purpose of education was to liberate a child's instincts to allow untrammeled self-expression. Now Americans may be reaching consensus on other educational issues. Advocates of making English the national language are coming to understand that that implies an obligation to teach English to those who speak other languages; advocates of welcoming immigrants to the United States have come to understand that they must be schooled in the nation's language and culture if they are to have a fair chance to rise.

Sources as antagonistic as William Bennett's Education Department and Norman Lear's People For the American Way are groping toward agreement that children should be taught to respect America's traditions of religious expression and cultural diversity. In 1984 Ronald Reagan had little to say about education and Walter Mondale was tiptoeing carefully to keep inside the limits set by the NEA. Today candidates from Jesse Jackson to Pat Robertson, including conspicuously George Bush, are vying to emphasize education, and making similar if not identical points.

Political reporters tend to look for clash. But on communitarian issues like competitiveness, workfare, and education, politicians of both parties are speaking a similar language. They want to improve American productivity and compete successfully with the Japanese and East Asians; they want to enable welfare mothers to work and not vegetate; they want to teach the basics and to promote excellence. They are competing not to sell their own positions, but to see who can become most closely identified with the same basic ideas. This is exactly what happened on tax reform. The two parties split the credit, as they did on the highway tax and bailing out Social Security. But the possibility exists of one party or one presidential candidate taking command of one of these communitarian issues.

The possibility, but not perhaps the probability: for as we approach 1988, a communitarian politics still goes against the grain in the atomistic, culturally varied nation created by a generation or more of peace and prosperity. Americans are not ready to be called upon to commit themselves to some form of national service, nor will you hear very much talk about a military draft. The national pride that Ronald Reagan did so much to foster in the 1980s, symbolized by the Olympic ceremonies of 1984 and the Statue of Liberty centennial of 1986, has this weakness: it asks too little from the nation's citizens.

True, it is not the ordinary habit of political candidates to ask things; they usually promise. But there are times -- 1960 was one of them -- when satisfaction with the system places the premium not just on the candidate who promises but even more on the one who inspires. Americans' satisfaction with the facts they see around them gives the politicians of 1988 an opportunity -- and maybe the incentive -- to come up with a formula for governing that goes beyond addressing individual grievances and asserts a communitarian purpose. If it is impossible to replicate the formula of 1960, it may be possible to invent substitutes for some of the communitarian policies that produced an America confident that it had the formula to solve it -- and the world's -- problems. Can anyone do it?

Michael Barone, a member of the Washington Post editorial page staff, is co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics 1988," from which this article is adapted.