As the weeks in lockdown turned into months (and sadly, in many places have been reimposed or never ended) many of us on both sides of the U.S./Canada border came to rely on the mail as a lifeline.
Postal services in democracies inevitably serve an egalitarian function. In the U.S. from the 1890s to 1960s, the postal service expanded on its ability to serve the communications needs of all by also offering banking services, which, if available in the North American context today, could be used to protect people from check cashing services and predatory payday loan companies.
As Bill McKibbon, better known for his environmental activism and writing explained in a recent New Yorker commentary, the American post office, even without offering banking services, plays a vital, often unrecognized civic role outside of large urban areas, “You know who delivers the Amazon package the final mile to rural Americans? The U.S.P.S. You know how people get medicine, when the pharmacy is an hour’s drive away? In their mailbox. You know why many people can’t pay their bills electronically? Because too much of rural America has impossibly slow Internet, or none at all.”
Early on in the country’s history, the U.S.P.S. was more politicized in the sense that the jobs it provided could be used to win political allies and influence voting. Still, what the current administration is doing, trying to ‘deconstruct’ a service, which, despite facing pressures from above for decades, has a public approval rating just above 90%, could permanently handicap it as an institution.
The current American postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, nominated by the service’s Board of Governors rather than the Congress, is a major donor to the current occupant of the White House, a former head fundraiser for the Republican National Convention and, along with his wife, a major donor to other Republican campaigns. He’s promised, after reporting caused an outcry, that mailbox removals in Oregon and other states, as well as the dismantling of expensive mail sorting machines, will not proceed until the November election has ended, although spokespeople for the agency didn’t say whether the sorting machines could be returned to service.
Dejoy, who was previously employed by a company, XPO Logistics, which directly competes with the U.S.P.S., is also married to Aldona Wos, nominated to be ambassador to Canada.
Wos, who was the country’s emissary to Estonia during George W. Bush’s presidency, is in this sense more qualified than many ambassadors, as there appears to be bipartisan consensus about rewarding donors with these jobs rather than giving them to experienced diplomats, but some have noticed a worrying degree of impropriety around it nonetheless.
“Although it is not a surprise that a person nominated to serve as an ambassador is a large campaign donor, these donations are remarkably close in time with the nomination process. Generally, you would expect an attempt to at least avoid the appearance of a quid pro quo with suspiciously timed contributions,” Kedric Payne of the Campaign Legal Center told the website Salon, continuing, “This may strain the public’s trust, to assume that the contributions during the nomination process are coincidences.”
Despite the questions being raised by all this seeming corruption, the U.S. president seems to have his focus elsewhere, although oddly enough, also on the mail. He has publicly mused that expanding mail-in voting during a pandemic will lead to widespread fraud. As so often in the past, it’s hard to tell whether he actually believes this or is using it as a ploy to dispute the results of the next election.
Either way, he may wind up hurting himself electorally, as the mostly elderly voters who form his true base may be too scared by the fall to go to the polls while at the same time not trusting that mailed-in ballots will be counted.
Adding to this head scratching logic, Trump has also insisted that mail-in voting (which he himself did as recently as Tuesday through a proxy) is a unique danger to democracy, while absentee voting is perfectly fine. As a CNN fact check shows, these two things are essentially the same, with some American states preferring one term over the other for similar systems.
In typical fashion, he explained his opposition thus, “You can’t take millions of ballots, send them haphazardly all over the country, or all over a state, and expect it to come out properly. By the way, absentee is great, it’s been working for a long time like in Florida. Absentee, you request and it comes in, and then you send it back. Absentee is great, but universal is going to be a disaster the likes of which our country has never seen.”
It’s important to put the current attacks on the U.S.P.S. in some context by looking at the previous Republican administration, that of George W. Bush, which signed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 into law after it was passed by a Republican controlled Congress.
This piece of legislation has been at the root of many of the service’s current financial problems as it made the U.S.P.S. fund its pensions and health benefits exclusively through the purchase of government bonds for 75 years into the future between 2007 and 2016. As we might expect, these requirements created a growing deficit, leading many on the American right to argue that the U.S.P.S. is failing and should be privatized.
Although some Democrats had to have voted for the PAEA as well, we will never know which ones, as it was a voice vote in the lower house of Congress and not recorded.
Even earlier, in 1970, then President Nixon provoked a series of strikes by postal workers in the hope of weakening their union, part of another long term right wing project to decimate organized labor, especially public sector unions deemed ‘radical’.
Philip F. Rubio, who wrote a book about the strike, explained to Politico how this gambit failed, “I don’t think the Nixon administration counted on the amount of sympathy people had for postal workers. You could really see how much they identified with their letter carriers. A Gallup poll showed 61 percent approval for the postal workers who were striking and holding up their mail.”
It took a little time, considering both houses of the country’s Congress are in recess, but after promising to reconvene to deal with the still unresolved stimulus bill for those Americans suffering through this difficult time and to address the issues surrounding the U.S.P.S., Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement last Friday, which read in part, “The President made plain that he will manipulate the operations of the Post Office to deny eligible voters the ballot in pursuit of his own re-election. The President’s own words confirm: he needs to cheat to win.”
DeJoy is scheduled to appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday and the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Monday. Hopefully, legislation can be crafted quickly and less likely, pass in the Republican controlled Senate as this could also lead to at least some new jobs for millions of unemployed working people.
Further, much of the press coverage of this administration and Dejoy’s assault on the post office, with 33 high-ranking experienced executives reassigned by the postmaster general and stopped allowing overtime allowing significant backlogs, has been focused on the president and images of mailboxes being removed.
Though they often speak in awed tones about the country’s very flawed ‘founders’, the same conservative and libertarian voices who have long wanted to dismantle the U.S.P.S. fail to note how important it was in the country’s earliest history, officially brought into being before the United States itself.
Winifed Gallagher, who wrote the book, “How the Post Office Created America” explained the importance of the U.S.P.S. from the very beginning to the country’s still ongoing experiment with republican government in a recent interview, “Among the first concerted acts of the patriots—like Jefferson and Adams and thousands of others—was that they created underground postal systems to dodge British spies in the 1760s and 1770s. These were called the Committees of Correspondence. And then the patriots created the Constitutional Post in 1774, which became the Post Office Department in 1775, a year before the Declaration. So, it’s really the oldest government agency. The whole idea of a communication system is woven into the DNA of America right from the beginning.”
If he wins the presidential election, Joe Biden will almost certainly find a hollowed out postal service when he takes office, the fulfillment of a long running conservative project. It will be up to the country’s progressives to demand that he restore it and, if they are ambitious, agitate to restore postal banking to serve the poor and marginalized through these difficult times and beyond.