More American Public Opinion.

What do Americans think about pornography? Generally, they’re against it. Only 35 percent of men regard watching porn is morally acceptable; only 23 percent of women regard it as morally acceptable. However, a big chunk of Americans beg to differ. Cell-phone porn—“intimate” photographs of self or other—can be found on the phones of 20 percent of Americans. The number is almost twice as high—39 percent—for those under 30.[1]

What do Americans think about the death penalty? In 1996, 78 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. By 2014, support had fallen, but polls differed considerably as to by how much. One poll found that it had dropped to 55 percent. Among whites, 63 percent supported the death penalty, while only 36 percent of African-Americans supported it. Another poll found that 65 percent supported the death penalty ‘for convicted murderers.” Among Republicans, 82 percent supported the death penalty, while 53 percent of Democrats supported it.[2] So, maybe this is another case of how you phrase the question.

What do people at the outer ends of the political spectrum think about opportunity in America? If you work hard, you can get ahead say 80 percent of conservative Republicans, while a mere 36 percent of liberal Democrats believe that to be true. Government programs can help reduce poverty say 62 percent of liberal Democrats, while only 21 percent of conservative Republicans believe this to be true.[3]

What do Americans think about vaccination? The vast majority—83 percent—think that vaccines are safe, versus only 9 percent who think that they are unsafe. However, young people who never saw someone walking in braces from the effects of polio or vomited all over the white dress shirt of the kid in front of him during a Christmas concert because chicken-pox picked a damned poor time to arrive are much more likely to doubt vaccination. Some 21 percent of adults under thirty believe that vaccination can cause autism. In contrast, only 11 percent of adults aged 45 to 64 and 3 percent of those over 65 believe this nonsense.[4]

What do Americans believe about climate change? Most of them believe that government should be doing something to fight it. Thus, 91 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Independents, and 51 percent of Republicans think that government should be taking action to counter climate change. That is, a majority of people of every political allegiance believe climate change to be a reality and one that can be countered by public policy.[5]

What do Americans think about military interventions in the Middle East? Back in Fall 2013, 67 percent of Americans supported President Obama’s climb-down over air strikes against the Assad regime after it had been alleged that the government had used chemical weapons against rebels. The Russians then brokered a deal to get rid of Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Scarcely a third—37 percent—favored launching air strikes if the Syrians reneged on that deal. A year later, 76 percent supported air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but 61 percent opposed sending ground forces even though 70 percent thought that ISIS had the means to attack the United States itself. The legacy of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is evident: only 35 percent of the military veterans of those wars believe that both were worth fighting.[6]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 21 March 2014, p. 17; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 September 2014, p. 19.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 11 April 2014, p. 15; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 19.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 March 2014, p. 19.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 13 February 2015, p. 15; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 20 February 2015, p. 19.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 13 February 2015, p. 15.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 September 2013, p. 17; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 11 April 2014, p. 15; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 September 2014, p. 19.

Decline of the Death Penalty.

In 1972 the United States Supreme Court imposed a moratorium on capital punishment on the grounds that “the arbitrary and capricious application of capital punishment in America represented cruel and unusual punishment.” In 1976 it permitted executions to start up again after states introduced reforms to address the concerns expressed by the Court. Since 1976 American courts sentenced over 4,600 people to death. Of these, 820 were executed and 102 were exonerated. This put the US in the same lethal category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

However, these figures are very deceptive. First of all, twelve states (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota) did not have a death penalty. Second, of the 38 states with a death penalty, six (New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Kansas, South Dakota) have had no executions since 1973. Third, of the 32 states that employed the death penalty after 1973, seventeen states used it fewer than ten times for a total of 59 executions in thirty years. Fourth, the fifteen states that used the death penalty ten or more times, account for over seventy percent of the executions. These states fall into several groups, but share a certain identity. There are those states with ten to 49 executions (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Arizona, California). There are those with fifty to one hundred executions (Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma). And there are two states where you absolutely, positively did not want to get convicted of murder. Of the 820 executed, 289 (35 percent) were executed by Texas and thirteen by Delaware.  The common feature of most of these states is that they are Southern states.

Even these figures disguise important differences. In Texas, county prosecutors have the freedom to seek and courts can impose the death penalty. The vast majority of counties in Texas imposed no death penalties after 1973. So whence come the high totals for Texas (and hence for the United States as a whole)? Five urban counties accounted for 143 of the 289 death penalty cases: Nueces County (Corpus Christi) 10 executions; Bexar County (San Antonio) 18 executions; Tarrant County (Fort Worth) 22 executions; Dallas County (Dallas) 26 executions; and Harris County (Houston) 67 executions). Why are some small areas so bloody-minded?

Another distinction is temporal. While executions became legal once more in 1976, virtually none took place until 1987. [This probably reflected the delays introduced by extensive appeals.] Between 1994 and 1999, the number of executions accelerated.

What has happened since 2003? Actually, since 1999 the tide has been falling. DNA evidence began to become available. Deference to DNA evidence now sets a high bar for a death sentence. “Life-without-parole” emerged as an acceptable alternative, in the US if not in Scandinavia. Pharmaceutical companies have fled the lethal injection market. Six states have abolished the death penalty and the governors of two other states have imposed moratoriums. The number of death sentences issued each year has fallen from 300 in 1996 to 72 in 2014; the number of executions has fallen from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014. The geographical distribution of death sentences and executions remains pretty much as before.

Similarly, the number of death sentences in China also has fallen—from 24,000 (1983) to 12,000 (2002) to a mere 2,400 (2014).

Jen Joynt and Carrie Shuchart, “The Nation in Numbers: Mortal Justice,” Atlantic, March 2003, pp. 40-41.

Ashby Jones, “Executions, Death Penalties Hit Multiyear Lows in U.S.,” WSJ, 18 December 2014.