The free exchange of ideas is critical to representative government and was one of the reasons why the US Postal Service(USPS) was created. At its founding the Postal Service had a deliberate policy of subsidizing the mailing of newspapers and other periodicals, precisely to encourage the communication of ideas. The importance of this was understood by President George Washington who signed the bill authorizing the US Postal Service in 1792. The idea of a postal service is enshrined in the US Constitution.
Despite its historic role in the free exchange of ideas, the U.S. Postal Service is under attack.
Republicans in Congress have taken aim at the Postal Service. They have been aided and abetted by Democrats who have remained silent, or like the current Postmaster General, even cave in to some of their demands. Congressional Republicans have created a thoroughly artificial financial crisis within the Postal Service to push for rate hikes, massive cutbacks in service and the closure of many small town and neighborhood post offices. Their ultimate goal is to privatize the USPS.
Critics of the Postal Service claim that if privatized its competitors like UPS and FedEx can take up the slack. This is ridiculous. The USPS is a universal service that goes everywhere, including many places that UPS and FedEd do not. Its package delivery is less expensive for small businesses and better for shipping internationally. FedEx even uses the Postal Service to deliver to customers not covered by its own fleet.
Critics also maintain that the Post Service has been made by obsolete by the Internet. Yet as of 2011, 30% of the urban population and 40% of the rural population do not have broadband Internet. US broadband is also slower and less reliable compared with many other nations. But even if 100% of Americans had modern broadband Internet, this does not remove the need for the Postal Service.
The Internet is largely private property where freedom of expression is not guaranteed. Facebook can suspend user accounts and pages. Twitter can censor tweets. YouTube can remove videos. Websites can be deleted by the private companies that host them. Internet content is delivered (or not) by huge corporate telcoms.
Print is not dead and has its own particular advantages
Printed works are more portable than Internet-based communication and if printed properly, can last a very long time. Many people prefer to read longer and more thoughtful writing on paper. Once you own a printed copy of something, it won’t disappear because a web server blew up, hackers wrecked it, a government censored it or the website owner zapped it for their own reasons. Print makes it easier to have numerous backup copies. Both print and the electronic media have their advantages and disadvantages. Since we are in the middle of a media revolution, we don’t have the perspective to understand all of those advantages and disadvantages.
At a time when people are concerned about Internet security and all forms of idea exchange are subject to interference, it’s best to have as many ways to communicate as possible. This is especially true in the USA where political literacy is low and the means of communication is being concentrated in fewer and fewer corporate hands.
Encouraging the free exchange of ideas is more important than making a profit.
Over the years, the USPS has been forced to raise the rates for mailing periodicals to the point where smaller publications have curtailed or even suspended operations. Smaller publications are where new and unpopular ideas are first tested out. If we are serious about democracy, then the USPS should be lowering postal rates for periodicals and books to encourage reading and the exchange of ideas. It won’t make a profit, but so what?
The Congressional Republicans are strangely quiet about how their efforts to strangle the Post Service will affect American democracy. This is especially odd considering their supposed reverence for the “Founding Fathers” who to one degree or another realized that the free exchange of ideas was critical to representative government, even if they were suspicious of actual democracy. We subsidize oil companies. Why not subsidize democracy?
Attacks on the USPS did not begin with the present crop of Congressional Republicans
There have been numerous times when the free exchange of ideas by mail has been attacked. One of the most egregious was directed against the USA‘s first known direct mail campaign. The mailing organizers were not hawking credit cards, insurance schemes, or political candidates. They were promoting freedom and democracy.
Their shipment of direct mail arrived at the Charleston, South Carolina harbor on July 29, 1835. Not knowing exactly what to do with the many sacks of mail, Postmaster Alfred Huger set them aside. That evening a mob broke in, stole the mail and the next evening burned every piece in a mass demonstration that attracted a crowd of at least 2000 people.
The mail consisted of unsolicited literature advocating the abolition of slavery, sent by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). They were addressed to individuals whose names were a matter of public record. No one was ever prosecuted for this theft and destruction of US mail.
A pro-slavery mob burning abolitionist mail
The Postmaster General of the USA ignored the blatant violation of federal laws and ruled that in this case “states rights” prevailed. President Andrew Jackson, still celebrated by some as a great “man of the people”, introduced legislation that would have banned abolitionists from sending mail to the southern slave states, although Congress eventually decided it did not have the power to that. Throughout the South vigilance committees were established to monitor the mails for any possible abolitionist literature and punish anyone caught with it. Where the force of law failed, state sponsored terrorism was always available.
