Here’s is an AP article just out over the wire with the headline “Europeans outraged at Schwarzenegger”. The point of course is that they are outraged at Schwarzenegger for not intervening to stop the execution last night of Stanley “Tookie” Williams.
Let me preface this by saying that I am what I would call a reluctant or ambivalent opponent of capital punishment.
Having said that, I think the thrust of the article linked above contains a signficant misapprehension about the different views of capital punishment in the US and Europe. The conventional wisdom, as the AP article shows, is that Americans are hold-outs in favor of capital punishment while Europeans have turned against the practice as barbaric.
But in an article I wrote in 2000 in The New Republic I was able to make a pretty good case that this just isn’t so. I collected public opinion data from various European countries over the previous decade or so. And what the data showed was that the difference in public support for capital punishment really wasn’t that great on either side of the Atlantic.
Capital punishment continued to enjoy majority support in France, for instance, long after it was abolished in 1981. Only in the late 1990s did a poll finally show that fewer than 50% of the population wanted it restored. As of the time I wrote, between 60% and 70% of Canadians said they wanted the death penalty reinstated.
So what does it all mean? I think it means that the end of capital punishment in Europe has much less to do with public opinion than we think. And it has more to do with the structure of European politics, particularly — I would speculate — the stronger role of parties, and thus elites, in the European form of parliamentary democracy.
Layered over that is the effect of EU expansion, in which the continent’s central powers have made abolishing the death penalty a condition of membership. One more factor, I suspect, is that over time, opposition to capital punishment has become a form of European self-identification. And that has had a further depressing effect on support for capital punishment.
That final point is highly speculative, of course.
But the underlying point is well-grounded: Europeans aren’t much less attached to capital punishment than Americans. The difference is that their governments don’t as readily provide it.
From my point of view, the good news is that since the time I wrote the article support for capital punishment in the United States has fallen appreciably. But that’s another matter. If you’d like to share your views on this topic, we’ve set up a discussion thread on the topic here at TPMCafe.