When you think of democracy in America, you probably think of those dudes in their powdered wigs striking a pose at Independence Hall, or — more modernly — people standing on line for five hours just to cast a vote. You probably don’t think of the U.S. Post Office — no, that’s Cliff on Cheers or Seinfeld’s Newman, avatars for what too many view as America’s oddest job.
Maybe you should think again. You know who got this better than we do? Alexis de Toqueville, the French writer, thinker and traveler who famously came to America in 1831 and chronicled what at the time truly was an exceptional nation, which had vanquished the yoke of monarchy as Europe struggled to do the same. The Frenchman understood the vital nature of the U.S. Post Office, calling it “a great link between minds" in a spread-out, frontier nation.
De Toqueville was particularly impressed with the role the Post Office played in spreading information — so vital in Jacksonian America, where voter turnout was exploding — through a vibrant newspaper scene that had no rival in any other developed nation. That was no accident, but the result of good government. The Post Office Act of 1792, an initiative from President George Washington and James Madison, the future president in his Cabinet, deliberately set a lower postal rate for newspapers so that a free press could thrive in the new nation — and, boy, did it.
More than two centuries later, the U.S. Postal Service needs good government and an appreciation of its role in democracy more than at any time in its history. Already bleeding money for a variety of reasons — yes, partly the rise of email and private delivery services, but also a ridiculous cost burden created by an all-GOP government in 2006 — the rapid drop in business activity during the coronavirus crisis brought the Post Office to the brink of extinction.
The sudden disappearance of about one-third of its business translates to a whopping $13 billion in lost revenue for the USPS, and at this pace — its leaders told Congress earlier this month — the Post Office will be out of money by the end of September. Of course, in that sense the postal service — with its massive workforce of 600,000 people — is little different from restaurants, boutiques, (cough, cough) newspapers, or most other business, but with the federal government doling out coronavirus relief money, surely a critical service like the USPS gets to cut to the front of the line, right?
Well, so far, no. Like many of the other pillars of a supposedly functioning government, the Post Office hasn’t been popular with the dominant Republicans in Washington for a while, and that was before Donald Trump and his overflowing basket of grudges arrived in town. President Trump hates the Post Office because he hates its biggest customer, Amazon, because he hates Amazon’s billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos, because he hates a newspaper that Bezos also happens to own, the Washington Post. Make sense? Of course it doesn’t. It’s 2020, Trump is the president, and you’re locked in your house with no toilet paper. Nothing makes sense.
Trump reportedly gave orders to his dutiful Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin — he’d veto a relief package that had so much as one dime for the postal service. Indeed, the most recent relief bill, which contained $2 trillion,including bailouts for a variety of private firms, had no direct aid for the USPS, although lawmakers did squeeze in a $10 billion loan to be paid back (and which Mnuchin still needs to sign off on.) Even though Postmaster General Megan Brennan has asked anew for an $89 billion package of both direct aid and loans (a bit high, yes, but that’s how one starts a negotiation), there’s little sign that Trump intransigence will let up for a fourth bailout bill that may not even come at all, with Democrats and the GOP very far apart.
The irony is painful. For weeks as the global pandemic has worsened, the president has either exaggerated his powers (to adjourn Congress, based on a section of the Constitution that he completely misread) or made up powers he doesn’t have, such as ordering governors to re-open their states’ businesses. But here’s what the Constitution does lay out for the president and the Congress, in Article 1 (Trump’s favorite), Section 8, Clause 7: That it establish a Post Office and build roads to carry the mail. Letting the USPS die or shrink to a level where it would struggle to carry out its basic duties would be a severe dereliction of duty.
Like most political debates, the fight over the future of the Post Office has tended to dwell on the immediate, and the immediate problems are indeed significant. For one thing, the crisis and the USPS cash crunch hit right in the middle of the federal 2020 Census, so efficient and uninterrupted mail service is critical right now for the government to get an accurate head count, which, among other things, will have a lot to say about the shape of Congress in the 2020s.
Even more important, though, could be the impact on 2020′s elections — both in the handful of remaining state primaries and then the big general election in November. At the start of the year, five states (four of which voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump, for what it’s worth) had gone to exclusively vote-by-mail while others, including Pennsylvania, have been moving toward an expansion of absentee ballots in which the Post Office plays a critical role as well.
With the pandemic, replacing in-person voting with the mail option seems to be a critical health measure, but efforts both in the states and in Washington to both make it much easier to vote by mail in all 50 states and to allocate more dollars to holding safe and fair elections are facing GOP headwinds. In fact, the push has so rattled Republicans that some of them are saying the quiet part out loud: Elections by mail would increase the turnout of eligible voters, and more democracy is bad for the GOP. Said the president (who, ironically, regularly votes by mail): "[Democratic proposals] had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
“Levels of voting ...” Also known as democracy. Trump hates it — and he’s shown this time and time again. But as many of us have been arguing since 2016, the 45th president is only bringing his dreadful brand of narcissism and his authoritarian instincts to a Republican Party that was already doing it’s damnedest to destroy any notion that any federal agency — even a highly popular one like the Post Office — could be a force for good. Team Trump is merely fulfilling the prophecy of GOP guru Grover Norquist, who said his goal for government is “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
The history of the Post Office may seem arcane, but it’s important because the service it aims to provide pretty much defines who we are as Americans...or at least what we once aspired to be. The era of distributing newspapers and controversial opinions by mailing newspapers that cost only a penny or two may seem quaint, but the idea of a public service that facilitates the 1st Amendment by distributing a free press and free speech widely should not be. Especially a service that sends that information to every home — no matter how remote, or what the resident’s station in life.
A functioning Post Office is a center for community and thus a sense of shared purpose, the things that seem to be slipping away in today’s United States. Postal banking — an effective service of the early 20th Century that never should have been allowed to die out — helped America survive the Great Depression, even as customers gaped at the posters of the Most Wanted Criminals. But central to all this is that democracy needs communication, whether that’s dissent — like the anti-slavery letters that flooded the South from abolitionists in the 1830s — or missives of the heart, like those wrenching Civil War letters that documentarian Ken Burns helped us never to forget.
Simply put, if you hate the Post Office then you hate America. It’s been heartwarming over the past few days to see everyday folks buying up books of stamps (black civil rights icons have been especially popular) to help out the USPS, but it’s going to take much, much more. We need to all lean on our members of Congress — regardless of party — to lean on the White House to save our Post Office before September. Without a little political common sense, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will surely be stamped “Return to Sender” on November 3.
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