The post office was the midwife of America’s democracy, and the first triumph of its federal state.
By facilitating communication between every far-flung, culturally disparate settlement within the early republic, the agency formed the material basis for a national consciousness. By subsidizing the dissemination of newspapers, the post office enabled mass civic engagement and the formation of modern political parties. In the early 19th century, the institution embodied America’s most egalitarian impulses and ambitious conceptions of the role of government. At that time, Western European states ran their postal services as revenue-generating enterprises, and therefore denied mail delivery to communities that could not be served at a profit. America’s post office, by contrast, was conceived as a “service to the public and to national unification,” and thus provided mail to Americans in remote, rural areas as an entitlement. Over the ensuing centuries, the agency would become a vital source of middle-class employment — particularly for African-Americans and other marginalized groups locked out of remunerative roles in the private labor market — while remaining one of the few overwhelmingly popular public institutions in the United States.
But today, the Postal Service is at risk of becoming an accessory to our democracy’s murder and dismemberment.
COVID-19 would pose a formidable challenge to election administration, even in a healthy republic. In a body politic enfeebled by the metastasizing growth of rightwing authoritarianism, the coronavirus poses a mortal threat.
In the United States, elections are overseen by partisan officials and staffed by volunteers. This is a perilous arrangement in ordinary times; in a year when the sitting president openly advocates for the disenfranchisement of his domestic opposition — and a deadly virus is mowing down the very retirees who typically staff precincts — America’s approach to elections is close to untenable. November is poised to witness a shortage of poll workers. And that is liable to produce long lines at polling places, which would increase the already significant public-health risk of convening an election mid-pandemic. Logistically, this problem is readily solvable: We could simply enable all voters to cast their ballots by mail. But that is not viable politically because whether it is undesirable for voters to be disenfranchised by fear of infection is a source of partisan dispute.
The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. It has controlled the Senate for more than half of the past four decades, but it’s senators have represented a majority of the nation’s population for only two years in that time period. All of the advances that conservatives have made this century — all of the tax cuts, deregulation, and judicial appointments — have been contingent on electoral institutions overruling the will of popular majorities.
None of this is lost on the conservative movement. Nor have Republicans failed to notice the demographic headwinds they face at a national level, as the least conservative generations in American history continue aging into the electorate. Rather, a consciousness of these trends has spurred conservatives to embrace an increasingly aggressive and open hostility toward popular sovereignty. Donald Trump expresses the movement’s contempt for democracy in unusually forthright and vulgar terms. But Mitch McConnell has argued that “voting is a privilege” from the floor of the U.S. Senate, and Republicans in statehouses across the country have unabashedly endorsed the principle that the votes of Democratic regions should count for less than those of Republican ones. For all the American right’s populist affectations, none of its stratagems for targeted voter suppression induce much cognitive dissonance: The notion that the preservation of natural hierarchies (whether dictated by God or market forces) takes precedence over democracy is deeply rooted in the white Evangelical and libertarian intellectual traditions.
For these reasons, the GOP’s interest in preventing COVID from disenfranchising voters is contingent on whose voters it is likely to disenfranchise. And all available evidence indicates that the Democratic coalition is both more afraid of COVID than the Republican one, and far more likely to vote by mail. In the present context, this constitutes a liability for the Democratic Party. Almost all of this year’s swing states require mail-in ballots to be received by Election Day, rather than merely postmarked by that date. Any delay in mail delivery could therefore result in the nullification of many voters’ ballots. This prospect is not merely a hypothetical: As NPR reports, across all of this year’s primary elections, more than 65,000 absentee or mail-in ballots were thrown out as a result of arriving past the deadline, often through no fault of the voter.
As Donald Trump’s standing in the polls has deteriorated, he has become evermore fixated on exploiting this potential Democratic liability. The coronavirus has put a dent in the Postal Service’s already fraught finances, leaving the agency in less-than-ideal condition to process a historic influx of mail-in ballots this fall. And yet, in negotiations over COVID relief, the White House opposed Democratic proposals for providing $25 billion in emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Service, and $3.6 billion in assistance to state and local election officials. On Thursday, the president explained to Fox Business Network that he opposed these measures because Democrats “need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped.”
In case this was too subtle an expression of the administration’s authoritarian motives, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC, “So much of the Democratic asks [on stimulus] are really liberal-left wish-lists — voting rights, aid to aliens — that’s not our game.”
Starving the U.S. Postal Service of funding is but one prong in the president’s broad strategy for exploiting Democratic reliance on mail-in voting. The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee have also launched legal challenges against efforts to expand the availability of mail-in voting in battleground states, while the president has argued incessantly that any mail-in votes counted after Election Day are illegitimate, remarks that may augur post-November 3 lawsuits aimed at halting vote counts.
