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June 14, 2019

"The Myth of Bipartisan Death Penalty Abolitionism"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent commentary by Charles Fain Lehman at the Washington Free Beacon. I recommend the whole piece, which is a response in part to a recent Atlantic commentary noted here.  Here is how Lehman's piece starts and ends (with links from the original):

Did you know that Republicans are "quietly turning against the death penalty"?  So sayeth the Atlantic, in a lengthy story published Sunday in the wake of New Hampshire's abolition of the death penalty.  Sunday's article is just the latest in "conservatives who oppose the death penalty" coverage.  Google some combination of "death penalty," "conservative," and "oppose" and you will find similar stories from outlets like the GuardianWall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

The Atlantic piece neatly summarized the tenor of such stories: "death-penalty reform has quietly broken through as a bipartisan issue — one that could portend a shaky future for capital punishment in the U.S."

The basis of this argument is that a handful of Republican state legislators have authored or signed on to legislative proposals to end the death penalty.  But the implication is that conservatives are slowly but steadily getting in line behind the liberal consensus against the death penalty.  That's total nonsense.  Let's look at the data.

The General Social Survey, a major survey of public opinion administered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has routinely asked respondents about their views on the death penalty since 1974; it also tracks respondents' political views.  The results are pretty clear: Roughly three in four conservatives support the death penalty, and have done so at at least that rate since the 1970s....

To be sure, there are self-identified conservatives who oppose the death penalty, in much the same way that there are self-identified conservatives who call themselves pro-choice or reject the right to keep and bear arms.  But the survey data show that abolition has been and remains a clear minority view, among conservatives and indeed among Americans generally.

Why, then, does the mainstream media keep pushing the narrative that there is some emerging conservative consensus against the death penalty?  Why do they keep regurgitating the talking points of the same few advocates?  (The Atlantic article conspicuously lacks a quote from any expert who represents the majority of Americans who support the death penalty.)

On this we can only speculate.  But one thing is clear: When it comes to the death penalty, most of the media is on one side, and most conservatives — indeed the majority of Americans — are on the other.

June 14, 2019 at 11:37 AM | Permalink


It was obviously a bad day at the office with no major news stories breaking. The reality is that there is a slow burning acceptance across all political parties that the death penalty today fails to tick any of the significant boxes that guarantee electoral success. It also fails to make sense on economic grounds, to the detriment of other programs. The numbers being prosecuted for the death penalty are plummeting across all remaining states where the death penalty still exists, even in Texas. Politicians and legislators aren't blind to the obvious and whilst some will take longer to show a willingness to let go of this crude and unnecessary response to crime, the trend to abolition will continue. A cause for celebration that America is growing up.

Posted by: peter | Jun 14, 2019 3:41:31 PM

Although Charles Fain Lehman's article was accurate, it missed the important, current issues, with regard to the death penalty and conservatives and/or Republicans (CR).

The repeal of the death penalty in both Nebraska and New Hampshire were dependent upon CR voting for repeal. A Wyoming House majority, voted to repeal the death penalty, only possible with CR support. The Senate did not.

It is not CR general population votes that matters, unless the state has voter referendum, but the CR votes within the legislature. Nebraska voter referendum overturned legislature death penalty repeal. Gov. Newson defied voter referendums even though he stated that he would not, if elected governor. He lied.

Before Nebraska, only majority Democratic legislatures with Dem govs had, successfully, voted to repeal the death penalty, with both Il and NJ doing so within lame duck sessions.

In the modern era, post 1976, Gregg v Georgia, all polling, within states that have repealed (legislature), outlawed (courts) or imposed a moratorium (governor) on the death penalty did so when a majority of the state populations approved of the death penalty.

With one exception, the 9 or 10 governors, current and previous, that have done so were/are all Democrats, with Newsom, specifically, lying about it, in his campaign. See Jeff Jacoby's article. Although Gov. Ryan (R) did so in Il, at that point, he had been rejected by both parties, with his remaining constituency being death row inmates and anti death penalty activists.

The CR polling majorities had no effect on the CR anti death penalty votes, one of the two crucial points overlooked by Lehman.

The other point being that the, previously, easy to rebut LD (liberal and/or Democrat) anti death penalty points are, now, embraced by those anti death penalty CR, with those same easy rebuttals still valid.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jun 15, 2019 2:16:29 PM


"It is not CR general population votes that matters, unless the state has voter referendum, but the CR votes within the legislature."

Exactly. Yet is precisely this division between what the base thinks and what their leaders think that Trump has exploited...and continues to exploit...so well. None of the Republican establishment wanted Trump elected, they got him anyway.

Sooner or later something has to give: either the leaders have to snap back in line with the base of the base has to follow their leader. The social cognitive dissonance cannot last forever.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 15, 2019 6:57:33 PM

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