Democratic erosion has, if nothing else, certainly become a more prominent and well-known topic in the United States over the past six years. The extent to which events in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and in the presidencies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, constitute democratic erosion are, to an extent, debatable, but the public’s heightened awareness of the issue is less so.
A particularly notable example of this can be found in the recent controversies surrounding the United States Postal Service and its role in the Covid-19 pandemic in general, and more specifically in the 2020 election. With the pandemic making mail-in voting more convenient for some and borderline necessary for others, the Postal Service, under the supervision of Louis DeJoy, took actions that were seen by many as counter-intuitive at best and anti-democratic at worst, such as removing mailboxes and decommissioning mail-sorting machines.
To what extent, however, are these measures indicative of democratic erosion — and would this answer change were these actions not taken in a pandemic? I argue that the measures, taken on their own, are not necessarily cause enough to ring alarms bells for democratic erosion, but are cause for concern taken with other actions, and that the pandemic plays a key role in determining the extent of the anti-democratic nature of the actions of the Postal Service.
Before diving more deeply into the specific actions of the Postal Service in 2020, it would be best to more thoroughly clarify what is meant by democratic erosion, and explore some of the various ways in which it can manifest. At its simplest, democratic erosion is a “decline in the quality of democracy”, according to Ellen Lust and David Waldner — at least, when it comes to states where democracy already exists in some capacity.
The true nature of democratic erosion, however, is often far more complex. It is dependent not only on how we choose to define democracy as a concept, but to what extent we view certain institutions as important to democracy. In other words, certain areas of democracy can degrade without democratic erosion necessarily occurring. What does democratic erosion look like, then — what forms does it take, how can we perceive it? This is not an easy question to answer, because there are multiple factors that feed into our understanding of democratic erosion — that being said, perhaps the most relevant to this particular case would be that of stealth authoritarianism.
What is stealth authoritarianism? It is, in a word, subtle. It is a form of authoritarianism that is less overt but no less anti-democratic than the authoritarianism we often picture when we hear the term. It is a subversion of democracy through means that are perfectly legal, operating in plain sight. This is important because it applies, at least on the surface level, to what Louis DeJoy and the Postal Service did in 2020. To elaborate further, let’s take a deeper look into the aforementioned actions, to see if and how they truly apply to stealth authoritarianism.
DeJoy has been serving as postmaster general of the United States Postal service since June 2020, having been selected for the position by the USPS board of governors, themselves selected by then-president Donald Trump. He inherited a Postal Service that was already severely struggling with debt, due to the effects of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (a controversial act that requires the postal service to prepay retiree health benefits 75 years in advance) as well as the recessions of 2007-8 and 2020. Upon becoming postmaster general, DeJoy put forth policies that called for the dismantling of mail-sorting machines and removal of mailboxes across the country. These policies had a near-immediate and negative impact on the speed of mail delivery, leading to economic and legal concerns and accusations of anti-democratic behavior. To be sure, the impact that DeJoy’s actions had were harmful — but to what extent do they constitute legitimate democratic backsliding? Analyzing them under the lens of stealth authoritarianism yields mixed results.
Part of what makes analyzing the Postal Service challenging is the difficulty in divorcing the impact of DeJoy’s actions from the circumstances that the Postal Service was already in. Having suffered economically for the last fifteen years, DeJoy’s actions, on paper, do make sense to a certain extent — they seem to be concerned, first and foremost, with removing economic pressures from the Postal Service. Additionally, his actions were not unprecedented — the removal of mail-sorting machines and mailboxes has happened somewhat routinely in the past. What sets DeJoy’s actions apart from routine, however, are their timing and their extensiveness.
Mailboxes and machines were removed at a time where they were needed more than ever due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the extent to which they were removed was unprecedented to the point that the legality of their removal started to come into question. This is important, because it toes the line between stealth authoritarianism and outright authoritarianism — stealth being built, in part, on the idea of authoritarian actions that are, by themselves, perfectly legal. Another factor that confounds our ability to fully diagnose this case is the fact that DeJoy was not directly put in his position by Donald Trump. He was, in fairness, elected by a board of governors that were all selected by Trump, but Trump ultimately had no final say in their decision on who to elect, and therefore, we cannot view these actions as an extension of Donald Trump’s activities.
Are the actions of DeJoy troubling? Certainly. Do they contribute to the perception of democratic backsliding in the United States in the past five years? Arguably so. Are they, by themselves, an example of the phenomenon? No — there are simply too many confounding variables to make this argument.