A Lesson from the Death Penalty Debate

The Times reported yesterday that the number of people sentenced to death each year in the United States has decreased almost 60 percent since 1999. As the Times pointed out, there are a number of possible explanations for this decrease -- a drop in violent crimes, better representation for capital defendants, Supreme Court decisions requiring juries to be told when a sentence of life in prison carries no possibility of parole. But it seems clear that one of the main reasons for the decline is a shift in focus by death penalty opponents from philosophical concerns to pragmatic ones. Instead of arguing that capital punishment is immoral -- as they often did in the past with little success -- opponents in recent years have been focusing on the unreliability of the criminal justice system. Aided by advancements in DNA technology and high-profile exonerations of death row inmates, they have persuaded many Americans that even if the death penalty is morally justified the system that administers it is so flawed as to be unsupportable. The result is that support for the death penalty is at its lowest point since the early 1970s; polls now show that half of Americans favor life in prison over execution as the punishment for murder.

The success of death penalty opponents offers a useful lesson for progressives. In a country as culturally diverse as the United States, imposing a moral vision on society is an extremely difficult task. Some views are so entrenched that only decades -- or even centuries -- of advocacy and education are likely to change them. But by shifting attention to more pragmatic, less theoretical, concerns, progressives may have more success in the culture wars. We have already seen this happen to some extent in the debate over affirmative action. In upholding racial preferences at the University of Michigan Law School, Justice O'Connor focused on the practical needs of the military and corporate America rather than on basic questions of equality. Of course, those basic questions of equality are important, and we should keep discussing them. But if we can obtain the results we want in the meantime by focusing on pragmatic concerns, it seems worthwhile to do so.