Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

The Death Penalty and the Perils of Progressive Fatalism

with 11 comments

Today, Up With Chris Hayes featured a good discussion of wrongful convictions and the death penalty.  But Chris repeated a misleading claim about public opinion on the death penalty that highlights a larger problem.  The claim was that Americans overwhelmingly support the death penalty, and therefore efforts to repeal the death penalty face a serious challenge in terms of changing people’s minds.  Chris pointed to a poll showing that a solid majority of Americans said the death penalty was morally justified.  More typically, people point to polls that ask simply if people support or oppose the death penalty. 

Intuitively, this makes sense.  The problem is that it’s a false choice.  When polls offer people alternatives to the death penalty, those numbers shift considerably. Gallup has shown this for some time. When offered the choice of the death penalty versus  life without parole, public opinion is evenly split. The abolitionist Death Penalty Information Center offers an even more nuanced look.

Note, this poll doesn’t offer people new information, it simply gives them additional choices. What happens when people do hear new information? The numbers shift even more.

What does this mean? It means that many of those people who are allegedly supportive of the death penalty would chose another penalty if given the choice. It means that ‘support’ is soft.  Hardly the stuff of fatalism.

I know why someone who supports the death penalty might prefer the first set of questions over the second.  But why would an opponent?  And Chris is not unusual here. Why do death penalty opponents so often fail to offer the full picture? I don’t know the answer. I suspect a lot of progressives, after years of conservative dominance (which is not the same as majority support for conservative opinions) have adopted an identity of being on defense, of being outnumbered, and just see the world through that lens.  But doing so is both distorting and poses a barrier for those who seek progressive change.

* I’m leaving aside three important issues. First, public opinion does not generally drive policy.  Second, results of polling is not the same as strongly and sincerely held opinions.  Three, we know that polling responses are partly a product of elite discourse. Right now, both parties are pro-death penalty, and as a result, so is the media.  If one party were to offer a different view, it would change media coverage and likely move polls as well.

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Written by David Kaib

May 28, 2012 at 1:54 am

11 Responses

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  1. [...] because it sure isn’t justice. And no, the fact that our discourse is so lopsided on this issue cannot be blamed on regular people, who are closely divided.  This punitiveness is driven by our failing [...]

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  8. […] The repeated invocations of ‘investigating terrorism’ may be misleading given that the data collection at issue is not limited in any way to suspected terrorist acts.  The very point is to collect data on everyone (“all Americans” would be more appropriate wording). It would make more sense to ask whether such surveillance should be tied to suspicion or not, which would make clear the issue was how terrorism was investigated not whether. (See a similar issue with respect to the death penalty here). […]

  9. […] don’t forget – the public is far less supportive of the death penalty than the media would have you believe, so once again, blaming voters is a cop […]

  10. […] by the public, that the drone program and mass surveillance are products of public opinion and how death penalty opinions are misunderstood. This is one more example of how inattention to the details produces progressive […]

  11. […] of strong evidence to the contrary, that the public is implacably against it. Indeed, as I’ve argued here before, even advocates of change often read the evidence in ways that make their case seem less popular […]


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