Other voices: What did we learn from the Postal Service fiasco?

31August 2020

In politics, what looks like sordid intrigue often turns out to be garden-variety incompetence. Case in point: After much testimony and investigation, it seems likely that the U.S. Postal Service was not engaged in a plot to derail November’s election by slowing down the mail, as many of President Donald Trump’s critics have alleged in recent weeks. The truth about the service’s recent decline is, in all probability, mundanely disheartening rather than sinister.

Anecdotal reports — some quite grim — of foul-ups and delays in the postal system have been circulating for months. Complaints about delayed prescriptions and other deliveries have proliferated. New data seems to bear these stories out: According to a report released by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, there have been significant holdups and reductions in service since the beginning of July.

One theory held that this was intentional. Down in the polls and knowing that mail-in votes could prove critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump hoped that gridlock in the postal system might give him an excuse to question the vote’s legitimacy, the story went. It was an idea tailor-made for an era of drama and distrust, and fevered speculation soon gripped social media. Tales of backroom postal malfeasance spread. Photos of locked-up mailboxes assumed a grave new significance. Even usually sober-minded commentators joined the rumor mill.

The reality, two days of congressional testimony suggest, was more prosaic. The mail system slowed down because the service’s leadership was trying to cut costs. Under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s leadership, the agency has tinkered with overtime rules, made operational changes and tried to introduce other economies. These had the predictable effect of worsening the service, as economies often do.

In ordinary times, reforming the Postal Service would make sense. Although theoretically self-funding, it managed to lose $78 billion between 2007 and 2019. Even as mail volume has sharply declined, a recent Government Accountability Office report notes, the service’s costs have soared due to rising pay, unsustainable benefits, mounting debt and other persistent problems.

All this does in fact need attention.

But attempting such reforms during a historic pandemic showed appalling judgment. Add a looming election in which mail-in voting will play a crucial role and the conspiracy theories started to sound reasonable. Trump then lent plausibility to the most uncharitable interpretation of his motives by threatening to withhold emergency funds from the service unless it addressed his (baseless) preoccupation with mail fraud.

The episode illustrates a deeper problem with the U.S. political system. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that partisans on all sides are losing their grasp on reality.

American democracy is already under stress from increased polarization, diminished incentives for compromise and a host of other challenges. Social media and partisan news outlets are compounding these pressures. They amplify misinformation and worsen polarization. They encourage extremism, reward reductive thinking, elevate bad ideas and diminish goodwill. In such an atmosphere, conspiracies abound, all motives are suspect and humble mailboxes come to be freighted with insidious portent.

From the start, U.S. history has been punctuated by moments of paranoia and discord not unlike the present. On each era, Americans have managed to overcome their divisions and reaffirm their shared values. Doing so this time will require not only more generosity and broadmindedness on both sides. It will require recommitting to a shared reality.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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