The Post Office is under attack. Ahead of the upcoming presidential election, when mail-in voting will be crucial, President Donald Trump has more or less explicitly stated his intent to undermine one of America’s most popular institutions. His postmaster general, Louis DeJoy — a supply chain executive and major GOP donor — has deactivated mail sorting machines across the country and reduced overtime pay for workers in a bid to make the Postal Service run more “like a business.”
While it’s unclear whether Congress will be able to repair the damage (a House bill to provide funding is currently stalled in the Senate), Trump’s assault should be viewed as the latest in a long line of conservative attacks against one of the most important forces historically for democratization in the United States. In addition to delivering mail at a low cost to all corners of the country, the Post Office helped build roads that connected people, created a public banking system that helped immigrant workers, employed black and women workers when they were shut out of other sectors, and, often thanks to the struggles of postal workers themselves, provided good-paying jobs to its employees.
The Post Office has been so much more than just the Post Office. As scholar Leonard White has written: “The Post Office was unique in the closeness of its relations to the great mass of people.” To defend it, even after the pandemic is over, is to defend democracy itself.
What Does the Post Office Do?
At its core, the Post Office’s mission has been to democratize access to information. The Postal Service Act of 1792, historian Richard John notes, established a
broad civic mandate, [and] vastly expanded the postal network while admitting newspapers into the mail at an extremely low rate. No less impressively, it guaranteed the sanctity of personal correspondence by protecting letters from the prying eyes of government. In a stroke, the founders provided the entire population with low-cost access to information on public affairs, while establishing a right to personal privacy.
The spread of newspapers helped mainstream political parties and organizations reach voters — but it also helped foster an alternative press.
Labor papers told the story of strikes from the perspectives of workers. The Chicago Defender and other black newspapers publicized the horrors of Jim Crow. And by opening up the range of information available, the Post Office played an early role in promoting a more informed and more integrated public — a crucial part of any well-functioning democracy. (One glaring exception: during World War I, the postmaster general, empowered by Congress, muzzled dissident publications.)
Though the decline of print publishing might make the Post Office’s civic functions seem less relevant today, more than 15 percent of voters in 2016 cast their ballot by mail; that figure will undoubtedly skyrocket this year. Gutting the Post Office now, especially in the throes of a pandemic, is akin to levying a poll tax.
In Service of the Periphery
There’s a tremendous irony in the Right’s decades of warfare against the Postal Service. The GOP is supposed to be the party that stands up for rural Americans against an “urban elite.”
Yet the Post Office has been one of the central institutions that integrates rural Americans into the rest of the polity.
For many decades, post offices were mainly located in towns and cities. Residents often had to travel more than three hours to pick up their mail; some would go several weeks without receiving anything in the post.
The Rural Free Delivery (RFD) program, first piloted in 1896 and then scaled up in the early twentieth century, drastically equalized rural residents’ access to information by ensuring that the Post Office would deliver their mail for the price of a postage stamp. The program boosted news circulation while also helping agrarian parties and groups organize.
Today, the Post Office continues to bridge the gap between rural America and the rest of the country, picking up the slack with its “last-mile” program when companies like Amazon are unwilling to do so. Without the Post Office, these costs would be shifted to consumers, making things like medicine and household essentials inaccessible to working-class rural Americans.
A Brief Experiment in Financial Inclusion
In the wake of the Panic of 1907, triggered by the stock manipulation schemes of an unregulated banking industry, Congress passed the Postal Savings Act. The goal was to guarantee workers had a stable, reliable source for their banking needs, shielding them from the vagaries of the private banking industry. Passed over the vehement opposition of the industry, postal banking bolstered the Post Office’s reputation for serving the underserved.
While native-born Americans were initially slow to use postal banking, immigrants relied on the service from its early years. Discrimination in financial markets had locked them out of private banks; the Postal Savings System gave them a way in.
The creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) during the Great Depression prompted many to turn back to private banks, ultimately leading to the end of the Postal Savings System in 1966. But today, in another era of predatory lending and rapacious banks, many are now demanding postal banking for the twenty-first century.
Including Citizens in Government
The Post Office was one of the early leaders in breaking the color line and incorporating women into the workforce.
From 1870 to 1900, the Post Office employed more women as a percentage than any other level of government — and this in a sector that was already employing far more women than others. In other words, the Postal Service served as a site of political and economic inclusion for women at a time when they lacked even suffrage rights.
So, too, with black workers. Facing discrimination in private-sector labor markets, black workers were more than twice as likely to be employed by the Post Office than whites. They used that foothold in the 1930s and ’40s to agitate for anti-discrimination policies throughout the federal government.
Perhaps most notably, black postal activism helped lay the groundwork for the Postal Strike of 1970, the largest wildcat strike in US history. The historic labor action helped to improve working conditions while enabling postal workers to fulfill their civic mission of democratizing access to information.
Long Live the Postal Service
Today, the Post Office is the most popular government institution in the United States, with 91 percent of adults saying they have a positive view of the agency.
Its overwhelming popularity is no accident. The Post Office has served as a model of how government programs and policies can foster democracy. And that’s why it’s in the Right’s crosshairs — because it’s a hallmark of what effective, progressive government can look like.
The Post Office is a national treasure. It’s time to fight back.