Bucking Trends

FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten explores public opinion trends with regards to capital punishment.  In doing so, he finds that:

Unlike issues such as same-sex marriage and marijuana, where a large age gap favors the more progressive position, young Americans aren’t all that more likely than older Americans to oppose the death penalty. Pew’s 2013 survey had a large sample size of 646 18- to 29-year-olds, and that poll found that those younger than 30 were only 4 percentage points more likely to oppose the death penalty than all Americans. The same held true in the 2012 General Social Survey; of all adults, 65 percent favored the death penalty, and 61 percent of adults younger than 30 supported capital punishment.

Why do you think this is?  My guess would be that it has to do with proximity to the relevant issues.  Young people are more likely to know people who are gay and are more likely to use marijuana or know people who use marijuana.  Their interaction with laws relating to the two is more real than abstract.  I doubt that young people are any more or less likely to interact with capital punishment in any sort of meaningful way that we’d expect them to respond much differently than the broader population.

But that’s just me spitballin’.  What do y’all think?  Does my theory hold water?  Is something else going on?  Are we wrong to look at same-sex marriage and marijuana as presume these represent broader political ideological trends among young people?

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48 thoughts on “Bucking Trends

  1. If we’re just tossing out things to consider, you might consider the percentage of young people that live in states with the death penalty. Or how recently the death penalty has been used. I live in one of the “younger” states, with a low median age and a low percentage of seniors. We have the death penalty — used once in the last 35 years. The case was very clear cut, including a confession by the perpetrator during the trial. Young adults here probably don’t think about the death penalty much.

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  2. 1. Probably the issues you mentioned about proximity.

    2. Insert discussion about the how Americans are innately punitive here

    3. Support and non-support for the death penalty seems to be extremely geographically based unlike other issues. You find more opposition in the Northeast, growing support in the South and Texas, etc.

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  3. I’m guessing that this age group will be much less supportive of abortion rights, too. They came to adulthood in the age of safe sex; and an unwanted pregnancy suggests folks were not being responsible. (So they should be responsible for a child? Say what?) An anecdotal observation from speaking with my kids friends; but they’ve also not witnessed the problems of back-alley abortions; too.

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    • Every squish is naturally inclined to be pro-life Zic, right up until it actually looks like the pro-lifers are gonna win. It’s the nature of the middle, you can have your cake and eat it to. Nothing would devastate the pro-life position more than actually getting some unambigously pro-life policies within spitting distance of being enacted into law.

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      • Nothing would devastate the pro-life position more than actually getting some unambigously pro-life policies that affect people with means within spitting distance of being enacted into law.

        Sorry, had to fix that. Unambiguously pro-life policies are being enacted into law with some frequency now, but they’re only strong enough to be unambiguously pro-life to the people who are most vulnerable: poor women, particularly poor women who do not live near large urban centers and are therefore likely not to be near the sorts of abortion providers that are still legal in places like Texas. When pro-life policies start to affect the daughters of upper middle class suburban parents, the pro-life movement may very well witness a strong backlash.

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      • I have a colleague who miscarried last year. I don’t know all the details, but as she tells the story, she was forced to go through the entire birthing process (inducement and all), knowing full well that the baby was dead, because abortion laws prohibited the doctors from removing the already-dead-fetus through any other means. She was already a hardcore pro-choicer (she describes herself as having once been a “professional feminist”), but stories like that might be the sort that movie the needle for people.

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      • Chris, the thing about your edit is that the policies you’re talking about are calculatedly ambigous. Pro-lifers kind of sidle up to it with those policies. Simply banning all abortion in one’s state would still have no impact on the wealthy, the’d just take a trip to New York, and would enormously impact the poor but it’d still be devastating for pro-lifers. It’s the ambiguity, far more than the disparate impact, that moves the needle.

