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Capital Punishment and the Battle for America’s Soul

The Electric Chair in Auburn State Prison. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In 1976, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan welcomed the news that after a ten-year moratorium, executions would soon resume in the United States. “Reinstitution of the death penalty,” he wrote to the readers of his syndicated column, was the sign of a “society regaining its health, a society no longer absorbed in self-analysis or paralyzed by self-doubt.”

Buchanan’s words captured an important development in the cultural life of capital punishment in the United States: for some social conservatives, the death penalty had become more than an extreme punishment. It was also a practice that supported the vision of America they were fighting to save in the nation’s emerging culture wars.

The culture wars were a series of conflicts between leftists and social conservatives over what historian Andrew Hartman has called the “soul of America.” In the aftermath of the upheavals of the 1960s, leftists sought to incorporate into the nation’s collective identity the perspectives of people who had been traditionally marginalized in public life, like women and religious, sexual, and racial minorities. Social conservatives saw such a move as an attack on the western Judeo-Christian values and traditions that were at the heart of what “America” meant to them. In everything from the Supreme Court’s declaration that school prayer was unconstitutional to rising divorce rates to the multiculturalism that was reshaping school curricula, these conservatives found proof that the United States had entered a period of moral decline.

For many of these traditionalists, rising lawlessness in America was a symptom of cultural decadence. Violent crime rates had doubled over the course of the 1960s. Urban uprisings in cities across the United States fed fears that the nation was on the verge of a race war. Widely publicized accounts of the crimes of mass and serial killers like Charles Manson stoked anxiety about the presence of monstrous others—psychopaths—who killed for thrills. Each of these developments were evidence of a culture that had abandoned the ideas and institutions that underlay the social order, like a faith in personal responsibility and the nuclear family.

To culture war conservatives, the government bore much of the blame; its rehabilitation-centered response to crime seemed to be enabling a culture of entitlement and irresponsibility. For decades, a liberal approach to crime had dominated in policy-making circles. Criminal offenders were spoken of as sick rather than evil, their crimes the result of structural deprivation rather than moral turpitude. Social conservatives came to believe that their government was on the side of the criminal and “sob sister” liberals rather than the law-abiding citizen.

Support for the death penalty became, in this context, support for ideals that had eroded in American culture: personal responsibility, self-restraint, and fixed notions of right and wrong. Writing a defense of the death penalty in the late 1970s, conservative intellectual Walter Berns argued that the death penalty was a powerful expression of a society’s standards. Humans possessed a unique capacity and duty to uphold a morality that separated them from lower-order animals. Death penalty abolitionists’ humanist argument that all lives had inherent dignity represented a dangerous refusal to make value judgments. “What sort of humanism is it that respects equally the life of Thomas Jefferson and Charles Manson?” he asked. To conservatives like Berns, capital punishment honored human dignity by holding everyone to high standards and punishing severely those who preyed on others. A nation that executes, he argued, “will remind its citizens that it is a country worthy of heroes.”

Leftists scoffed at such arguments. “America—if Walter Berns is to be believed—may be in for a revival of stirring magnitude. National leaders keep saying that America has lost its moral vision. Now we know where to find it—on death row,” syndicated columnist Colman McCarthy sardonically wrote to his readers. To some leftist critics, anxiety about black empowerment was the subtext of social conservatives’ support for the death penalty. As crime became coded as an urban problem, and as cities became increasingly nonwhite, “law and order” demands for the death penalty could be racial—and sometimes deliberately so. In 1988, an infamous attack ad about Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis linked Dukakis’s opposition to the death penalty with Willie Horton, a black man who had invaded a home in Maryland and assaulted its white occupants while he was on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison.

This left-right culture war divide shaped the political discourse of the death penalty in the last two decades of the twentieth century. During much of that period, support for the death penalty grew stronger among the public. By 1994, 80 percent of Americans polled told Gallup that they supported capital punishment—the highest level of support ever recorded.

It is tempting to argue that many found the right’s rhetoric persuasive. That would be a mistake, however. For many Americans, support for the death penalty had less to do with concern over the nation’s soul and more to do with fear of crime and the desire to keep people safe from violent offenders. Support for the death penalty was significantly lower in polls that gave Americans the option of life sentences without parole instead of death. When violent crime rates began falling in the late 1990s, moreover, support for the death penalty dropped precipitously. By 2018, with violent crime rates near their lowest points in decades, support stood at 56 percent of those polled, the lowest numbers since the 1970s.

These days, support for capital punishment is concentrated among whites, Protestants, and Republicans—key demographic constituencies of the conservative side of the late twentieth century culture wars. This may explain the unusual zeal with which the Trump administration has tried to prop up capital punishment despite its declining popularity. The federal government has not executed anyone since 2002, yet Attorney General William Barr recently announced that the Department of Justice would set December 2019 execution dates for five federal death row inmates. Barr’s announcement is just the latest in a number of efforts by the Administration to communicate its support for the death penalty. Since taking office, Trump has publicly demanded the death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbekistan immigrant charged with killing eight in a terrorist attack with a pickup truck in New York in October of 2017. In March 2018, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first Attorney General, urged federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in federal cases against drug “kingpins” not charged with murder. Earlier this year, the President defended the full-page New York Times ad he took out in 1989 demanding the reinstitution of the death penalty in New York after five men of color were arrested for the rape of a white jogger in Central Park (the men, known as the Central Park Five, were later exonerated).

Given the symbolic value that the death penalty carried in the late twentieth century, Trump’s embrace of capital punishment is politically shrewd. His unapologetic enthusiasm for state killing plays to a white, Protestant, Republican base whose support for capital punishment has not faltered even as crime rates have fallen, perhaps because they see the death penalty as a positive good rather than a necessary evil. If that base shares the sensibility of their culture war forebears, support for the death penalty is not only a tool for controlling crime, but also an expression of allegiance to values—personal responsibility, the sacredness of innocent life, and the firmness of a nation’s convictions—that they feel have degraded in the United States since the 1960s. Trump’s defiant embrace of the death penalty is perhaps a sign to them that their nation is on its way to becoming great again.

Daniel LaChance is an associate professor of history and Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow in Law and the Humanities at Emory University. He is the author of Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States (University of Chicago Press, 2016).