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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/14/20

Trump's Attack on the Postal Service Is a Threat to Democracy and Rural America

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Message Bill McKibben
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From New Yorker

Trump Undercuts Postal Service as a surge in mail-in voting is expected.
Trump Undercuts Postal Service as a surge in mail-in voting is expected.
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I've lived most of my life in small towns in pretty remote rural areas. Some were in red regions, some were purplish-blue -- but every last one of them centered on the local post office. I remember years of picking up the mail from a little window in the postmaster's living room. (If you called her the postmistress, she would tartly reply, "Uncle Sam can't afford mistresses.") Eventually, she needed her parlor back, to have room to work on her genealogy projects, so the community built a small freestanding building. Where I live now, the local post office takes up a third of the space in the only business in our town, a country store complete with pot-bellied stove and rocking chairs. It's probably why we still have a store: if you're there to pick up mail, you might as well get some eggs, too.

All of which is to say that I really hate what the Republicans are trying to do to the post office. It's by now pretty obvious that the Trump Administration is attempting to sabotage mail delivery in order to cast some kind of shadow over the November election. Donald Trump's newly installed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, who earned the position with more than two million dollars in donations to the Trump campaign and other Republican causes since 2016, has eliminated all overtime; a memo to employees declares that, as a result, "if we cannot deliver all the mail due to call offs or shortage of people and you have no other help, the mail will not go out." Last week, as the Washington Post reports, in what's being called the Friday Night Massacre, DeJoy obliterated decades of institutional knowledge, by reassigning or displacing 23 highly ranked officials in the Postal Service. Not only that but the Postal Service almost tripled the postage for mailing ballots to voters.

Behind that assault on a right guaranteed in our democracy, however, lurks something less immediate but almost as ugly: the long-standing G.O.P. effort to gut the Postal Service and replace it with a privatized entity -- an effort that, if it succeeds, will suck out what life remains from too many of the rural communities that many of those Republicans theoretically represent. It's hard to imagine New York City without a post office; it would be devastating to lose the postal workers and an utter shame to no longer wait in line in the Art Deco gem at 90 Church Street, among other historic buildings. But, at least in the wealthy parts of the city, some mix of the Internet and bike messengers and double-parked courier-service trucks could probably get the job done. For Americans who live in sparsely populated and poorer areas far from big cities, though, postal workers perform an irreplaceable role.

"Post offices are the center of any rural town, and it connects us to friends and family as well as markets for small businesses," Jane Kleeb, who lives in Hastings, Nebraska, told me. I got to know her because she was, and is, a remarkable leader in the fight against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. She's also the chair of Nebraska's Democratic Party, and -- with her recent book "Harvest the Vote" -- an outspoken advocate for getting progressives to take rural America seriously. So she understands about the mail. "When we go into the post office in our small town, we know the staff behind the counter, and we catch up on each other's lives," she said. "I can't tell you the number of times also in our post office here in Hastings where a new immigrant is making our town their home, and they go into the post office for help on cashier checks for rent, or questions on the census, or how to get the utilities turned on. The staff always help, even if that is not part of their 'job,' because they also know post offices are seen as a hub for our government."

In 2012, when the Postal Service planned on closing 3,830 branches, an analysis by Reuters showed that 80 percent of those branches were in rural areas where the poverty rate topped the national average. You know who delivers the Amazon package the final mile to rural Americans? The U.S.P.S. You know how people get medicine, when the pharmacy is an hour's drive away? In their mailbox. You know why many people can't pay their bills electronically? Because too much of rural America has impossibly slow Internet, or none at all. These are the places where, during the pandemic, teachers and students all sit in cars in the school parking lot to Zoom with one another, because that's the only spot with high-speed Wi-Fi.

You want the ultimate example? Visit one of the sprawling Native American lands in the West and you'll see how, as a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe in North Dakota told Vox, the Postal Service helps keep those communities "connected to the world." Should the government destroy the service, she said, "It would just be kind of a continuation of these structures in the U.S. that already dispossessed people of color, black and indigenous people of color, and people below the poverty line." The mail, Kleeb said, "is a universal service that literally levels the playing field for all Americans. It is how we order goods, send gifts to our family, and keep small businesses alive. In the era of the coronavirus, mail is now our lifeline to have our voices heard for our ballots in the election. In fact, in 11 counties in our state, they have only mail-in ballots, because of how massive the county is land-wise."

You'd think that the Republican Party, which depends on the undue weight given to rural voters for its continued political life, would be particularly solicitous of the post office. But, at the higher reaches, its ideological preoccupations are stronger: the post office is a government service, and therefore bad; it should be run instead by people who can make money from it. The Postal Service, though, is the most popular government agency in the country, with a ninety-one-per-cent favorability rating, and it's equally popular among Democrats and Republicans. So, the Party has generally had to proceed by stealth. Most notably, in 2006, President George W. Bush signed a law that makes the U.S.P.S. fund the health-care benefits of its retirees 75 years into the future. No one else does that; it's why, even though the Postal Service ekes out an operating profit most years, it is saddled with a huge deficit.

But Donald Trump specializes in saying the quiet part out loud. In April, he told reporters that the post office was "a joke" and that he'd oppose any bailout unless it quadrupled the rate for mailing packages. (Along with the Postal Service's role in our democracy, the President seems upset about its contracts with Amazon, because it is owned by the same man who owns the Washington Post, which Trump thinks is mean to him, which is just daily life in a tinpot wannabe-dictatorship.) "Trump and the Republican Party use rural communities and give speeches about how connected they are to our rural way of life in order to get elected, and then turn around and abandon everything we care about, from our schools, to the post office, to our family farmers, and to our rural hospitals," Kleeb told me.

The situation has grown so alarming that even some Republican legislators are objecting: last week, Representative Greg Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines, both of Montana, each sent letters to DeJoy, asking him to get the Postal Service back to work. "Do not continue down this road," Gianforte wrote. But, for the most part, it's the usual partisan battle. Last week, 84 members of the House signed a letter demanding that the Postal Service do its job; 80 of them were Democrats. "All of the bills Democrats are writing, and the policy papers Joe Biden has focused on rural communities, are strong," Kleeb said. But "now we need to see them in our towns. ... Showing up is critical to us in order to know you see our faces and you understand the struggles we are facing."

In fact, a visit -- even a virtual one -- might inspire politicians to see how much could easily be done. Senator Bernie Sanders -- the rare progressive who represents a mostly rural constituency -- has long advocated offering banking services at post offices, something that's routine in most of the world, and which would put a crimp in the payday-lending operations that ring the small towns of this country. (Senator Elizabeth Warren supports the idea, too.) It wouldn't even be without precedent here: in 1910, President William H. Taft inaugurated a postal savings system for immigrants and poor Americans that lasted until 1967. Today, though, the banking lobby firmly opposes the measure.

As the economic damage of the pandemic wears on, city dwellers are coming to terms with loss: favorite restaurants or stores are closing. People in rural America know how this feels -- they lived through decade after decade of school consolidation, of dioceses deciding that they can't support a church in town anymore. The post office was among the first public buildings in most American communities, and now it's often among the last. A decade ago, the Postal Service tried to close our local branch office. That would have forced everyone to make a 12-mile round trip to a town at the bottom of the mountain to pick up the mail, so together we fought the service, and it finally relented. Robert Frost once lived in our town, and he maintained that good fences made good neighbors. But he was wrong: it's the post office that does the trick.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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