Democrats are desperately hoping that as voters learn more about Tea Party candidates who won Republican primaries, they will reject them as bomb-throwing extremists out to gut Medicare, privatize Social Security, and outlaw abortion even for victims of rape and incest. Don’t count on it. Two years ago upper-middle-class moderate Republicans in the suburbs were so frightened by a financial meltdown that was eviscerating their 401(k)s that they were willing to give Democrats a chance in both the White House and Congress. Now a similar mindset has taken hold: voters are so fearful of never getting back on their feet, and angry about the state of the country, that they are willing to give Republican and Tea Party candidates a chance. Since even experts disagree about how to revive the economy (Obama’s former budget director broke ranks and endorsed temporarily continuing the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich), voters have understandably adopted an almost-desperate attitude: throw policy darts blindly and hope one hits its target. “There is a strong element of nihilism in this,” says Westen—an attitude of “I don’t care if the experts say some policy will be a disaster or some candidate is a lunatic. Things are already so bad, can they really get much worse?”
That nihilism—blow up the system and see if a new one is better—has brought about something policy wonks never thought they’d see: candidates touching the third rail and surviving. Both Angle and Senate candidate Joe Miller in Alaska called for privatizing Social Security, doing themselves little apparent damage. One reason may be that voters don’t believe extremist positions will become policy, says political scientist Kathleen Searles of Washington State University; calling for a radical change in Social Security is thus just a marker for a candidate’s “overhaul Washington” bona fides. Another reason is that when a candidate resonates with voters’ anger about Washington, “when they agree with a candidate about limited government, they can overlook disagreement about specific issues,” suggests Jenkins-Smith. If any diehard rationalists still believe that voters are driven by logic more than emotion, Nov. 2 should set them straight.