Slave owners were the power behind racist mobs and politicians
The term "totalitarian" is normally used to describe a dictatorial government that subordinates the individual to its power. But I believe it can also accurately describe individual economic enterprises and how they are organized. By this description, each southern plantation was its own unique totalitarian institution. Taken together, they were a vast gulag of slave labor camps and the most powerful economic enterprises of their time. As a result plantation owners put a totalitarian stamp on American politics for much of our early history. Their reliance on slavery was associated with institutional racism, white supremacy, massive human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, environmental destruction, militarism and territorial imperialism. It eventually resulted in the Civil War, which cost upwards of 750,000 American lives.
For the slave owners, tampering with the US mail to crush democracy was all in a day’s work. But of course abolitionists( a despised minority even in the North), continued to use the US mails where they could, until the time came when abolition of slavery finally became national policy.
But even the slaveholders did not attempt to actually shut down the Postal Service when they went to war with it. The modern effort to destroy the Postal Service through deep cutbacks and eventual privatization is coming from a Congress molded by the power of corporate wealth.The modern corporation that began to emerge after the Civil War was the successor to the slave plantation as the USA’s most dominant economic institution.
Like the slave plantations before them, the power of today’s corporate wealth weakens our democracy
The modern corporation is normally organized in a topdown totalitarian manner.The corporation is a place that even Bloomberg Businessweek says is “where free speech goes to die.” Most Americans simply accept this as without question because corporate property is “private” poverty. How much American political culture is molded by the habits of obedience formed by working within totalitarian corporations is something that deserves further study.
There are corporations who are reasonably benign and even supportive of democratic values, but there are others who have a dark association with extreme violence, white supremacy, environmental destruction, discrimination by race and gender, sweatshop labor, catastrophic financial fraud, war and other serious abuses.
The corporate powered postal “reformers” in the money-soaked company town of Washington DC want to avoid any discussion of the democratic values that the Postal Service is supposed to uphold. How committed are the most powerful US corporations to the free exchange of ideas that is so critical to a democracy? Not very committed if one measures the amount of support they give the US Postal Service in its funding crisis.
Perhaps that is because corporate lobbying groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the American Petroleum Institute want to ensure that their propaganda messages dominate American thinking. That is consistent with the corporate drive to privatize education, dominate the mass media, crush what remains of the US labor movement and overwhelm their electoral opponents with the sheer force of money.
There is another reason for the hostility toward the USPS: The American postal worker
American postal workers are diverse, a true face of the USA. They live in urban, rural and suburban areas. They include both men and women. They come from many different ethnic backgrounds and have had a variety of life experiences. They live in every state and US territory. They belong to unions and make a decent living which includes benefits like retirement and vacation time.
Through their unions they have a voice at the workplace and in the halls of political power. They can go to a union meeting and discuss issues that affect their lives and take action with other postal workers.They represent the dream that all working class people should have a comfortable living standard and a powerful voice in public affairs.
From the point of view of the corporate elites, US Postal Service employees with their living standards and their unions, set a bad example for the rest of the working class. Today’s corporate agenda for working class America seems to be low wages, temporary jobs, no benefits, no job security, no voice at work, a limited voice in public affairs and no unions.
This is very dangerous to democracy because it creates a society with a vast gap between rich and poor. This feeds the social desperation that grows anti-democratic totalitarian political movements. It is also is a major factor in creating economic crashes such as this country had in 1929 and 2008, which also feed totalitarian movements of social desperation. Unions are an important part of modern democracies and the postal unions stand as living examples of that.
Your local post office is an essential part of the infrastructure of our democracy.
Perhaps it's time for us to recognize our local post office for what it is, an essential part of the infrastructure for democracy. Perhaps we need to thank our postal workers for being who they really are: peaceful warriors for the democratic exchange of ideas. Perhaps it’s also time for us to reflect on how committed we are to democratic values and if we are willing to defend them. Defending your local post office would be a good place to begin.
America’s First Direct Mail Campaign by Nancy Pope
Abolitionism by Reyna Eisentark
The Postal Service Is Essential to Democracy by John Nichols
How Cuts To USPS Threaten American Democracy by Trisha Marczak
Mail Matters by Richard R. John
A Prospective Raise in Postal Rates Riles Magazines by Jeremy W. Peters
Digital Age Is Slow to Arrive in Rural America by Kim Severson
Where Free Speech Goes to Die: The Workplace by Michael Dolgow