Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization

“You probably have the sense that polarization is getting worse in our country, that the divide between the left and the right is as bad as it’s ever been in any or our lifetimes. But you might also reasonably wonder if research backs up your intuition. And in a nutshell, the answer is sadly yes.”

That is how Robb Willer began his TED Talk, How to have better political conversations. A commenter said, “He never answered why the polarization has gotten so much worse though.” In my opinion, it hasn’t gotten worse.

The US presently isn’t more divided than it was during the 1960s, isn’t more divided than it was during the violent early 1900s, isn’t more divided than it was in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and isn’t more divided than among the founding generation of Federalists vs Anti-Federalists. This is another one of those simplistic, superficial, and misleading mainstream narratives. And yet it is an extremely compelling story to tell.

People aren’t disagreeing more than ever. It’s just that they are being heard more and hearing others more, because of the growth of mass media and social media. People are being faced with knowing what others think and believe, not being allowed to remain in blissful ignorance as in the past. People feel polarized because they see it in activist groups, mainstream politics, and corporate media. That experience shouldn’t be dismissed, as it feels all too real and does have real consequences. Still, this sense of conflict is misleading. In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.

If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.

If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.

Consider specific issues.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.

That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion limits, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.

Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?

If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.

Here is the takeaway. The general public is not polarized, as research again and again has proven. It is the mainstream media and political elites, the political parties and think tanks, the lifelong partisans and ideological activists who are polarized. In economic terms, it the middle-to-upper class and not the lower classes that are polarized.

The apparent hyper-partisanship comes from not increasing number of partisans, but from increasing number of moderates identifying as independents and increasing number of non-partisans entirely giving up on the political system. I’d also add that it isn’t that this has happened equally across the board. Studies show Democrats aren’t any more liberal than they were decades ago (more conservative, if anything; or at least more neocon and neoliberal), even as Republicans have moved ever further to the right. This has caused public debate to become disconnected from the public opinion, disconnected from the beliefs, values and concerns of most Americans. On many major issues, the general public has moved to the political left which exacerbates this disconnection, creating a situation where the two choices are a conservative Democratic Party and a right-wing Republican Party.

The problem is that the polarized (or rather polarizing) minority entirely controls public debate and the political system. Watching this meaningless spectacle of polarized conflict and dysfunction, the non-polarized majority is some combination of not registered, not voting, voting third party, voting semi-randomly, identifying as independent, politically apathetic, demoralized, hopeless, resigned, confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. Some of the general public can be temporarily manipulated by polarization, such as when given forced choices and when threatened with fear-mongering, but in the end their basic values and concerns don’t support polarization.

Meanwhile the party insiders of both main parties, when the issue is important enough to the interests of themselves, their cronies and the donor class, always seem to find a way to agree and cooperate about passing bills and enacting laws that further push public policy toward neoconservatism and neoliberalism. The culture war framing makes for good stories to tell on the corporate media for mass consumption, but they aren’t what drive actual politics.

At the very highest level of wealth and power, there is very little polarization and a whole lot of collusion and cronyism. Some would argue that even the political elite aren’t actually more polarized. They may be arguing more about more issues, even as the substance of conflict might not indicate any greater disagreement overall than in the past. Others, such as myself, would see most of the partisan bickering as yet more political theater to keep the public distracted.

Certainly, there is no polarization in the deep state, the double government, or whatever you wish to call it. Major public policies aren’t left to chance. Research has shown that the general public has little influence on what politicians do. Some take this argument further, pointing that often even elected officials have little power to change things. That is because elected officials represent a miniscule part of the entrenched bureaucracy. Besides, many political elites don’t necessarily operate within the government itself, such as think tanks shaping policy and lobbyists writing bills. For those who aren’t part of the ruling elite, this discourages them from getting involved in politics or running for office.