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      • They are calculatedly ambiguous to people with means. For the poor woman in Texas who already has kids and would have to drive a couple hundred miles to get a friggin’ medical procedure, and do it twice because there’s a mandatory 24-hour waiting period that doesn’t begin until your first visit, it is not ambiguous.

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      • It’s not ambigous to the woman when she needs it, agreed, but up until she tries to get the abortion these distinctions and restriction aren’t going to register with her or anyone else. Your ordinary anyone isn’t paying close attention. You see “Abortion banned in TX” you’re going to sit up and pay close attention if you live in TX. If you see “Abortion regulations modified to require 24 hour wait notice” unless you’re in imminent need of an abortion you probably don’t register it or pay much mind.

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  4. A lot of it probably has to do with the idea of the death penalty, which many people feel is justified, and the actual practice of the death penalty, by which many people would be horrified. It is very difficult to make that connection, however, outside of a few well-publicized cases.

    I am one of those people who has no strong ideological objection to the government executing certain people (someone like Timothy McVeigh is the first person that pops into my head), but how the death penalty works in real life is enough to turn me against it. There are likely lots of people who hold the former opinion, but haven’t thought it through enough to get to the latter. And, of course, there are lots of people who have thought it through and still support it anyway.

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      • j r, your right. Its true in other countries. I can’t remember where I saw this but the country with the highest percentage of high information voters is Denmark. Even than that was only a third of the electorate. So in the best case scenario, a small and prosperous country with very few pressing issues and well-educated citizenry and you still only get one-third that qualifies as high-information voters.

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      • I have a rough hypothesis that high information voters tend to also be partisanly committed voters, while the swing vote is disproportionately composed of low information voters. So the idea that we need more educated voters might actually be a fallacy, as it’s the low information voters who make democracy responsive.

        It’s just a hypothesis, though.

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      • James, your probably right. High information voters roughly means knows whose running and what the issues are. Such people are likely to be very partisan because they made up their minds about the issues already.

        At the same time, low information voters can also be very partisan in a very tribal way. They vote for Party X because their family always voted for Party X. They don’t need to know anything about the candidates or issues, the only thing relevant is whether or not they belong to Party X.

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      • Filling in, rather than disputing you, high information voters tend to be political junkies, and political junkies tend to be people who are very interested in politics, and very committed to a particular viewpoint about it. People without much interest and commitment will necessarily be low information voters.

        You’re right that there are also tribally committed low information voters (hi, mom!). So I should clarify that my hypothesis is not that low information voters as a group are the element of responsiveness in democracy, but the specific set of low-information/low-interest/low-commitment voters.

        If the hypothesis is correct, it has some unpleasant connotations for our belief in the value of democratic responsiveness. I.e., it would imply that democratic responsiveness is primarily (not solely, but primarily) a function of ignorance, and of voters who likely are easily swayed by symbols over substance.

        Of course this necessarily makes me think of Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, too.

        I know it’s unpopular among some here to cast aspersions upon democracy. But democracy rests on the voting decisions of masses of people (and on the voting system, of course), which is a questionable basis for good decision-making.

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      • James,
        I think it is VERY important that we understand who these low-information/low-interest people are.

        I’m pretty sure you’ve got stats on how lower-class people vote less (I’ve got local ones, if you’re bereft):
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/19/working-poor-stories_n_5297694.html

        Yeah, so, um. These may be people who honestly do care, a lot. They may just not have time enough to spend following every issue — or every race.

        After all, if I’m a hard core democrat — how much effort do I really want to expend to find a Republican I’m willing to vote for? (in my case? A decent amount. Then again, there are reasonable republicans nearby, and they’re pretty solid thinkers. And, I hasten to add, I’m not on-call 24/7, or working three shifts to make ends meet).

        To say that sunny days, or a flu ‘demic in a nursing home, might cause a regime change… yeah, that’s probably not good. But I’d not pin that on ignorance (uncaring? folks not wanting/able to show up? sure).