The most alarming aspect of the administration’s assault on mail-voting may be centered within the Postal Service itself — emphasis on may. That Donald Trump has obstructed funding for the USPS out of desire to restrict mail-in voting is now an uncontested fact. The motivations behind Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s recent reforms to his agency are more ambiguous. DeJoy, a former logistics executive and big-dollar Trump donor, took the reins of the Postal Service in May. Since then, he has restructured the agency in a manner that centralizes power around himself, and implemented a series of changes purportedly aimed at increasing the agency’s efficiency. Among these reforms was a prohibition on overtime pay, limitations on the use of mail sorting machines, and a requirement that letter carriers “leave mail behind when necessary to avoid extra trips or late delivery on routes,” according to the Washington Post. These policies have reportedly produced days-long delays in mail delivery in many parts of the country, as the elimination of overtime has reduced the agency’s man hours. Postal workers and their unions have warned that DeJoy’s rules are a recipe for disaster this fall, when many epidemiologists expect COVID cases to tick up — potentially limiting the USPS’s labor force, just as the presidential election raises the stakes of timely mail delivery to nothing less than America’s democratic integrity.
Given that DeJoy is unabashed in his Trump support — and that Trump is unabashed in his desire to disenfranchise Democratic voters by sabotaging the Postal Service — it is reasonable for liberals to view DeJoy’s policies as a means to Trump’s authoritarian end. But it is also true that conservatives have long had the Postal Service in their crosshairs for reasons wholly unrelated to mail-in voting. The agency embodies virtually everything that the Koch Network exists to oppose: The capacity of “big government” to provide popular services, the efficacy of public-sector unions in delivering well-paying jobs, and the subordination of the profit motive to the maintenance of a positive right of citizenship. In other words, a rich, Republican logistics executive would have plenty of non-election-related reasons to exploit the U.S. Postal Service’s present vulnerability to force austerity on its workers, while rendering its core service less competitive than that of private carriers.
But a generous interpretation of DeJoy’s actions does not render them defensible. There is no reason why the postmaster general should be prioritizing efficiencies over timely mail delivery in the present context. The Postal Service’s financial problems are largely an artifact of a 2006 law that arbitrarily requires the agency to pre-fund 75 years worth of its retirees’ health benefits. Its status as an independent, self-sustaining agency is also relatively novel and unnecessary. The federal government could cover the Postal Service’s annual losses for about $14 billion a year — which is roughly one-tenth of the amount of money that Congress has added to the Pentagon’s annual budget since Donald Trump took office. Our country can easily afford to sustain an unprofitable public institution that provides 600,000 Americans with good jobs, and 90 percent of all U.S. residents with a service they approve of.
Regardless — even if one believes that the USPS is in need of cost-cutting and structural reform — there is absolutely no reason to implement such measures right now. The official rationale for DeJoy’s rule requiring postal workers to leave letters behind to avoid extra trips — as opposed to making multiple trips to ensure that all mail is delivered on time — was that adopting this policy would save the agency $200 million in overtime and transportation costs. Which is to say: The USPS is jeopardizing the timely delivery of medicines and ballots in the middle of a pandemic for the sake of a rounding error in the federal budget.
DeJoy might not be trying to undermine democracy in a manner that advances conservative goals; he may just be trying to advance conservative goals in a manner that undermines democracy. But on the list of qualities you don’t want in a public servant, indifference toward maintaining the integrity of elections doesn’t rank far below hostility toward maintaining such integrity.
Whatever happens between now and November, the administration’s war on mail-in voting will have done durable harm to our nation’s political life. The president’s remarks alone are sufficient to ensure that a wide swath of the country will view the election’s outcome as illegitimate: How can Democrats have full faith in the legitimacy of a vote count Trump wins, when the president has made his intention to corrupt the election explicit? And how can Trump’s faithful accept his defeat when he has assured them that the voting method favored by Democrats is rife with fraud?
At the time of its creation, the post office embodied the American republic’s progressive potential. It was a force of national unification and democratization that testified to the government’s capacity to expedite and guide economic development with an eye towards the citizenry’s collective benefit. But our settler-colonial society harbored other potentialities. And 244 years into the American experiment, the forces of reaction have brought us to a place where the U.S. Postal Service threatens to deliver democratic decline — if not disunion. In the days and weeks ahead, Democrats in Congress, and small-d democrats nationwide, must defend the USPS as if our democracy depends on it.