The US Postal Service and the struggle for democracy

by Ken Sehested

Who would have thought that Mr. McFeely, the lovable deliveryman and avatar for our nation’s postal carriers on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” could be the flash point of a fierce struggle for the preservation of democratic institutions in the US.

Of course, Mr. McFeely worked for “Speedy Delivery,”  and because of copyright laws couldn’t sport a United States Postal Service (USPS) logo.

Time was, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Now, with the pandemic making life dangerous in long lines at polling places, the USPS has become the center of a big time partisan spat. Our president and many of his minions vote by mail but do not want hoards of citizens doing the same.

The Postal Service, far and away our most popular governmental agency, is neither a private business nor a government-owned corporation. After that, its status is complicated, being “independent” but not “private.” Its immediate oversight is in the hands of a Board of Governors that sets budgets and policies. It operates off its own income as “an independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States.”

But the USPS is now bowed under financial burdens. Its business model took a financial hit with the advent of electronic communication mechanisms beginning in the ‘90s, replacing a large volume of first class mail; then another with the Great Recession of 2007-2009; and yet again, with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bunker buster came in 2006, when Congress approved a bizarre piece of legislation, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which effectively required the USPS to pre-fund employees’ pension and health benefits decades into the future. (See Jeff Spross, “How George Bush broke the Post Office,” The Hill)

Left: Photo by Eric Lee, Bloomberg

The weeds get tall when you attempt to sort out all the details, including convoluted accounting arguments. Keep in mind that a bunch of men (and increasingly, women) in expensive suits have long wanted to privatize the post office, which is consistent with the dominant character of modern plantation capitalism: privileging private wealth over the constitutionally mandated “common welfare.”

The USPS’s own general postmaster, Louis DeJoy—a major donor to Trump’s campaign, appointed in May, who owns tens of millions of stock in some of the USPS’ competitors—has already mandated the removal of 671 high-speed mail sorting machines from post offices around the country, eliminating the ability to process 21.4 million items per hour.

Just this past week the Postal Service sent a letter “to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted.” (Erin Cox, Elise Viebeck, Jacob Bogage & Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post)

Also this past week, DeJoy fired or reassigned two dozen top USPS officials, consolidating power in his office. (See Market Watch)

On top of all this, the Republican Party just announced it has budgeted $20 million to blanket the courts with lawsuits opposing absentee balloting. (See Ian Millhiser, Vox)

I can’t imagine what Mr. McFeely would say about these developments. But I think it’s important to keep five things in mind.

First, the USPS is one of our most small-d democratic institutions. Its existence is mandated by the US Constitution, and the US Code stipulates that it “shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government. . . .” (39 U.S.C. §101(a))

“The post office was the midwife of America’s democracy, and the first triumph of its federal state,” writes Eric Levitz. (See Americans Must Defend the Postal Service Like Our Democracy Depends on It,” New York Magazine)

Right: Ochopee (Florida) Post Office, the smallest in the US, photo by David Lee Thompson

Second, alleged voter fraud is a fraud. Documented cases, including absentee ballots, are infinitesimal in proportion to the number of votes cast. The special commission President Trump set up to investigate illegal voting after the 2016 election eventually disbanded after finding nothing to report. (See Marina Villenneuve, Associate Press )

Third, the Trump administration and the Republican Party are laying the groundwork to discredit the results of the upcoming election. Trump, along with others in his administration, have claimed dozens of times, without offering evidence, that the upcoming election will be fraudulent.

Days ago, the Washington Post editorial board wrote that Trump “is currently engaged in a campaign to discredit the upcoming November election, based on the idea that mail-in voting, necessitated by public health amid the pandemic he has failed to tame, will create the ‘greatest rigged election in history,’ as he put it in a news conference Wednesday. This is deeply dishonest—and dangerous.”

At a recent rally in Pennsylvania, Trump said that “The only way we can lose . . . is if cheating goes on.” (David Smith & Sabrina Siddiqui, Guardian)

Fourth, my commitment to democracy (and there are many kinds) does not rest so much in political theory but in theological conviction. I believe democracy is one of the ways we practice nonviolence. Our nation’s record, over nearly two-and-a-half centuries of not having a coup d’état (whether to overthrow or to maintain power), is historically significant.

Not to say it won’t happen. I have no doubt there are conversations going on behind closed doors in high places about what to do if our current White House occupant refuses to leave should he lose the election.

It’s important to keep in mind what he has said: “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total. . . . I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” (President Donald Trump, reported in Ted Koppel, Rewriting the limits of presidential powers,” CBS Sunday Morning, 10-minute video with accompanying text.)

Left: Cartoon by Steve Breen

Finally, remember this: I think that voting is urgent, especially now.

But I also think there are many other things—more strenuous and difficult things requiring marathon perseverance—that are unseasonable for citizens to do in pursuing the Beloved Community. (For more on this, see “Vote, or don’t: The issues are larger than elections”)

The electoral results that create our next team of governing officials lies at the far, final end of the pipeline of generous and just polity. If all you do is vote . . . well . . . you rate a D- in civics.

There are countless numbers of non-electoral organizations in your neighborhood, by means of your community of faith, in your city, region, nation and via international connections that offer a harness to pull for the e pluribus unum. Find one that, in some very specific way, you can pursue with others a way to engage in neighborliness, to pursue the demands of justice and the requisites of peace.

For such work, let this mind be among you, regarding hope as the evidence of things not seen (cf. Hebrews 11:1), as articulated by philosopher Richard Rorty:

“You have to describe [your] country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become,
as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream
country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such
loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.”

“If there’s anything you need. . . .” sings Mr. McFeely. Which reminds me those more ancient lyrics, “Ask, and it shall be given. . . .” (Matthew 7:7)

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