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      • James, I’ve always been fond of Churchill’s statement that “democracy is the worse form of government save all others tried.” Democracy is filled with lots of problem but the other forms of government are worse. Monarchies require that the monarch be at least competent. If you get a bad one than everything falls apart. Aristocracies quickly end up as oligarchies. The various technocracies either end up as cesspools of human rights abuses because people aren’t responding like ideal models or as bureaucratic laden corrupt oligarchies. Very ideological states like theocracies end up similar because not everybody can conform. Miltiary regimes are always bad and usually kleptocracies as well. Democracy isn’t pretty but its track record is much better than anything else.

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      • High information voters roughly means knows whose running and what the issues are. Such people are likely to be very partisan because they made up their minds about the issues already.

        With no actual evidence at all, I submit that that holds true mostly in the US and other two-party systems, and much less so in multi-party systems.

        In the US, the parties have roughly staked out the approximate “left” and “right” halves of the spectrum on all the main issues, such that if someone is found to be “left” on a few of them, you can usefully predict they’ll be “left” on most of the rest, or at least indifferent enough to hold their noses and vote that way.

        In Canada, which is at least marginally a multi-party system, I suspect there’s more mobility among high information voters, at least on the “left”. There’s really only one “right” option federally, the Reform Party having swallowed up most of the Progressive Conservatives and turned the rest into blue Liberals. But on the “left” there are multiple serious options – at least the NDP and Liberals, the PQ in Quebec, and increasingly the Greens.

        For instance, I’ve voted NDP in every federal election since turning 18, but I consider the parties’ platforms every time, and might well end up voting Liberal next time, depending who takes the most useful stance against the drug war.

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    • There are likely lots of people who hold the former opinion, but haven’t thought it through enough to get to the latter.

      Saying that they support the death penalty because they “haven’t thought it through enough” is condescending on your part.

      I think young people feel this way because having the death penalty aligns with a strong sense of justice.

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      • A strong sense of justice, and a high degree of idealism not yet tempered with realism about what is achievable.

        That is, a stereotyped “young” response to the problem that the justice system convicts innocents, and any justice system with a meaningful presence of capital punishment is going to cut off the possibility of redress for some of the innocents it convicts is, “No problem, we’ll just have to fix the justice system so it stops convicting innocents.”

        That same stereotype would hold that with age, those young people get a grasp of just what a monumental task it would be to thus fix an entire justice system, all the forces that will fight every little reform no matter how obviously necessary, all the biases that will never be overcome as long as judges and juries are human, all the systems of privilege and oppression that surround every interaction with the justice system. At some point they conclude that while it might be nice to execute some criminals, it will never be safe to trust such a system with a death penalty.

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  5. From what I understand, the death penalty has majority support in Eastern Europe (and a handful of links to iffy sites (Daily Mail?) indicate majority support in England).

    For some reason, there’s this attitude that keeps bubbling up that some people just need killin’.

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    • I wonder… do you think it is about others needing killing? Or people wanting to retain the power to kill (even if only through the government)? Those are probably different sides of the same coin.

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      • Or people wanting to retain the power to kill (even if only through the government)?

        I’m sure that you’re not talking about the sorts of things on this list:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_killings_by_law_enforcement_officers_in_the_United_States

        I mean, I think that most people (who aren’t nutball libertarians, anyway) would argue that the power of the government to kill people (in the process of them resisting arrest) is something that the government has just as much as its power to tax or to imprison.

        I suspect that it is the “needs killin'” thing when it comes to the attitude. They already have 99% agreement on the question on whether the government should retain the power to kill in the pursuit of doing its job.

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    • For some reason, there’s this attitude that keeps bubbling up that some people just need killin’.

      Oh, there’s people that need killin’ all right. Still don’t make it right to go a killin’ ’em.

      I can think it really hard in their direction, though.

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    • I think a lot of good can be done by removing judgeships and DAs from being elected positions. DAs more than judges and with judicial elections, I am okay with it at a superior court level but not above. I am not even sure how I feel about retention (should she stay or should she go?) elections for judges.