How would we know if our society is more polarized, in what ways, what it means, and to whose benefit? Polls don’t just tell us what public opinion is. They shape public opinion and polling during elections can influence voting behavior. And what data the corporate media decides to report and how they frame it shapes the public mind. Some might call it public perception management. Is the public really polarized or made to feel polarized or that everyone around them is polarized? What is the agenda in making the public feel divided and individuals isolated?

One thing is so clear as to be beyond all argument. We don’t have a functioning democracy: gerrymandering, establishment-controlled nomination process, third parties excluded from debates, partisan corporate media, perception management, think tank propaganda, astroturf organizations, paid trolls, voter disenfranchisement and suppression, campaigns and political access determined by big money, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, legalized bribery, pervasive secrecy and unaccountability, etc. So, we don’t have elections that offer real choices and actual influence. And because of this, we don’t have political elites that represent the citizenry.

I’m not sure what polarization means within a political system that is oligarchic, plutocratic, corporatist, and inverted totalitarian. Is it really polarized or is it working according to design? And for the all too real divisions that exist, are they ideological or demographic? Are the majority of poor, white and non-white, politically polarized in any meaningful sense when most of them are so politically apathetic as to not vote? As inequality grows along with poverty and desperation, will our greatest concern be how polarized are the tiny minority of the remaining middle-to-upper class?

* * *

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Racial Polarization of Partisans
Most Americans Know What is True
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2
Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

* * *

7 in 10 Americans ‘Not Upset’ with Gay Marriage, New iMediaEthics Poll Finds
by Andy Sternberg and David W. Moore

Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere
by Yeggmen

America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe
by Eric Alterman

America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think
by Lee Drutman

Why most conservatives are secretly liberals
by John Sides

You’re Probably Not as Conservative as You Think
by Tom Jacobs

You May Think You’re Right … Young Adults Are More Liberal Than They Realize
by Ethan Zell and Michael J. Bernstein

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…
by George Hawley

Ideological Labels in America
by Claassen, Tucker, and Smith

Political Ideology
by Jost, Federico, and Napier

Operational and Symbolic Ideology in the American Electorate
by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson

The Ideological Right vs. The Group Benefits Left
by Matt Grossmann

In Search of the Big Sort
by Samuel J Abrams

Who Fits the Left-Right Divide?
by Carmines, Ensley, and Wagner

Despite Headline, Pew Poll Does Not Show a Polarized America
by Todd Eberly

Most experts think America is more polarized than ever. This Stanford professor disagrees. And he thinks the 2016 election has only buttressed his interpretation.
by Jeff Stein

Polarized or Sorted? Just What’s Wrong With Our Politics, Anyway?
by Alan I. Abramowitz and Morris P. Fiorina

Disconnected: The Political Class versus the People
by Morris P. Fiorina

Has the American Public Polarized?
by Morris P. Fiorina

America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight
by Morris P. Fiorina

Moderates: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?
by Molly Ball

Politics aren’t more partisan today–we’re just fighting about more issues
by Heather Hurlburt

Preference Change through Choice
by Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and Nick Chater

(Mis)perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil Malhotra

(Mis)perceiving Political Polarization
by Nathan Collins

Americans overestimate political polarization, according to new CU-Boulder research
by Greg Swenson

The Effect of “False” Polarization
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil A. Malhotra

Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think
by Leviston, Walker, and Morwinski

Constructing Public Opinion
by Justin Lewis

Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?
by Matthew Levendusky and Neil Malhorta

Do Partisan Media Add to Political Polarization?
by Anne Kim

The Limits of Partisan Prejudice
by Yphtach Lelkes and Sean J. Westwood

Elite Polarization and Public Opinion
Joshua Robison and Kevin J. Mullinix

How polarisation in Washington affects a growing feeling of partisanship
by Harry J Enten

Elite Polarization, Partisan Ambivalence, and a Preference for Divided Government
by Lavine, Johnston, Steenbergen, and Perkins

Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Partisan Polarization in Congress
by Danielle M. Thomsen

How party activists, not voters in general, drive political polarization
by Gillian Kiley

Polls of Persuasion: Beware of the Horse Race
by Alicia Wanless

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
by Jordan Michael Smith

American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues

I broke my policy and wrote a comment on an Atlantic article, Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church by Emma Green. I’ve tried to stop commenting outside of a few select places on the internet because it usually ends up feeling pointless. Some of the responses were unworthy in this case, but it turned out not to be that bad of a discussion, relatively speaking.

