The Republican electoral wave that rolled across America on Tuesday was propelled by two powerful currents, overlapping in places and diverging in others.
It will take time to sort out precisely where these results rank among the great congressional swings of the past century, but we do know that they were propelled by both the tea party movement and by the disenchantment of independents, many of whom voted for Barack Obama two years ago but this time deserted the Democrats in droves.
These tendencies were both driven, in part, by an angry disillusion felt by many voters. Polling has found that popular confidence in every big American institution — political parties, business, labor, organized religion, the media — is at an all-time low.
On Tuesday, CNN's national exit poll found that a solid majority of voters disapproved of both the Democratic and Republican parties. In many cases, the GOP may have benefited from the fact that the most visible symbol of the status quo was Obama, a Democrat.
Never miss a local story.
But the voters who registered their discontent Tuesday did not all come from the same perspective. The tea party populists have an ideological antipathy to government and a visceral hostility to the give-and-take of politics.
Independents, on the other hand, are by their nature nonideological, instinctive believers in what Arthur Schlesinger called "the politics of remedy." They're angry and disenchanted because they believe government and politics have failed catastrophically.
The Republicans' congressional leaders also are likely to resist compromise, though for reasons of their own. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who barring something unforeseen will be the next speaker of the House, has said repeatedly on the stump that "there will be no compromise" in the next Congress.
Current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says the main objective of the next two years will be ensuring Obama's defeat in 2012. That's what is really on the Republican establishment's mind.
Congressional Republicans won't be pursuing anything like the fundamental overhaul of government that tea party members would like to see. Boehner is a firm believer in traditional seniority and a committee system with powerful chairmen, and he already has signaled that he doesn't intend to alter that.
One of the first tests of his ability to discipline populist revolutionaries will come when the new Congress is asked to raise the federal debt limit from $12.4 trillion to $14.3 trillion. No Congress has ever refused to approve such an increase, and if such a refusal were to occur, the consequences for the global financial system would be apocalyptic.
Many of the new senators and House members have pledged to vote against an increase in the debt. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity — one of the more active national tea party groups — told Politico that the Republicans' new House majority "cannot fold on the debt."
Neither is there likely to be the vote, quick or otherwise, that the insurgents want on a repeal of health care reform. Instead, there probably will be a series of procedural, regulatory and funding votes — the grinding legislative equivalent of trench warfare.
There will be a heated struggle, but it will be between the White House and the congressional leadership, a purely rhetorical battle over who can offer the country the best explanation for governmental stalemate, one that fixes the blame on the other side.