Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership. Caroline Cohen is Gergen’s research assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a recent honors graduate of Harvard College and won the Thomas T. Hoopes prize for her senior thesis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Our Postal Service here in the United States has a long and fabled history stretching back to the early days of the republic, when Benjamin Franklin served as the first Postmaster General. Through rain, sleet and snow, our mailmen — and now women — have faithfully delivered the mail. The Postal Service remains one of the most trusted of our public institutions, seen positively by 91% of our population.
But now that is all threatened by one of the dumbest and – potentially – one of the most dangerous episodes in postal history.
It is worth remembering why the Postal Service has an honored place in the American story. When the founding fathers began charting a path forward, they envisioned a nation connected by post offices and post roads. To them, the free exchange of ideas and information was essential to building a strong democracy. Without an educated and engaged electorate, they feared the American experiment might fail.
As the Revolutionary War approached, Franklin transformed the Postal Service to cut delivery times in half. A letter could go from Philadelphia to New York and its answer returned within 24 hours. This gave the founders an important advantage in the sharing of war-time information.
Thus, the framers of the Constitution inserted a line ordering up a postal service before they signed it. In including Article 8, they granted the new federal government the power to create post roads and post offices. About a half century later post roads ran some 80,000 miles across the new country.
Some 200 years after the Constitution was signed, the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act reinforced the Postal Service’s unifying mission in no uncertain terms. That law states, “The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people.”
Our sitting President has made clear he has no intention of upholding the wishes of our founding fathers. In assaulting an institution created to unite us, he instead drives our nation further apart. By opposing funding and stalling delivery, Trump – and his new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy – are interfering with an election in which some 180 million Americans are eligible to vote by mail. His actions against the USPS jeopardize not only the institution itself but our capacity to conduct a free and fair election this November.
Now, as one of our founding institutions is under siege, it’s time for Republicans and Democrats alike to form a strong, bipartisan coalition in Congress, binding us together as a people to protect the USPS. And they dare not wait: Every week consumed by argument is one less week to head off a national crisis.
Concerns about the safety of our vote are now sweeping the country like wildfire. It is not surprising that Democrats would jump to the defense of the Postal Service. They know how important daily mail remains, even in a digital age. Among other benefits, the Postal Service provides jobs for some 500,000 people — indeed, it is the second largest employer in the country, just behind Walmart. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been smart to call the House back from August break early, in an attempt at passing corrective legislation as early as Saturday.
The political surprise is why and how Republicans have allowed President Trump to once again trap them into such a boneheaded position. Their base constituencies, which tend to skew older and rural, disproportionately rely on USPS. Some 34% of seniors do not use the internet, meaning they must pay their bills by mail and often rely on the Postal Service for correspondence with loved ones. More than half of Americans over the age of 65 receive their medications by mail. In 2019, no less than 1.2 billion total prescriptions were delivered through the Postal Service.
For rural Americans of all ages, the Postal Service provides access to medical, banking, and retail services that are quickly diminishing in their communities. Some 630 rural communities have lost its sole pharmacy since 2003, causing rural Americans to turn to mail to deliver medication. What is more, retail services increasingly rely on USPS to deliver parcels to inaccessible parts of the country. Companies like Amazon rely on the USPS to deliver to customers in rural areas. And just as is the case with seniors, the 14.5 million rural Americans without broadband service still need the Postal Service to bank, pay bills and much more.
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In a pre-Trump age, it is inconceivable that Republican elders would have chosen to threaten seniors and rural Americans in this way. Now is the time for Republican leaders to join their Democratic colleagues in protecting an institution that serves as a lifeline to so many folks back home – and is also vital to our democracy.
The services provided by USPS cannot be overstated, yet the institution stands for much more than its constituent parts. As Oscar Wilde is credited with writing, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Leaders on both sides would be well to remember the worth of this storied institution — for over 200 years, it has helped to bind us together as a people.