Despite the frustration often involved, part of me enjoys the challenge of formulating an informative comment that actually adds to public debate. Plus, it got me thinking about one of my ancestors, a country abortion doctor who operated when abortion was technically illegal in Indiana and yet the law apparently wasn’t enforced at the time.

That was a different world, when communities decided which laws they did and did not care about, no matter what distant governments declared. Most people were fine with abortions, just as during Prohibition most people were fine with drinking. Laws are only meaningful when they can be enforced and the US political system has often left much of the power of enforcement at the local level, which is how so many bootleggers avoided prosecution as their neighbors were the jury of their peers.

The following are my comments, my original comment first and then two following comments. I had several other comments in the discussion, but those below are the most significant.

* * *

Sertorius wrote: “These liberal Christian denominations have experienced a massive drop in membership. Example: the Presbyterian Church (USA) had more than 3 million members 30 years ago. It now has half of that.

“This is unsurprising. Why would people go to a church which doesn’t take the Bible seriously? What is the point? How is it different than the local meeting of the Democratic Party?”

Most young Christians, including most Evangelicals and Catholics, identity as progressive or liberal. Most young Christians also support gay marriage and pro-choice. They do so because they read the Bible for themselves, instead of trusting the words of fundamentalist preachers.

Thomas R wrote: “Do you have a source for this odd assertion? I believe a good part of why millennials come out so socially liberals is they are less Christian than other generations.”

I always find it odd when I’m asked a question like this on the internet. If you really wanted to know, you could find such info in a few minutes of doing web searches. Maybe a bit more time, if you were really curious.

I’m sure you believe all kinds of things. But your beliefs, if uninformed, are irrelevant. Many other Christians would also believe that you are less Christian. BTW, if you go back some generations to the early 1900s, many Christians were progressives and the religious left was a powerful force. This kind of thing tends to go in cycles. But there is always a split. Even as the religious right became loud and demanding, a large swath of silenced Evangelicals remained liberal/progressive.

Belief is a funny thing. Surveys have found that the atheists on average know more about the Bible than do Christians on average. So, if Christian belief for so many self-proclaimed Christians isn’t based on knowledge of the Bible, what is it based on? Does God speak to Christians personally and tell them what to believe? Or are most Christians simply following false prophet preachers? Since these preachers are false prophets, should they be killed as the Bible commands?

If you look below at my response to rsabharw, you’ll see how little fundamentalists actually know about the Bible. The irony of their literalism is how non-literal or even anti-literal it is. Literalism simply becomes a codeword for ignorant bigotry and dogmatic politics.

Anyway, most Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.

It should be noted that, on the issue of abortion, Millennials are in agreement with Americans in general and so it isn’t a generational gap. Young Evangelicals have always had high rates of premarital sex, going back to the largely Scots-Irish Evangelicals of Appalachia and the Upper South. Millennial teen sex rates now are as low as they were more than a half century ago (drug use and violent crime rates among the young also are low right now). Sexuality hasn’t really changed over time, even as rates slightly shift up and down in cycles. Even in early America, most marriages followed pregnancy and hence premarital sex. No matter what a belief states, humans remain human.

It’s similar to other issues, although often with more of a generational gap. Consider guns, a supposedly divisive issue but where the majority of Americans simultaneously supports strong protection of gun rights and the need for stronger regulation (and enforcement) of guns. Even liberal Americans state having high rates of a guns in the home. There is no contradiction between someone being for both gun rights and gun regulations, both being liberal positions, one classical liberal and the other progressive liberal.

In general, most Americans are fairly liberal, progressive, and economic populist on most major issues. But this political leftism cuts deep into the part of the population that outwardly identifies as conservatives. So, even conservatism in the US is rather liberal.

