Essential Politics: American views on ‘culture’ issues are complicated. Just look at the death penalty.

Two people in uniform carry a chair from a metal chamber.
Officers remove a chair from the death penalty chamber at San Quentin State Prison in 2019 after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order placing a moratorium on executions.
( California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

This is the June 4, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

A lot of American political debates involve values and personal beliefs, rather than economics. But while such cultural issues, as they are often labeled, can get lumped together as a single category, Americans’ attitudes toward them don’t move in lockstep.

On some issues — attitudes toward LGBTQ relationships, for example — American attitudes have shifted profoundly over the last two decades. On other issues, such as abortion, the division of opinion has barely changed: About 6 in 10 Americans say the procedure should be legal in all or most cases, about 4 in 10 say it should be illegal in all or most cases, and the division in opinion is about the same now as it was in the mid-1990s.


American feelings about the death penalty occupy a middle ground between those two poles: Support for executions dropped a lot from the mid-1990s until a few years ago, but since then has plateaued, as new data from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows.

“While they often get talked about together, these issues are all very different,” and the differences often surface in unpredicted ways, said Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research.

Because cultural issues involve people’s personal values and beliefs, they’re often seen as intractable. But the record suggests something different: New facts and experiences can change people’s beliefs, but only up to a point.

The long decline in executions

In March, Virginia abolished the death penalty. The move by the state that once led the nation in executions brought the number of jurisdictions to have ended capital punishment to 23 states plus the District of Columbia. Three other states — California, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have moratoriums put in place by their governors.

Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed California’s moratorium in 2019. The state has 703 prisoners on death row, according to the Department of Corrections — more by far than any other state — but hasn’t executed anyone in more than 15 years.

Eleven of the state abolition decisions came in recent years, following a long slide in support for the death penalty that began in the mid-1990s.

That was the second such drop. In the 1960s, evidence that Black Americans were disproportionately subject to capital punishment helped cause a sharp decline in support and set the stage for a 1972 Supreme Court ruling that struck down all then-existing death penalties.

The high court in 1976 allowed executions to resume, under new rules, and backing for capital punishment steadily increased through the 1980s. It peaked in the mid-1990s, when roughly 8 in 10 Americans said they favored execution for people convicted of murder, according to polling by Pew and the Gallup organization.


By 2019, backing for the death penalty had fallen to some 6 in 10 Americans. That’s about where it has remained since. In the most recent Pew survey, 60% of American adults said they supported the death penalty; 39% opposed it.

Notably, that 60/40 split holds true when people are surveyed online. When people are surveyed by telephone with live interviewers, support for the death penalty is somewhat lower and opposition somewhat higher, according to Pew, which has tested both methods for several years.

That suggests that some people who support the death penalty hesitate to say so to another person. Democrats seem especially likely to be in that group, Pew found. It’s an example of how polls can be skewed by what’s considered the accepted position in a person’s social circle. That sort of gap between phone and online surveys is not present on some other issues Pew has tested, such as abortion.

That polling issue, however, doesn’t change the two-decade decline in support for executions. Scholars who have studied the shift cite several possible factors:

The steep drop in homicides and other crimes that began in the early 1990s eroded support for a variety of get-tough measures. The reduction in the number of people being executed, especially in recent years, may have made the penalty seem less a normal part of public life. Growing racial diversity has reduced support for executions, which white people in the U.S. back more than Black or Latino Americans.

Democrats, in particular, have turned against the death penalty in recent decades. Republican attitudes have not changed as much.


In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton very publicly interrupted his presidential campaign to return to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a man convicted of killing a police officer. In 2020, Joe Biden promised to seek repeal of the federal death penalty.

One of the biggest factors in the shift in attitudes involved a new fact in the public debate: Starting in the 1990s, DNA testing began to prove that wrongful convictions were real — and not uncommon. The wave of exonerations of people wrongly convicted of crimes included scores who had faced death sentences. The Death Penalty Information Center counts 185 cases of people sentenced to death who have been exonerated.

Those exonerations have had an impact on how the public sees the death penalty. In 1991, only about 10% of death penalty opponents said that the risk of an innocent person being executed was a reason for their stand. By 2011, not only were a lot more people opposed to the death penalty, but more than 25% of opponents cited concern about the wrongfully convicted being killed as a reason, Pew found.

