Still, for all the decisiveness of the independents’ shift, this election hasn’t resolved the most fundamental question facing the country: What should the role of government be in the 21st century?

Instead it has simply set up what figures to be a two-year debate over that question in Washington, and ensures that it will be a focal point of the 2012 election.

Thanks to independents—along with other crucial swing blocs, such as suburban women, blue-collar workers and retirees, all of whom also shifted toward the Republicans—the GOP now has the strength to stop pieces of the Obama agenda and, perhaps in some instances, roll it back.

The testing ground figures to be the coming twin debates over government spending and the federal deficit. In the exit polling, 39% of voters overall said reducing the budget deficit should be the highest priority for the next Congress; 46% of independents said it should be the top priority.

And while this year’s campaign has produced plenty of evidence of unhappiness over government spending, it hasn’t produced many signs that voters are prepared to take the tough, specific steps that would really tackle budget deficits—or reward politicians who prescribe such bitter medicine.