Public opinion, across the generations, has been moving left. But it is most clearly seen in the younger generation. Still, even the oldest living generation seems liberal compared to the generations that were alive before them. The Lost Generation (i.e., WWI vets and 1920s libertines) were judged in their youth by older generations just the same as young people today. This would be obvious, if so many Americans weren’t historically ignorant.

The greatest differences in opinion aren’t necessarily between generations. Nor even between Christians and atheists. The growing divides in the US are often seen most clearly within Christianity, between: Catholics and Protestants, Mainline Christians and Fundamentalists, white Christians and minority Christians, etc. But that has always been true, going back centuries. The entire Protestant Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and religious wars including the English Civil War) were about Christians struggling over who would get to define Christianity for others and who would be free to define Christianity for themselves.

Many of these are old issues. Catholics, for example, genocidally wiped out the Christian Cathars for practicing gay sex. Many denominations that exist today were created by congregations being split over social and political issues. That will continue. Rifts are developing within churches, such as the Catholic Church that is equally divided between the two major parties. The small town Midwestern church my grandfather preached in was shut down over conflict between the local congregation that was fine with a gay music director and the national church organization that was against it. In place of churches like that, new churches will form.

Thomas R wrote: “The rules on abortion and homosexuality are part of the faith. Both are found in the writings of the Early Christians and in the Catechism. (See Cyprian, Ambrosiaster, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407), Severian, the Didache, Clement of Alexandria, St. Basil, Canon 1398) As well as the statements of Popes.

“At the very least abortion after the first trimester is consistently considered wrong by the faith.”

Even most pro-choicers treat third trimester abortions differently. There is also a reason why pro-choicers like me are more concerned about preventing abortions entirely than are most supposedly pro-lifers, it being a question of prioritizing either moral outcomes or ideological dogmatism.

Your knowledge of Christian history is obviously incomplete. That is problematic.

Among early Christians, there were different views about life, ensoulment, abortion, and murder. There was no unanimous Christian belief about such things, something you would know if you knew Christian history. There is no scholarly consensus that most early Christians treated abortion as a crime. It was often a standard sin, like most other sex-related sins. As far as that goes, sex itself was considered a sin.

It’s hard to know what early Christians believed. When they spoke of abortion, they had specific ideas in mind based in a cultural context of meaning. That depended on when one considered the fetus or baby to gain a soul. Not all early Christians thought life, much less ensoulment, began at conception and so early endings of pregnancies weren’t necessarily considered abortions. That is a main point that many pro-choicers make.

None of the New Testament or Old Testament writings clearly and directly discuss abortion, infanticide, and exposure. It apparently wasn’t considered important enough issue even to be mentioned specifically, much less condemned. It was only in the following centuries that Christians made statements about it. So, if Christianity isn’t directly based on Jesus’ teachings and the Bible, then what is Christianity? What kind of Christian tradition isn’t based on the earliest known Christianity that formed by Jesus’ first followers?

Aborton didn’t become much of a legal and political issue until modern Christianity. Plus, beyond decrees in the following centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion, there is no evidence that early Christians were ever any less likely to have abortions than non-Christians, as decrees imply something is common in persisting and so requires condemnation. So, is Christian tradition based on what church elites decree or on what Christians practice?

If the former, then all of Protestantism is false Christianity, since it was founded on defying the church elite of the time (even the Catholic heresiologists were defying the Christians in the church that came before them, such as Valentinus and Marcion). But if Protestants are correct about individual conscience of the Christian, then what Christians do has more validity than what church elites decree.

This is no minor point with profound theological and moral significance, especially considering most American Catholics seem fine with not absolutely following Vatican declarations. This is further complicated since the various church elites over the centuries have disagreed with one another on fundamental moral issues, including on abortion.