Acknowledgement of that risk, however, doesn’t necessarily cause people to oppose the death penalty. In Pew’s latest survey, 78% of Americans said that there was “some risk that an innocent person will be put to death” — that’s twice as many as said they opposed the penalty.

For many people, what outweighs the risk of wrongful executions is the belief that capital punishment is morally justified for murder. Most supporters of the death penalty don’t believe it is perfect — only 30% of supporters said they believe that “adequate safeguards” exist to “ensure that no innocent person will be put to death.” But 90% of supporters see it as morally just and don’t want to abolish it in all cases.

People’s judgments about what is moral can be hard to change. That doesn’t mean they’re immovable, however, as the shift in attitudes toward gay and lesbian relationships shows.

In 1996, only about 25% of Americans said they believed that same-sex marriages should be valid, according to Gallup’s polling. By 2004, when opponents of marriage equality made the issue part of that year’s political campaign, a majority remained opposed, but support had grown to around 40%. By 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, a majority of Americans said same-sex unions should be legal. By now, two-thirds of Americans say so.


Some of that shift involves generational change, but the flip in public attitudes happened so quickly only because tens of millions of older Americans changed their minds. That change in attitudes toward marriage equality went hand-in-hand with a shift in what Americans deemed to be moral.

As recently as 2006, a majority of Americans told Gallup that gay and lesbian relations were “morally wrong.” By 2010, a clear majority felt the opposite. Last year, Americans rejected that view by 2 to 1, Gallup found.

There are other issues, of course, on which opinions have not shifted and some, such as regulation of guns, on which already formidable partisan divides have grown even deeper and seemingly more stubborn in recent years.

But at a time in American public life when it sometimes seems as if every issue has become a matter for trench warfare, both of these topics stand as reminders that even on some of the most deeply felt questions — literal matters of life and death — change is possible, and shifts in opinion do take place.

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A pro-union president

Biden may be the most pro-union president since Truman, according to labor leaders and outside analysts. Noah Bierman and I looked at whether his support can reverse labor’s long decline.

The latest from Washington

When Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) says the chamber will take up measures to set national standards for elections, which, at least for federal elections, would override state laws that limit voting. Republicans are expected to filibuster the proposals.

The bills the Democrats support aim, in part, to overturn several Supreme Court rulings that, as David Savage wrote, have tilted election law in favor of the Republicans.

Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) continued on Wednesday to try to chip away at the impasse on infrastructure spending. The gap between the two sides remains very wide, however, as Eli Stokols reported, and patience has begun to wear thin at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Doyle McManus looked at the rewards for getting COVID-19 vaccinations that some states are offering. They may help get the U.S. to its vaccination goals, but lotteries alone probably won’t do the trick, he wrote.

The latest from California

COVID-19 restrictions protected California’s economy, and it’s now poised for a “euphoric” rebound, according to the UCLA Anderson quarterly forecast. As Margot Roosevelt reported, California’s economy shrank less than the U.S. average during the pandemic year, and the UCLA forecasters expect the state to add jobs faster than the country as a whole.


California, however, also had huge problems delivering unemployment benefits to those who lost their jobs. As Sarah Wire and Patrick McGreevy wrote, a new report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s inspector general chronicles missteps by a dozen state unemployment agencies around the country, including California, which left millions in the lurch.

Meantime, state lawmakers considered requiring $7 billion in COVID-19 bonuses for healthcare workers. As Melody Gutierrez reported, hospitals, which estimate they would have to pay about $4 billion, strongly opposed the plan. On Thursday, the state Assembly decided to drop the idea.

Lawmakers decided against new taxes on the sale of guns and ammunition to pay for programs to prevent gun violence, McGreevy reported. The measure fell short of the two-thirds vote it needed.

Former Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat from northern Los Angeles County, quit Congress in 2019 after nude photos of her circulated on the internet. She then sued a British tabloid and two conservative journalists for their parts in publishing the photos. Earlier this year, a judge threw out the suit on 1st Amendment grounds and, as Seema Mehta reported, the judge has now ordered Hill to pay roughly $220,000 in attorneys’ fees to the defendants. A spokesman said Hill plans to appeal.

San Luis Obispo County delivered a sizable block of signatures on petitions to recall Newsom. Faith Pinho looked at how COVID restrictions helped fuel the recall drive in a decidedly purple region.

He helped make Ronald Reagan president. Now Stu Spencer has had it with the Republican Party, Mark Barabak wrote. The veteran GOP strategist last year voted for Biden — the first Democrat he had ever voted for.


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