American Democracy Is in the Mail
U.S. democracy and the U.S. postal service share a long, entangled history. An attack against one signals an attack against the other.
September 10, 2020
Sep 10, 2020
18 Min read time
U.S. democracy and the U.S. postal service share a long, entangled history. An attack against one signals an attack against the other.
In 2004 Muriel Ponder joined the U.S. Postal Service as a mechanic; she quickly recognized it as the best job that she had ever worked. She found there an office group with camaraderie and pride in performance, a ticket to middle-class living provided by stable pay and benefits, and satisfaction in public service. But last month she watched in confusion and despair as three mail sorting machines in her Denver-area hub were taken out of service—not because she and her fellow workers had found anything wrong with the machines, and not because better machines were coming, but because of “orders” from on high to reorganize the workspace.
The machines used to process over a million pieces of mail every day, she writes, were soon dismantled and left to rust in the rain. Ponder’s troubling observation fit a nationwide trend. According to an internal report presented at a congressional hearing two weeks ago, the on-time delivery rate for first-class mail declined by over 8 percent between mid-July and the first week of August. Neither seasonal adjustments nor the pandemic can explain the sudden drop. Rather, we can attribute the decline to the arrival and management changes of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor who came onto the job in June and who in July announced an “operational pivot” that trashed functional sorting machines, prohibited overtime, and imposed rigid new trucking schedules.
At stake in the national mail crisis is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
As Americans wait for their mail to arrive—older people worried about their essential medications, tax filers and accountants puzzled about the whereabouts of their paperwork, households expecting bank statements and monthly bills, and citizens awaiting their ballots—the indispensability of our postal service is becoming clear. It is no coincidence that the post office has been prominent in the news in the midst of our converging national crises over the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and democratic fragility. The immediate disruptions to daily health, economic, and social routines mask and foreshadow a more troubling reality; at stake in the national mail crisis is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
American democracy is umbilically joined to our country’s postal service. An engine fueled by popular sovereignty, the U.S. postal system served as a central instrument in the creation of the U.S. settler republic. For centuries the postal system has been the only government office accessible to all Americans, the only employer for whom just about any American could work, the only entity that provided universal service as corporate capitalism pulled out of urban centers and rural communities. Today, the post office disproportionately serves and employs minority communities, especially communities of color. The postal system represents the most uniquely American form of state architecture, riddled with the legacies of territorial expansion, indigenous dispossession, capitalism, slavery, and popular government.
• • •
The postal system boasts a history inseparable from that of the United States writ large. “Post offices” and “post roads” are mentioned in the 1787 U.S. Constitution as an assumed state function, but it was not until the Postal Service Act of 1792 that Congress engineered a nationwide postal system. Stemming from a petition system in which remote towns and settlements could request roads and offices, the Act accelerated the growth of a sprawling, continent-wide network. From 1792 to 1830 the number of post offices grew from 75 to 8,450. By 1828, Americans had 74 post offices for every 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 17 in Great Britain and only 4 in France. Thanks to Andrew Jackson’s presidential victory that same year, which ushered in a new era of populist patronage, the government created tens of thousands of government jobs for the (white) “common man" before the Civil War. It was the postal system that provided the template of a patronage system through which mass party organizations could build networks and loyalties. Mailed newspapers carried party ballots to voters and mail-in voting was widespread during the nineteenth century, and especially during the Civil War. Electoral democracy depended on the postal service’s vast platform.
By the beginning of the Civil War, the Post Office Department employed roughly 30,000 workers, all but a handful of whom were white men.
As with U.S. democracy, the U.S. postal system began as a white man’s project. The 1792 Act was explicitly designed to spread white citizens across the Appalachian frontier. In Georgia, mailed petitions and the postal dissemination of racist newspapers aided the state’s ejection of the Cherokee and other tribes from their ancestral lands and the expansion of slave plantations. From Andrew Jackson onward, postal expansion didn’t just follow western expansion, it facilitated it and, with it, indigenous dispossession. The exploding postal network harnessed a range of private enterprises (stagecoaches and railways), subsidizing and populating these transports. What began as a small system had become a massive employer; by the beginning of the Civil War, the Post Office Department employed roughly 30,000 workers, all but a handful of whom were white men.
