Coleman was a Republican congressman from Missouri from 1976 to 1993. He is an advisor to Protect Democracy, an anti-authoritarian watchdog group.
The congressional district I represented for 16 years was a microcosm of the nation. It contained the biggest urban center in the state, Kansas City, as well as many of its suburbs. But the vast majority of the remaining 14,000 square miles was made up of small towns and rural communities.
Like most rural areas in the United States it was dependent on small businesses and farming. That's why this city boy sought a seat on the House Agriculture Committee and eventually became the GOP minority's ranking member. From that spot I was able to pass important rural development programs, designed to provide rural schools with broadband capability as personal computers were becoming more common three decades ago.
The main idea, then as now, is that federal investment in rural economic development opportunities will create local jobs, allowing people to stay in their home communities instead of heading to the cities.
The challenges facing rural America today indicate more needs to be done — and bolstering our fragile democracy is a big reason why.
During my visits with constituents in their small towns and on courthouse squares, I would often seek out the local editor of the local newspaper. Even the least populated counties had a weekly paper, while communities with as few as 10,000 residents often had a daily paper. That is no longer the case.
Many small towns and rural communities no longer have their own community newspapers. These lost sources of news had served as critical engines of American democracy, by giving voice to local concerns and providing a source of objective information for local citizens to consider.
Instead, today there are too many communities where there is a lack of civic cohesion and leadership — and, at the same time, a reliance on information from media sources that care nothing about local news. These sources include national cable and network television as well as homogenized features from self-interested parties. Equally concerning is the reliance on social media for local, state and national "news." Social media has frequently replaced local newspapers with misinformation, conspiracy theories and prejudicial views.
Tucked away in President Biden's infrastructure bill — which he will campaign for Wednesday night in his nationally televised speech to Congress — is a proposed $100 billion program to once again deliver high speed broadband to rural areas. Most of the money would appropriately go to improve rural education and enhance cyber capabilities for local businesses. But that is not enough.
There is no question our democracy has been, and continues to be, under attack. Many of its guardrails have been bent or demolished altogether. They must be reinstalled and replaced. Like the education of our young people and updating businesses, the rural infrastructure of our democracy must also be strengthened and protected.
It's necessary and proper to use the infrastructure legislation to strengthen our democracy. Roads and bridges — that's what infrastructure is all about. American democracy depends on factual information highways and bridges that span conflicting political viewpoints. Broadband is the way to deliver them.
That's why funds in the bill should be set aside to strengthen our democracy through a program that would deliver local news through broadband.
Individual schools of journalism, as well as state and national associations of schools of journalism, would be eligible to receive federal grants to establish and run nonprofit digital services to deliver local news to underserved rural areas. Retired news editors and journalism professors could be employed to review and approve students' work before publication. The program could start as a pilot program to assure its long-term success. Federal funding might be supplemented with funds from state and local governments and by foundations.
Failure to support small town digital news initiatives will allow the continuing decline of our rural areas and the passing of a way of life that many who live there wish to continue.
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As a candidate the previous two years and recently as president-elect, Joe Biden has been unfairly criticized by some in the conservative media as being on the wrong side of the capitalism vs. socialism economic debate.
Unfortunately, these pundits have misunderstood Biden's message. He does not want to adopt socialist economic policies, but rather is mindful that the private sector will thrive when its underlying political system is based on the rule of law with a functioning democracy.
One case in point. "It used to be that corporate America had a sense of responsibility beyond just CEO salaries and shareholders," Biden told the Wall Street Journal last month. "Corporate America has to change its ways. It's not going to require legislation. I'm not proposing any."
That statement is very much in line with the view of 181 chief executives of many of America's largest companies, who in 2018 overturned a 22-year policy statement that held a corporation's principal purpose was to maximize shareholder returns.
Acting on behalf of the Business Roundtable, an association of major corporations, they adopted a new "Statement of Purpose of a Corporation" declaring that companies should not only serve their shareholders but also deliver value to their customers, invest in employees, deal fairly with suppliers and support the communities in which they operate — and our country.
While this statement reflects support for a much-needed new approach to defining a corporation's purpose, it does not go far enough. I believe the president-elect's message is that there is a role — indeed a responsibility to our country — for the business community to take concrete steps to shore up a democracy that has been under continued assault for the past four years.
When too many of our political leaders fail to address the dangers to American democracy, then another group must step forward to safeguard it. The business community is a group with a major stake in having a healthy governing system. And so it should confront the reality that our public sector has become so polarized and dysfunctional that it's endangered both our democracy and the underpinning of our economy.
That's because, once confidence in our democracy is eroded, there's a very real possibility of losing our economic and commercial wellbeing.
I believe that if Biden would reach out to these business leaders he would have a welcoming and enthusiastic partner for the repairing of our democracy. Business leaders recognize the loss of trust in America by our allies. They have no doubt had to repeatedly apologize for the embarrassments of the Trump administration and understand our dysfunctional political system is not good for their business.
