Politics & Polls #188: The Fiscal Future of the U.S. Postal System Featuring Historian Richard John

Jun 04 2020
By Patricia Yelavich and B. Rose Huber
Topics Politics
Source Woodrow Wilson School

The U.S. postal or mail system, the purse strings of which are controlled by Congress, has been running at a deficit for years, calling into question its financial viability. Yet, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the system has taken on greater importance for Americans. In addition, as we look to the 2020 presidential election, its necessity for mail-in voting has erupted into a partisan battle.  

Richard John, a historian at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, joins Julian Zelizer and Sam Wang to talk about the U.S. postal system’s role as a key part of America’s infrastructure and the new reality of the challenges it faces. 

With expertise in the history of communications, John teaches and advises Ph.D. students and is a member of Columbia’s history department. He is the author of Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse,” which received the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians and the Herman E. Krooss Prize from the Business History, and Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications,” which won the first Ralph Gomory Book Prize from the Business History Conference and was the 2010 Best Book in Journalism and Mass Communication History.


Wang is a professor at Princeton University, appointed in neuroscience with affiliate appointments in the Program in Law and Public Affairs and the Center for Information Technology Policy. An alumnus of Caltech, where he received a B.S. with honors in physics, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Stanford University School of Medicine. He conducted postdoctoral research at Duke University Medical Center and at Bell Labs Lucent Technologies. He has also worked on science and education policy for the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He is noted for his application of data analytics and poll aggregation to American politics. He is leading an effort at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to build a 50-state data resource for legislative-quality citizen redistricting. His work to define a state-level legal theory to limit partisan gerrymandering recently won Common Cause’s Gerrymandering Standard Writing Contest. His neuroscience research concerns how the brain learns from sensory experience in early life, adulthood and autism.

Zelizer has been among the pioneers in the revival of American political history. He is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. He has written more than 900 op-eds, including his popular weekly column for CNN.com and The Atlantic. This year, he is the distinguished senior fellow at the New York Historical Society, where he is writing a biography of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for Yale University's Jewish Lives Series. He is the author and editor of more than 19 books including, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society,” the winner of the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the Best Book on Congress. In January 2019, Norton published his new book, co-authored with Kevin Kruse, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” In spring 2020, Penguin Press will publish his other book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” He has received fellowships from the Brookings Institution, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation and New America.