Yet women, Black, and Indigenous Americans quickly found more points of entry. Women had already begun carrying mail before the start of the Civil War, when Sarah Black began in 1845. Later, in the midst of the War, labor pressures in the postal service led to an open call to hire women in clerical positions at the Post Office Department. By 1865, women comprised over four-fifths of Dead Letter Office employees. In fact, women found such great success as postal managers, or “postmistresses,” that their functioning as surety for bonds (a common postal service) conflicted with American property laws that limited the ability of married women to issue bonds. For married women in the 1870s and ’80s, becoming postmaster was the main way, and sometimes the only way, to execute bonds until states liberalized their property laws and dismantled the constraints of coverture. Women continued to flock to positions in the service, by the beginning of the twentieth century, women managed one in ten U.S. post offices. The spike in female leadership in the postal system became a rallying cry for suffragists, who noted that this participation demonstrated all of the capacities necessary for citizenship. High-level male postal officials even addressed national women’s suffrage meetings, such as when August W. Machen, the man primarily responsible for the Rural Free Delivery system, appeared at the 1898 convention. Women’s periodicals, pamphlets, and newspapers circulated owing to similar forces. Female canvassers (from seventy-year-olds to eleven-year-olds) in the abolitionist movement shared strategies and encouragements by letter, while organizers sent blank petition forms by post.
Black and Indigenous Americans also used the postal system to organize and campaign against slavery and dispossession. Anti-slavery and abolitionist newspapers—from William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator to Frederick Douglass’s North Star—reached the Caribbean, Europe, and every U.S. state only through postal delivery and subsidy (during the antebellum era, all newspapers relied on the subsidy of the mail). When in 1835 a group of men raided the Charleston, South Carolina post office and took a stash of abolitionist mailings, their crime only underscored how central the postal system was in the spread of antislavery. The nineteenth century bore a period of intensive petitioning, with the postal system ferrying signed documents to Congress and state legislatures. These petitions were indispensable to Native American tribes. From the Seneca in New York, to the Navajo and Pueblo in Arizona and New Mexico, tribal members mailed petitions, complaints, and formal requests to the Indian Affairs bureaucracy, Congress, and the President in Washington.
• • •
Perhaps the most important legacy of the twentieth century postal system came in 1910, when the Postal Savings Depository Act created freely accessible public savings accounts that allowed Americans to sidestep commercial banks. The Act was a bipartisan creature advanced by postal officials, pushed by progressive agrarian legislators, and signed into law by President William H. Taft, whose Republican Party wanted an institutional vehicle for promoting aggregate savings. Citizens could establish accounts at post offices up to an amount of $500 (raised to $1,000 in 1916 and $2,500 in 1918 in the midst of postwar inflation). They also had the option of converting savings accounts into postal savings bonds, which paid 2.5 percent interest annually. During the Depression and the War, Americans would flock to the postal savings system—by 1947, over 4 million depositors had stashed over 3 billion dollars in bonds and accounts located across 8,000 different post offices.
The deep imprint of the postal system—its presence in nearly every neighborhood in the country—meant a pervasive and constant state presence that could chill just as easily as it could enable.
This kind of saving system was especially alluring to first-generation immigrants who were accustomed to having postal savings banks in their origin countries. The guaranteed interest rate on deposits forced commercial banks to raise their interest rates to at least 2 percent in the 1950s and ’60s. Through the postal savings system, the American government established a democracy of finance that, unlike most government services, disproportionately served immigrants.
But the deep imprint of the postal system—its presence in nearly every neighborhood in the country—also meant a pervasive and constant state presence that could chill just as easily as it could enable. Indeed, the postal inspection corps was one of the most powerful forces of economic regulation in the nineteenth century United States, enforcing anti-fraud and anti-corruption statutes and compensating for states’ poor governing of interstate commerce.
This postal inspection service precipitated the campaign of Anthony Comstock, a powerful U.S. bureaucrat who held positions in the inspection service both in the federal government and in New York City. Comstock brought the machinery of postal inspection to bear upon pornography, conception, alcohol, gambling, and the lotteries, using 1873 and 1893 statutes known as the “Comstock laws.” He simultaneously became infamous for his aggressive collaboration with the vice suppression societies of the age. The most famous writer on the postal service of the time opined that the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice “has been so closely identified with the Postal Department that it is almost part of it.” The burden of the Comstock laws fell disproportionately on urban, working-class women, primarily immigrant women. Vice suppression societies were managed and funded by upper-class, white, Protestant families and many of their enforcement efforts targeted Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, among other city newcomers whose livelihoods in art and contraception provision were deemed both vices and public health threats. Manifest in the Comstock campaign was the influence of Victorian morality, accompanied by anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fears that had been surging through the Republican Party.
Comstock’s influence owed not just to his skills as a bureaucrat and politician; his campaign found such wide success because of how central the postal system had become to American consumer culture. The commercialization of the Christmas holiday in the United States depended on links between the postal system, department stores, and mail catalogs. John Wanamaker—whose department store in Philadelphia pioneered ornate holiday-season displays—became Postmaster General in 1889 and quickly pushed the Post Office Department into the parcel business. The mail-order catalogs of iconic companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward rested on the structure and subsidy of the U.S. postal system.