Politicians have their political base but so do business leaders. They are called shareholders. Shareholders recognize the returns on their investments ultimately depend on how well the nation's system of laws is functioning. If it becomes dysfunctional because of breaches of our constitutional and legal boundaries, then they will lose financially.
America's business leaders, working with the new Biden administration, could shore up the foundation of our capitalistic system, offering improvements where needed, but always mindful that both have an obligation to put our democracy back on track. Surely the corporate bosses join top government officials in recognizing that nations with dysfunctional governments and political systems are called banana republics for a reason.
They are not democracies. And they are not home to any corporate headquarters.
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When I was a teenager enduring Kansas City's summers, a highlight of the day was when Bill, our friendly mailman, arrived at the house. The attraction was not so much the few envelopes he might deliver — but rather the opportunity to chat with him for a few minutes over a glass of ice water.
I learned how he and his wife had adopted several children from different ethnic backgrounds, providing them a home and lots of love. He learned how my baseball team was doing. Then he would be off to finish his rounds — the sort of dedicated public servant, with the high ethical standards, we have come to associate with the Postal Service.
For me, those days of blistering heat would soon be filled with minimum wage jobs to earn spending money for high school and college. I saw Bill only occasionally, although 20 years later we did catch up one day when he dropped by my office on Capitol Hill.
My experience is not unique. Millions have had similar relationships with their mail carriers. That would account for why the USPS has the highest favorability rating of all government institutions: 91 percent (and the same share among Democrats and Republicans alike) according to the Pew Research Center.
Today postal workers like Bill are having their load significantly increased. The mail carrier's legendary creed — "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" — is now more difficult to fulfill.
This year's hotly contested presidential election is being conducted during a pandemic sure to result in an unprecedented number of votes cast through the mail. But that's not all. The post office and its employees are under attack by President Trump and his newly handpicked postmaster general, Louis DeJoy.
This duo, with an enabling assist from the USPS Board of Governors, is setting the Postal Service up to fail for political reasons. Trump alleges, without proof, that voting by mail is so flawed that it will steal the election from him.
For his part, soon after arriving DeJoy made major changes in postal delivery capability that call into question whether millions of ballots will be returned in time to be counted. He reportedly has removed 671 high-speed machines capable of sorting over 21 million pieces of mail an hour, canceled employee overtime and removed hundreds of local mailboxes. His changes have resulted in slowing down the mail.
The actions by DeJoy and Trump seem to be designed to create so much confusion that voters will lose confidence in the eventual outcome of the election, or simply not vote.
With overwhelming approval from the public to be reckoned with, the USPS board would be wise to unwind these misguided efforts — rather than rely on a recent series of four firm but temporary federal court orders in response to lawsuits from almost half the states.
DeJoy's days as postmaster general should be numbered. He has recently become embroiled in defending himself in light of evidence he pressured his company's North Carolina employees to make political contributions to Republican candidates and then reimbursed the workers. If true, it would be a criminal violation of federal and state campaign finance laws. He may have also committed perjury by lying about it under oath to Congress.
Then there's Kentuckian Robert Duncan, who is chairman of the USPS Board of Governors and also reportedly a director of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's so-called super PAC — a clear conflict of interest.
Secretary Michael Elston is the board member responsible for carrying out compliance with all statutory requirements and also the Postal Service's chief compliance officer, making him responsible for his colleagues' following the USPS code of ethics.
"All employees are required to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain," it says. "To ensure that every citizen can have complete confidence in the integrity" or the government, it goes on, "each postal employee must respect and adhere to the principles of ethical conduct."
What's been happening at the Postal Service reflects nothing less than an attempt to undermine our Constitution and the free and fair elections it envisions. Therefore, Elston should immediately open investigations of DeJoy and Duncan for possibly violating Postal Service conduct and ethics breeches. During such an inquiry, the two should be barred from casting any votes on the Board of Governors.
The USPS says its governors are "comparable to the board of directors of a publicly held corporation." For 18 years now, boards of such businesses have been governed by a law setting standards of corporate governance. The USPS, by embracing that statute, has assumed accountability not to shareholders but to its principal stakeholders — the American people.
The postal board, therefore, has a fiduciary duty to the public and must govern with loyalty to the mission of the USPS. Its loyalty is not to the president and certainly not to its own financial or political self-interest.
Board members must follow the USPS codes of conduct and ethical behavior prescriptions — and, most importantly, be loyal to the Constitution they swore to uphold. Doing all that means immediately reversing the harmful decisions DeJoy has implemented, restoring the equipment necessary to handle the onslaught of mailed ballots and paying those who will have to work overtime on election mail.
Having accomplished this, they will have done their part in assuring Americans will have a free and fair election, the basis of our constitutional democracy.
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