Anyway, shouldn’t Scripture supersede the personal opinions of church elites, no matter how authoritative they like to pretend to be? No one speaks for God but God. The fact that church elites disagreed and argued with one another proves they are far from infallible. Even the Vatican didn’t consider church positions on abortion to be infallible teachings.

However individuals wish to interpret all of this, there is the issue of one’s response as a Christian. Since only liberal policies have proven to decrease unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortions, it would be the religious duty of any pro-life Christian to support liberal policies. Yet they don’t and instead promote policies that either increase the number of abortions or don’t decrease them. Those Christians are committing sin, in placing their political ideology above their faith.

When someone acts in such a way that inevitably promotes a sin, what should the Christian response?

My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice


“There is scholarly disagreement on how early Christians felt about abortion. Some scholars have concluded that early Christians took a nuanced stance on what is now called abortion, and that at different and in separate places early Christians have taken different stances. Other scholars have concluded that early Christians considered abortion a sin at all stages; though there is disagreement over their thoughts on what type of sin it was and how grave a sin it was held to be. Some early Christians believed that the embryo did not have a soul from conception, and consequently opinion was divided as to whether early abortion was murder or ethically equivalent to murder.”


“Neither the Old nor New Testament of the Bible make any specific mention of abortion, though Numbers 5:11-31 refers to a ritual known as the “ordeal of the bitter water”, which will test if a woman has been faithful to her husband by giving her a special potion concocted by a priest, possibly an abortifacient. If the woman was unfaithful, this will cause her “thigh” (a biblical euphemism for the woman’s reproductive organs, as well as any embryo contained within) to “swell and fall away” (some texts use the term “rupture” instead of “fall away”), which is a likely reference to miscarriage. Because of the Bible’s authors being so fond of euphemisms, it is a matter of debate whether this text is an endorsement for abortion when the woman is impregnated by someone who is not her husband (euphemistic interpretation) or simply a ritual that would presumably kill the wife for her adultery (literal interpretation).[13] The actual views of Christian society and the Church can definitively be gathered only via other extra-Biblical writings on theology and ethics.

“During the first and second century CE, abortion, intentional or forced miscarriages, and infanticide, were all commonplace, as families faced serious limitations on the number of people they could support. Though legal and ethical texts seem to suggest that this was somehow sinful, it did not take on any serious move to create or enforce a prohibition against abortion or infanticide. Scholars[14] have suggested that in the very early parts of the 1st and 2nd centuries, discussions about abortion and infanticide were effectively the same issue.

“By the mid-2nd century however, Christians separated themselves from the pagan Romans and proclaimed that the theological and legal issues with abortion had nothing to do with the father’s rights, but with God’s view of the sanctity of life itself. It was as bad a sin as any other sexual sin, including contraception and intentional sterilization, which suggested that a central issue was the giving of one’s body to God and being open for procreation as much as it was the inherent value of the unborn’s life. The issue of when the soul enters the body, and if that should affect the ethics of abortion, remained unresolved, though Augustine of Hippo offered his opinion that it did not enter until the third or sixth month, depending on the sex (the latter for girls). However, while he did not view abortion as murder until that point, it was still a sin in his view.”


“Then, in 1869, completely ignoring earlier teachings, Pope Pius IX wrote in Apostolicae Sedis that excommunication is the required penalty for abortion at any stage of pregnancy. He further stated that all abortion was homicide. This was an implicit endorsement – the church’s first – of ensoulment at conception.”


“Most people believe that the Roman Catholic church’s position on abortion has remained unchanged for two thousand years. Not true. Church teaching on abortion has varied continually over the course of its history. There has been no unanimous opinion on abortion at any time. While there has been constant general agreement that abortion is almost always evil and sinful, the church has had difficulty in defining the nature of that evil. Members of the Catholic hierarchy have opposed abortion consistently as evidence of sexual sin, but they have not always seen early abortion as homicide. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the “right-to-life” argument is a relatively recent development in church teaching. The debate continues today.

“Also contrary to popular belief, no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an “infallible” teaching. This fact leaves much more room for discussion on abortion than is usually thought, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views.

