If This is the New Normal...

Tens of thousands of Americans gather in the streets of Madison, prompting solidarity rallies around the country as they defend the rights of workers. Big banks, having received record bailouts, continue predatory practices on regular Americans while seeing their own profits increase. The ultra-rich horde more and more of our nation’s wealth while convincing public servants to help decrease their tax burden.

Is this the "new normal?"

It is, according to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who heralded his approach to state finances as such in his budget address on Tuesday. The governor has plenty to boast about: he is a darling of the national Republican party, was approached to deliver the rebuttal to the President’s State of the Union, and his recent Washington visit was trumpeted by those who hope he has aspirations to move there. 

But he faces problems too. Job and economic growth in New Jersey has been slow. There are only so many places to cut; after all, New Jerseyans want funding for their schools, parks and cultural institutions. So Christie is taking a gamble. He’s demanding workers contribute more. At the same time, he’s pushing for tax cuts and asking nothing from his richest residents.

Workers pay more. Unions crumble. Government reduces essential services. The rich get richer. That’s the “new normal” envisioned by the Republican Party and its wealthy backers across the country. Sadly, it’s similar to the approach adopted by many Democrats as well, including New York’s own governor who earned two mentions in his counterpart’s address.

At least, that was supposed to be the “new normal.” But has Wisconsin changed that? Governor Scott Walker, who also received praise and support in Christie’s address, didn’t expect such a prolonged confrontation over his proposals. Wisconsin was supposed to be followed quickly by Ohio, but protests there led to the statehouse doors being locked to keep out its own citizens. Indiana was intended to be next; instead, Governor Mitch Daniels, a former Bush budget director and possible GOP Presidential candidate, has opposed pursuing the measure and is resisting sending state police after Democratic reps who are denying quorum with their absence. This is hardly how the right wing expected their plan to proceed.

Christie made clear whose side he is on in those fights. The question is whether he’ll push his own state into such a confrontation. His style suggests he might. He’s not afraid of a fight, which is part of what his constituents respect about him. He has been at the forefront of the anti-worker crusade, refusing to make a required payment to the public employee pension fund last year, and making this year’s contribution contingent on other budget measures he wants passed. It’s a clever form of transactional politics that might play with both his legislature and his voters.

Christie has also loudly and ably seized rhetoric that resonates. He puts himself on the side of students in his call for education reforms—though these reforms attack teachers. He claims to be concerned for police officers and firefighters—and uses that “concern” to justify pension cuts. Unlike Scott Walker, who threatened to call out the National Guard on workers, the oft-bombastic Christie is being less black-and-white in his threats.

But they are still threats. Trading property tax cuts for pension cuts is a way of turning regular New Jerseyans against each other. Intentionally destabilizing pensions, then claiming pensions are destabilized and need reform, may make good politics, but is just poor governance. And asking working families to bear a greater burden while big business and wealthy residents do less is classic class warfare.

If that’s the “new normal,” then maybe it’s time we seek something "special."  And if Christie oversteps, he might find out that the type of protest taking place in Madison is the “new normal” he’ll face next.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."