• • •
The latter half of the twentieth century saw the rise of greater commercial competition, labor strife, and neoliberal critiques of the American postal system. Critics lamented congressional rigidity over pricing—Congress’s need to approve each and every increase in the price of a stamp, for instance —and the patronage politics influencing postmaster appointments (and, more centrally, the Postmaster General as a party machine official). Similar battles over labor relations defined much of postal politics in the sixties, setting urban areas against rural towns and, more subtly, Black union locals against their white counterparts. A strike in March 1970—starting in New York City, spreading to Philadelphia, and ultimately ending on the Pacific Coast—saw 150,000 postal workers walk off the job, an action all the bolder because federal labor law has long prohibited public sector strike activity.
The 1970 statute weakened postal unions and split labor organization along racial and regional lines.
The strike triggered the first genuine collective bargaining process in the postal system’s history. Yet the negotiations that followed the strike effectively barred two large postal unions: the National Postal Union, with its strength in the cities, and the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, a collective primarily composed of African-American government workers and one of the most powerful Black labor organizations in U.S. history. Nevertheless, the bargaining process resulted in generous wage increases for postal employees and a commitment to postal reform legislation that the Nixon Administration would soon introduce.
The spirit of the age pushed the “modernization” of the mail. In 1970, neoliberal critiques of government services converged in the Postal Reorganization Act. The Act ended the postal system’s tradition as a Cabinet-level executive department, converting it into a government corporation freer from Congress in both its pricing and planning. The statute weakened postal unions and split labor organization along racial and regional lines. Moreover, the law extended an earlier set of reforms that had retired the Railway Mail Service and ended the postal savings system. In contesting the postal savings systems, commercial banks had raised their interest rates for two decades, successfully arguing that the postal system was unnecessary as many Americans had invested in Treasury and War bonds. Of course, the rising consumer interest rates of the 1950s and ’60s were shaped by private banks being forced to compete with the “public options” that citizens had at their post offices. The historically low consumer interest rates witnessed in recent years can be interpreted in light of the disappearance of a public source of competition for citizen savings.
• • •
As with many public services, the U.S. government, so long operating at the expense of Black people and people of color, now employs those communities at disproportionately high rates—the post office is no exception. As Philip Rubio has shown in detail, the U.S. postal system has for a century served as an important economic and social lifeline for Black communities. Throughout several waves of the civil rights movement, post offices and postal unions worked alongside activists. During the Great Migration, as African-American families moved northward and westward, Black workers took on many of the jobs at busy post offices in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington. In 1966 and 1967, Black men filled the top postmaster jobs in Chicago and New York City. By 1970 the postal system’s largest working parts—not just large urban post offices, but regional distribution centers—were manned by Black workers. And by 2000, Black Americans accounted for one in five postal workers in the United States, including 14 percent of the top management positions.
The U.S. postal system has served as an important economic and social lifeline for Black communities for at least a century.
As with a range of other government positions, postal jobs have forged a pathway to economic autonomy, middle-class status, and wealth-building for Black Americans. A recent analysis by Hayley Brown and Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that from 2017 to 2019, Black Americans comprised 26.8 percent of the postal service at a time when their share of the private-sector labor force remained at 11.5 percent. The U.S. postal system’s Black to white worker pay gap, while still unequal, is far less than the wage gap in private-sector employment. Cutbacks in postal service will damage Black employment prospects in cities and rural areas where many Black families and communities reside. Those who wish to privatize or hollow out American postal services are doubtless aware of these facts. It is worth asking just how much they are motivated by them.
But the well-recognized Black presence in American post offices has not come without controversy. In 1994 the the vice chairman of the postal board Tirso del Junco argued that Latinos were underrepresented in the postal system and that Black managers needed to promote diversity, especially in places like California. Since then, Hispanic groups have called for greater representation; Hispanics compose about 8 percent of the postal workforce, but 17 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Though the postal system should consider its demographic representation in relation to that of the U.S. workforce, it boasts other functions in various spheres of democratic and public life. Significantly, it has provided a force to wage battles against corruption. For a timely example, look to Steve Bannon, the white supremacist and grifter consultant who was arrested by postal inspectors less than a month ago. This is just the latest development in the long history of postal inspectors serving as economic regulators and anti-corruption officers, especially since the development of the postal inspection service in the late nineteenth century. To be sure, this legacy is mixed. The terror wrought upon immigrant women by Comstockery exemplifies the brutal ends for which this machinery can be used. However, fraud, embezzlement, and racketeering often have to interact with, and even harness, the postal system at some point in their ventures. The Varsity Blues admissions scandal in 2019 depended on postal crimes; the original charges against celebrities Lori Laughlin and Massimo Giannulli included mail and wire fraud. While the potential for discriminatory and racialized use of these criminal codes demands interrogation, the fact remains that postal inspection remains a significant line of defense against the criminally rich and powerful. That, too, is a work of democracy.