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      • Even if you make DAs and judges appointed rather than elected positions your still going to run into problems. People that want to punish baddies are still going to flock to such positions. You see this with USCIS. Since USCIS is both the welcoming and guardian agency when it comes to dealing with foreigners you get officials that both look to grant as many immigrants status as possible and those that want to deny as many as possible. Whether you get status or not can be the luck of the draw in what official you get. Are you assigned to welcomer, a guardian, or somebody who is just doing their job.

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  6. It’s worth noting that the death penalty is basically a race and class issue. While my generation is awfully progressive about the environment or war or gay marriage, we’re not very progressive about race and class issues.

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  7. The talonic law has a simple, symmetrical claim to the title “justice.”

    I did not feel my position on the issue shift until I’d learned enough about enough cases to question whether innocent people were getting the needle, until I’d learned how imperfect and emotional the jury process really is. And some of the intellectual gyrations I’ve read appellate judges to through to affirm a verdict leave me angry indeed.

    I think a lot of younger people haven’t seen enough disparity between the symmetry of theory and the messiness and unfairnesses that happen between crime and punishment to begin to doubt that the sentence is just.

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  8. I haven’t looked that deep into the survey, but I think the point made about proximity is interesting.

    I wonder how the support for the death penalty, or tough on crime laws in general, stack up by race and class.

    For those who have personal experience with the cruelty and injustice of the system, I wonder if the support is lower.

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  9. I didn’t click through to the actual survey, but in addition to the many very plausible explanations offered above, I’d like to know how the question was measured. I know a heckuva lot of people who support the death penalty “in theory, provided that we really know the guy is really guilty of something really bad.” But they’ll be quick to add that it’s not clear to them that we always or even usually know that.

    For the record, I came to oppose the death penalty when I was a junior in high school (or thereabouts). At the time, I considered myself strongly pro-life (I now consider myself pro-choice), and because I based my pro-life views on an absolutist notion that only God had the right to take away life, I couldn’t support the death penalty. I still oppose the death penalty, but for somewhat different reasons.

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    • The article does note that, in general, support for the death penalty tends to shrink if the question is phrased as choosing between the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

      I’m not sure which way of phrasing is a better way to actually determine where an individual’s or the public’s sentiment lie.

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      • Thanks for clarifying. I’m not sure, either, what type of phrasing would get at the nuance I demand. I do think that counterposed to ssm and mj legalization, the dp is more complicated an issue. Ssm is probably straightforward yea or nay, with some complications about whether it’s a federal as well as a state issue and whether civil unions are essentially the same thing. Mj legalization might be less straightforward–legalize for medical use? for recreational use? what restrictions on medical users? what restrictions on recreational users? should banks hold deposits from mj dispenaries? won’t somebody please think of the children?!–still, the issue itself probably commands fewer qualifications than the dp usually does.

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  10. I should note that popular media does a lot to influence lay opinion’s of the justice system and this is what popular media generally teaches but is largely mythical.

    1. Justice is quick. I think that a lot of people think the average case (civil and criminal) runs quickly like a Law and Order episode from opening to closing. Most cases can take at least a year or two to resolve if not longer. An Ariel Castro situation is the exception and that is about as air-tight case as you can get. Even though I do civil law, we still have clients who think things take a lot quicker than they do. People don’t realize that there are response times of a month or more usually at various stages. The plaintiffs file a complaint and the defendants have a month to file their answer or other documents and can ask for an extension, etc.

    2. People think forensics is a lot more advanced than it really is because of the CSI shows.

    3. As far as I can tell, the police always catch the guilty person on cop shows except shows where you are supposed to root or sympathize with the criminals like Dexter and Hannibal. The exception might be the Wire but the number of people who watched the Wire is much less than the number of people who watch the Law and Order shows and the CIS shows.

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