“The campaign by Pope John Paul II to make his position on abortion the defining one at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was just one leg of a long journey of shifting views within the Catholic church. In the fifth century a.d., St. Augustine expressed the mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was “ensouled,” and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication only became established 150 years ago.”

‘An Intercultural Perspective on Human Embryonic Cell Research’ by Leroy Walters
Stem Cells, Human Embryos and Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
edited by Lars Østnor
p. 106

“”In the early centuries of Christianity there was diversity of opinion on the question of abortion. In a Roman Empire where abortion was widely practiced, some Christian theologians argued that every abortion was a homicide (Noonan 1970: 7-14). On the other hand, the ‘formed-unformed’ distinction came to prevail in the mainstream, or most authoritative, Christian theological and penitential traditions. Augustine presaged the predominant view when he argued that an unformed fetus had no soul and no sentience (Noonan 1970: 15-16). His view was accepted by Thomas Aquinas and by most theologians through at least the 18th century (Noonan 1970: 34-36). There is a nuance here that I do not want to obscure. Both the abortion of an unformed (that is, unensouled) fetus and of a formed (ensouled) fetus were considered to be sins. However, terminating the life of an unformed fetus was morally equivalent to the sin of contraception. In contrast, the terminating the life of a formed fetus was considered to be (unjustified) homicide (Noonan 1970: 15-18).

“The predominant Christian view was increasingly called into question in the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, in 1869, the authoritative Roman Catholic view came to be that it was morally safer to assume that ensoulment occurs at the time of fertilization.”

Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood
by Kristin Luker
pp. 11-14

“SURPRISING As it may seem, the view that abortion is murder is a relatively recent belief in American history. To be sure, there has always been a school of thought, extending back at least to the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, that holds that abortion is wrong because the embryo is the moral equivalent of the child it will become. Equally ancient however is the belief articulated by the Stoics: that although embryos have some of the rights of already-born children (and these rights may increase over the course of the pregnancy) , embryos are of a different moral order, and thus to end their existence by an abortion is not tantamount to murder.

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about these two perspectives (which have coexisted over the last two thousand years) is the fact more ancient and the more prevalent one. Their success in this effort is the product of an unusual set of events that occurred in the nineteenth century, events I call the first “right-to-life” movement. […]

“Similarly, although early Christians were actively pro-natalist and their rhetoric denounced abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and castration as all being morally equivalent to murder, the legal and moral treatment of these acts—and particularly the treatment of abortion—was never consistent with the rhetoric. 4 For instance, induced abortion is ignored in the most central Judeo-Christian writings: it is not mentioned in the Christian or the Jewish Bible, or in the Jewish Mishnah or Talmud.* Abortion, it is true, was denounced in early Christian writings such as the Didache and by early Christian authors such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and St. Basil. But church councils, such as those of Elvira and Ancyra, which were called to specify the legal groundwork for did not agree on the penalties for abortion or on whether early abortion is wrong.

(“* Opponents of abortion sometimes argue that the Bible does express disapproval of abortion in Exodus 21:22-23. In fact, what is mentioned there is accidental miscarriage. The text says that when two men are fighting and they strike a pregnant woman, “causing the fruit of her womb to depart,” they may be liable for a capital offense, depending on whether “mischief” has occurred. It is not clear what is meant by “mischief”; the Hebrew word it stands for (“ason”) occurs only one other time in the Bible. Nor is induced abortion covered in the Talmud; for information on abortion in Jewish law, see David Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law, p. 255. The only related text in the Mishnah says that during a difficult delivery, an embryo may be dismembered until “the greater part” of it is born; only when the “greater part” has been born does Jewish law hold that the embryo is a person, and “we do not set aside one life for another”; see Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics , p. 184.”)

