Nineteen eighty-four, which promised to be the year of realignment politics, turned instead into the start of something quite different: generational politics. That usually means the young trying to seize power from the old.

Nothing very original here. In 1960 John Kennedy, congratulating his own youthfulness, hailed the passing of the torch from Eisenhower's generation to his, forward- looking enough to be born in this century. In 1974, Gary Hart campaigned for the Senate on the slogan, "Now it's our turn."

By 1984 the message had been rendered more subtle. Any power struggle can stand some mystification as a fight over substance. This year's struggle was therefore portrayed as not just a fight between young and old, but between young and old ideas. According to Hart's formulation, the distinctions between left and right, liberal and conservative, now obsolete, were hereby superseded: the real choice was between past and future.

It was a clever campaign theme, one that might have been expected to enjoy the normal, i.e., brief, half-life of all such themes. Instead it has turned into conventional wisdom. Futurespeak is everywhere. Democrats seem to agree on little except that they must seize the future if they are ever to rule again.

Political consultant Robert Squier spoke for the post-landslide consensus when he recently wrote that the crucial choice facing Democrats is indeed not "left vs. right" but "past vs. future." Bruce Babbitt, governor of Arizona and rising young star, entitled a recent speech "1984 is not 1934." Its theme: shedding "the dogmas of the past."

Nor is futurespeak an exclusively Democratic phenomenon. It is now the refrain of the Young Turk Republicans. Newt Ging leading "conservative revolutionary" -- an oxymoron that satirizes the very idea of left- right distinctions -- put it the same way to David Stockman, leading contra: the real debate is now "future or past."

What are they talking about? If everyone is rushing to lay claim to the politics of the future, can the word have any meaning?

I count at least four.

1.Nothing. The idea of the future can be the perfect political vessel precisely when it is empty. During election years, a time of traditionally sanctioned political inanity, this is the preferred usage. Politicians are constantly promising to "take us into the future," as if we might not get there on our own. (John Glenn, in fact, argued haplessly that he was best prepared to do so since he had already been there.) More traditional empty vessels are no longer quite so serviceable. Motherhood sounds presumptively anti- feminist, apple pie excessively caloric. The future -- bright, streamlined and progressive -- is irresistibly now. A favorite for political consultants, who must invent.

2.Pragmatism. In this usage, service to the future is code for freedom from ideology. Here, the future is used not vacuously but negatively: it means rejection of the past, the past being congenitally doctrinaire, ideology- bound and rigid. Servants of the future, free from "the dogmas of the past," are open- minded and innovative. They have no fixed ideas, no program, perhaps not even principles. Whatever works they'll try. They know one thing: We have seen the past, and it no longer works. A natural for governors, who must improvise.

3.Passivity. For some, the future does have a positive shape, and they like what they see. In any case, the future is coming and resistance is futile. A wise politics will accept the inevitable and not put up foolish resistance. It will let the future unfold, as opposed to those tied to the past who will try to inhibit its natural tendencies. Of course, our ideas of the future are invariably based on linear projections of present trends, according to which winners can be expected to become bigger winners and losers bigger losers. In effect, favoring the future means preferring winners. High-tech good, smokestack bad. Atari Democrats won't let sentiment or attachment to "special interests," the barnacles of past-consciousness, slow things down. Abroad, revolution is another discerned "tide of history" (explained Sen. Christopher Dodd in his national address on Central America) to be ridden, not resisted. This brand of futurism is in fact a cover for a profoundly conservative quietism, a kind of Darwinism for pacifists. It is also a staple of neoliberals of the noninterventionist persuasion.

4.Social revolution. The activist variant of 3. Some are not content to let history unfold. They want to help. Like all vanguards, their mission is to get on the right side of history and push. Some corporatist liberals, for example, look admiringly to Japan Inc., where the fabled Ministry of Industry and Technology picks up-and-coming winners, then makes sure they win. "Conservative revolutionaries" see a decidedly different future, but are in an equal hurry to get there. Gingrich's manifesto to Stockman chides him for playing the old "Liberal Welfare State" games while the "Opportunity Society" waits to be born. Change is coming, change is necessary, say the social revolutionaries. Moreover, it is good. Let's get into the future, quick. A natural sort of futurism for what used to be called liberals in a hurry. Nowadays impatience is bipartisan.

Now, this Babel of futures is simply too confusing. I say we can't have one word serving four masters. What to do? I propose awarding exclusive copyright to school 1. On several grounds. Since for them the metaphor is wholly empty, this arrangement is perhaps least likely to do any harm. Also they need it most. Types 2, 3 and 4 have perfectly usable -- and more honest -- substitutes. Americans know where you stand if you advocate pragmatism, passivity or social revolution. Call it the future, and they cannot tell you apart without a scorecard. And besides, in a country that annually borrows $200 billion from posterity to pay for the present, it seems proper that rights to the future be reserved for those who, when they use the word, mean nothing at all.