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Will Americans channel their anger on Election Day?

Americans are angry with the state of U.S. political affairs. Two sets of these angry Americans are the Tea Party supporters and those who see the federal government as utterly dysfunctional. On Election Day, can the second set of folks check the anger of the first?

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Sean Theriault, associate professor of government in the university’s College of Liberal Arts, studies American political institutions, primarily U.S. Congress and party polarization. He is researching the rise of the so-called “Gingrich Senators” and their influence on the U.S. Senate.

Americans are mad as hell. Their anger flows in all sorts of different directions. Republicans are mad at the Democrats in Congress and President Obama for their liberal overreach. Democrats are mad that the Republicans’ primary objective over the last two years has been obstructionism. Obviously, the Democrats’ and Republicans’ anger are naturally directed at each other.

I want to focus on two other sets of angry Americans whose anger is also directed at each other, though they probably don’t know it. First, the Tea Party supporters are angry that the massive deficits begun under Bush have continued unabated under Obama. They oppose the bailout bills, the stimulus bill, the health care bill and just about any other program passed in the last two years. Their anger is directed at the federal government in general, and Speaker Pelosi and President Obama in particular. Not surprisingly, they have lined up a strong set of candidates who will not only say “no” to Obama, but in the eloquent words of Sarah Palin, “Hell, no.”

The second set of angry folks sees the federal government as utterly dysfunctional. These angry Americans view the political games with disgust, observing an ugly legislative process and a stagnant unemployment rate as evidence of a broken system. Their complaints aren’t so partisan or ideological as they are functional or pragmatic. Difficult economic crises and intractable foreign military interventions require a functioning government that can restore pride in her citizens.

The quandary for this second set of folks is that their anger may drive them into the arms of the Tea Party candidates. I maintain that these candidates, even though they stress their outsider status, are a solution much worse than the problem for the pragmatic angry voters. It is doubtful that Mike Lee, Joe Miller, Ken Buck, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Linda McMahon will ever become legislative players seeking real solutions to the real problems that we face as a country. In fact, I propose that they will do everything in their power to make sure that it is even more dysfunctional – is that possible? – in the next two years.

The two senators from South Carolina perfectly capture the distinction between these two sets of angry voters. Senator Jim DeMint has been the most prominent backer of the Tea Party in the U.S. Senate. Last week he suggested that he’d rather have only 30 Republicans in the Senate — so long as they were true believers — than 60 Republicans who were so in name only. Clearly, pragmatic problem-solving is not what concerns Jim DeMint. At every turn — even when Republicans controlled the chamber and a Republican was in the White House — he obstructed. His home state colleague, Lindsey Graham, is the epitome of problem solving – or at least he is in this Congress among his fellow Republicans. Although his voting record is nearly as conservative as DeMint’s, he is willing to engage the debate.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Republican establishment got hijacked by the Tea Party on the way to the primaries. The only option now is for the anger of the second set of voters to check the anger of the first set.

America faces huge problems. Unless we elect leaders whose primary objective is to solve them, the problems will only grow worse. Leave those who are more interested in scoring political points to the cable news, and restore the Senate to the chamber where problems get solved.

More election posts from Sean Theriault:

Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts’ analyses.