The Role and Consequences of the Death Penalty in American Politics


As we enter the last decade of the twentieth century, the death penalty has become a prominent issue in a wide range of American political campaigns. Along with other symbolic issues, such as the pledge of allegiance and the furlough of Willie Horton, President George Bush and his advisors made the death penalty a central issue in the 1988 presidential race. One of the most memorable (and damaging) questions of the campaign was raised by Cable News Network (CNN) correspondent Bernard Shaw during the second debate between candidates Bush and Michael Dukakis, when Shaw provided a dramatic opening to the debate by asking Dukakis whether his opposition to the death penalty would be swayed if someone raped and murdered his wife.

In retrospect, there is no question that focusing on the candidates’ differences on the death penalty was an effective political strategy for the Republican Party. But does it benefit the nation’s citizens when politicians campaigning for state or national office make advocacy of the death penalty centerpieces of their campaigns? It can have such an effect only if the death penalty addresses a fairly widespread social problem and there is simultaneously sufficient reason to believe the death penalty is an effective and practical tool for reducing the problem’s occurrence.

We begin this Article by estimating the frequency of crimes potentially subject to the death penalty compared to the frequency of non-capital crimes, particularly those which are considered violent. We then examine what isknown about the death penalty’s relative effectiveness in reducing the frequency of criminal homicide. We use the results from these two inquiries as a framework for examining the role of capital punishment in American politics at the state and national level, as well as examining how and why politicians use the death penalty to manipulate the crime issue. Finally, we argue that debates surrounding capital punishment generate misinformation that restricts the public’s ability to make informed judgments about public policy, and undermines its faith in the political system.

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