The U.S. postal system continues to support democracy in its customary ways: ferrying what few print newspapers survive, shipping magazines and campaign mailers, and processing mail-in ballots, which have been successful for nearly half of a century. In 1981 the Oregon state legislature launched the first test of an all-mail election. By 1987 a majority of the state’s counties were conducting all-mail voting for local races and ballot measures. Research by the University of Oregon political scientist Priscilla Southwell showed that the vast majority of Oregonians preferred to vote by mail. As political scientists Adam Berinsky, Nancy Burns, and Michael Traugott demonstrated in a 2001 study of the vote-by-mail systems in Oregon, mail-in voting increases political participation, echoing the research findings for a similar system in Switzerland. Analyses of the Oregon program suggest that vote-by-mail reduces turnout disparities, meaning a higher turnout for those who were less likely to vote initially.
This relationship between democracy and the U.S. postal system is the essential backdrop for the current “reform” efforts being launched by the Trump-appointed majority on the U. S. Postal Services Board of Governors and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Both reports and congressional testimony indicate that DeJoy cozied up to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to attain a favorable path to a postal governor position. The immediate resignation of postal governor David Williams in the wake of DeJoy’s appointment speaks volumes about the motivations of the Trump Administration. Not only was DeJoy a major donor to Trump’s presidential campaign, he also has tens of millions of investments in USPS contractors. Most recently, it should come as little surprise that the House Oversight Committee will launch an investigation into DeJoy’s efforts to pressure employees into making contributions to GOP candidates, and lying under oath.
DeJoy’s actions, aided and abetted by Mnuchin, have crippled the U.S. Postal Service in the wake of an earlier Republican statute, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, that had already weakened the Service’s finances. This was the first comprehensive postal law to come out of Congress since 1970. Passed in December 2006, just as the Republicans’ bicameral congressional majority was being eclipsed by the Democrats’ midterm victories, the Act required the Postal Service to fund in advance the full value of postal employee health and retirement benefits. (This is something no corporation does or has done, even in the age of corporate pensions.) Unsurprisingly, the law resulted in the complete collapse of the system’s finances. The Service’s inspector general estimates that of the $62.4 billion in losses racked up by the Service from 2007 to 2016, $54.8 billion (over 85 percent) was due to the requirements of the 2006 statute.
The attack on the postal system and its workers is also as an attack on its capital. When Congress included financing for postal services in its coronavirus pandemic recovery package in the spring, Trump threatened a veto that quashed the effort for direct spending while Mnuchin held up a $10 billion loan included in the final package. The 2006 law depleted reserves for investment in sorting and routing machines used by the regional distribution centers. And, now, Dejoy’s attempts to undo postal services through eliminating hundreds of sorting machines illuminate the Trump Administration’s priorities. Were DeJoy genuinely interested in cutting expenses according to the corporate management model expected of a Republican appointee, he would be trimming workers (who account for over 75 percent of postal system costs), not machines. House Democrats have discovered that, though machines are being removed at higher rates in states with larger populations, the elimination of mail sorting machines in swing states (which has accelerated the usual replacement of sorting machines) is likely politically motivated by the upcoming presidential election. Yet another driving factor is the longstanding desire to eradicate universal postal service and privatize its essential functions. Libertarians and corporate interests have long hoped to weaken the service so as to quiet popular opposition to privatization. Indeed, these constituencies have previously regarded the postal system as the Founders’ only mistake. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and DeJoy currently lead this effort. And, were these men to succeed in this quest, the carnage would be political, not solely economic.
Americans need to understand that any threat to the post office is also a threat to our self-governing republic.
For this reason, true postal reform must go beyond “restoring” the level and efficiency of service that prevailed in recent years (before the 2006 law requiring full advance funding of pensions) to consider how service might expand. This framing would also rejuvenate the post office as a nexus of community life in the United States. When the government provides a minimal base of infrastructure in each and every town, it invests in a more equitable and democratic society. The post office could again become a platform for savings banks (as Senator Elizabeth Warren has advocated) while advancing broadband access to underserved communities in cities and rural areas. And in the tradition of aiding democracy, each and every post office could serve as an election-facilitating venue, coordinating with state governments to provide polling locations as well as mail-in ballot delivery and processing services. From its very inception, the U.S. postal system has co-evolved with our democracy, nurturing it and, in turn, being nourished by its energy. Americans need to understand that any threat to the post office is also a threat to our self-governing republic.
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September 10, 2020
18 Min read time