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Culture Wars
The Death Penalty Stays Alive

Voters in three states delivered a sharp rebuke to anti-death penalty forces in last week’s elections, adding to Right’s cascade of electoral victories. Governing magazine reports:

The death penalty is legal in 30 states, but a growing number have repealed it in the last decade. California and Nebraska, however, won’t be adding their states to the list.

While voters in those two states decided to keep capital punishment, voters in Oklahoma — where botched executions have led to a temporary moratorium — strengthened their state’s ability to carry it out.

In the two red states—Nebraska and Oklahoma—the death penalty was approved by strong double-digit margins. In deep-blue California, meanwhile, a measure to repeal the death penalty failed with a narrower 46.1 percent support. Meanwhile, a second death penalty resolution in the Golden State, which would accelerate the appeals process and ostensibly lead to more executions, passed with a razor-thin 50.9 percent of the vote.

The election of Donald Trump is also a major blow to death penalty abolitionists, as the Amherst professor Austin Sarat notes. Not only does a Trump administration seem likely to pursue the federal death penalty more aggressively than a Clinton administration would have, but conservative judicial appointments will be less likely to rule the practice unconstitutional.

These decisive outcomes come at a time when the death penalty has seemed, to many, to be on life support. Many polls show support for executions declining steadily from its high-crime 1990s highs, and states and the federal government are “on track for the fewest executions since 1991,” according to Pew.

The outcome of last Tuesday’s voting does not mean that the death penalty is ascendant once again. Executions will likely continue to be exceedingly rare, reserved for the most heinous crimes and carried out disproportionately by a handful of Southern states. But it is another reminder that, on yet another issue, the triumph of social liberalism is anything but assured.

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  • Kevin

    Black Lives Matter can credit itself for reviving support for the death penalty. Any movement which leads to lunatics running around shooting cops will drive up support for the death penalty and law and order measures more generally.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I continue to oppose the death penalty, but that is a matter that reasonable people of good will can disagree on. With that said, your analysis strikes me as entirely correct…the likes of BLM has managed to convince a whole lot of folks on the fence that perhaps some method of dealing with these criminals (i.e. the ones who commit the crimes, not wannabe enablers like BLM) on a more permanent basis isn’t such a bad idea.

      • Andrew Allison

        There’s a very difficult trade-off between the occasional execution of innocents and the enormous cost of avoiding execution for all and of lifetime incarceration. I don’t have a clue about how to resolve this dilemma. In principle, it’s an easy choice, but in practice (as, for example, more and more cities go bankrupt due to unfunded pension obligations and attempt to transfer their liabilities to their States, and the States run out of money too) not so. I fear that we are close to or may perhaps have reached a dystopian condition. As an aside, BLM is a fraud, and should be prosecuted as such.

        • f1b0nacc1

          This might be come off as callous, but my objection to the death penalty has nothing to do with innocents being executed. That is terrible, of course, but innocent people die from horrible circumstances and injustices all the time. My objection is that I don’t believe that the state should have the right to kill citizens (the exceptions here of course are war and high treason, but I think we would agree that those represent special cases), except in the most extreme cases. My first fiancee was killed by a drunk driver, and I would have happily killed the man myself, so I suppose that makes me something of a hypocrite on this, but I do not accept the right of the state to take the life of the citizens who are, after all, the ultimate source of its legitimacy.

          And yes, BLM is a fraud, but sadly enough it is a political movement as well. If we accept the idea of prosecuting them for that (as opposed to real crimes they commit against property or public safety) we are drifting into FG territory…. Ideas are NEVER crimes, only actions…

          • Andrew Allison

            As I wrote, I’m conflicted. The right — or perhaps duty — of the state to kill citizens for the common (cost/benefit) good is exactly the dilemma in which I find myself.
            The citizenry as a whole is the source of the legitimacy of the state, so shouldn’t the citizenry of a State decide what’s legitimate?
            BLM is not a political movement, it is a fraud, pure and simple. I agree that we should only prosecute the crimes which it commits against property or public safety, but such actions taken in its name should be prosecuted.
            As an aside, I’m deeply offended by the fact that the divisive policies of the Obama era have led me to the position in which I find myself, but here I am.

          • f1b0nacc1

            We are largely in agreement, and I do share your feelings of being conflicted. I am not as comfortable with the notion of a cost/benefit approach to the problem…that is a slippery slope I am not really anxious to step on to. In a similar sense, while I agree that the citizenry is the source of a state’s legitimacy, there must be bedrock principles that are not open to democratic vote. We agree, for instance that a state’s ability to silence unpopular views among its citizenry is not something that should be put up to a majority vote (one need only read the drivel coming from FG to demonstrate the danger in that), and I would argue that the limits to a state’s ability to kill its own citizens should be subject to similar limits. The founders were extremely anxious to prevent a populist impulse to overrun bedrock liberties, using the example of the Greeks under Pericles.

            Regarding BLM, we are together on this. I find them offensive and unpleasant (and I share your outrage that the Obama period has led us to this mess), but we agree again (isn’t this getting boring?….grin) that we must limit ourselves to their crimes, not their words.

    • Andrew Allison

      Actually, BLM owes it very existence to the, happily, outgoing administration. One could argue that Obama’s condoning, and arguably inciting, racial violence (just as he is now inciting violent protest against the President-elect) was the real reason for the election result.

  • Jim__L

    “These decisive outcomes come at a time when the death penalty has seemed, to many, to be on life support.”

    And once again “to many” the durability of traditional wisdom is unfathomable.

    This article is so slanted it doesn’t deserve to be called journalism.

    • Andrew Allison

      Whilst I agree with your sentiment, to be fair a blog is opinion, not journalism. The world-view of the posters is clear; shouldn’t we perhaps try and help them grow up by explaining why it’s misguided?

  • david russell

    I used to believe in the death penalty and then along came DNA evidence and revealed not “that an occasional innocent is shafted”, but rather that a huge percentage are shafted. I recall the governor of I believe Indiana determining that at least half those on death row were not guilty in fact. The system is too flawed therefore in my mind to permit the death penalty to stand.

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