Over the weekend the Times published an article with data suggesting that ordinary Europeans, unlike many of their political and cultural elites, don’t think too differently about the Polanski affair than most people in the United States.
But if you’re surprised, you shouldn’t be.About a decade ago I wrote an article in the New Republic (alas, now apparently eaten alive by one of their successive redesigns but you can read it here) that argued it’s wrong to think that people in the US and Europe think differently about capital punishment. As you know, capital punishment has been banned across the continent. But it’s still practiced in many US states, despite some slackening of public support in recent years.
So many people assume that differing attitudes toward capital punishment are one of the defining differences between the US and Europe. But when you look at public opinion data you see a different picture. Yes, there are some differences. But by and large levels of support for capital punishment in most European countries don’t differ greatly from those in the US. And in every case I could find, when these countries abolished capital punishment — usually early in the second half of the twentieth century — they did so notwithstanding continued public support for the practice.
The review I did of the survey data seem to leave little doubt that the difference between the US and Europe in this regard could not be explained simply by public attitudes.
So why the difference? I speculated about the structure of European governments, most of which operate on some version of the parliamentary system and cultural differences too. To a degree, I don’t think we should be so surprised. Does anyone doubt that if key aspects of the First Amendment were put up for a vote they would survive very well? It seems like a similar dynamic. But there seems to be other factors at work in Europe that keep certain issues just off the table politically. The governments (the state itself) are less porous to popular beliefs that run strongly contrary to those of elites. And I suspect we’re seeing something similar in the Polanski case.