“In the year 1100 A.d., this debate was clarified, but hardly in the direction of making abortion at all times unequivocally murder. Ivo of Chartres, a prominent church scholar, condemned abortion but held that abortion of the “unformed” embryo was not homicide, and his work was the beginning of a new consensus. Fifty years later Gratian, in a work which became the basis of canon law for the next seven hundred years, reiterated this stand. 6

“The “formation” of an embryo (sometimes known as “animation” or “vivification”) was held to happen at forty days for a male embryo and at eighty days for a female embryo; the canonist Roger Huser argues that in questions of ambiguity the embryo was considered female. In this connection it is important to remember law—which were, in effect, the moral and legal standard for the Western world until the coming of the Reformation and secular courts—did not treat what we would now call first trimester abortions as murder. 8 (And given the difficulty in ascertaining when pregnancy actually began, in practice this toleration must have included later abortions as well.)

“Nineteenth-century America, therefore, did not inherit an unqualified opposition to abortion, which John Noonan has called an “almost absolute value in history.” 9 On the contrary, American legal and moral practice at the beginning of the nineteenth century was quite consistent with the preceding Catholic canon law: early abortions were legally ignored and only late abortions could be prosecuted. (In fact, there is some disagreement as to whether or not even late abortions were ever prosecuted under the common law tradition.) 10

“Ironically, then, the much-maligned 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion, Roe v. Wade, which divided the legal regulation of abortion by trimesters, was much more in line with the traditional treatment of abortion than most Americans appreciate. But that in itself is an interesting fact. The brief history moral equivalent of murder.”

* * *

rsabharw wrote: “Where does it say in the bible that sodomy and child-killing are good things?”

Your question indicates why it is so important to have knowledge.

The Old Testament is one of the most violent holy texts in the world. God commands and sometimes commits all kinds of atrocities. Priests and prophets also made decrees that were, by today’s standards, quite horrific. And, yes, this did include child-killing (along with much worse, such as genocide and what is akin to eugenics).

Let me give an example from the prophet Zechariah. I find it fascinating because of the worldview it represents. This seems to imply that any Christian child who speaks in tongues or some similar act should be put to death.

“And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the LORD: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.”

That kind of thing is from uncommon in the Old Testament. I could make an extremely long comment just by quoting the Bible. Yet that kind of thing only involves children after they are born. The Bible is clear that a fetus isn’t treated as a full human and that death of a fetus isn’t considered murder.

For most of history, this was a non-issue for Christians. It was even a non-issue for most Americans until the culture wars. Earlier in the 20th century and before, the average doctor regularly did abortions, as it was considered part of their job. I have an ancestor who was a country doctor in Indiana, from the late 1800s to early 1900s, and he was also the local abortion provider.

As for homosexuality, the Bible has no clear and consistent position. Besides, no Christian follows all the rules and regulations, decrees and commandments described in the Old Testament. Even Jesus didn’t seem to have believed that his new message of love superseded the old Jewish legalisms.

If Christians are to literally interpret and follow the Old Testament, that means Christians can’t eat pork, shellfish, and black pudding; can’t get tatoos, cut the hair on the side of their heads, wearing of blended fabrics, charging interest on loans; et cetera. Plus, Christians would have to marry their brother’s widow, adulterers instead of being forgiven if they repent must be killed. and those with disabilities are to be treated as unclean like pigs. But slavery, genocide, and child murder are fine.

Yet if we are to simply go by Jesus’ words, we are limited to having no opinion on homosexuality and abortion. The best a fundy literalist could do is to cite Paul, but he never met Jesus and the evidence points to him having been a Gnostic (the heretical Valentinus and Marcion were among the earliest followers of the Pauline tradition, prior to Paul being incorporated as part of the Catholic canon).

So, if Christians don’t prioritize the teachings of Jesus over all else, what is the point of their even calling themselves Christians?

rsabharw wrote: “Abortion was illegal in Indiana in the 1800s. Therefore, your ancestor was not a doctor, but, rather, a criminal. The Hippocratic Oath specifically bans abortion. Any doctor who performs one is breaking that most sacred oath, and thus cannot call him or herself a doctor any longer.”

Studies show that banning abortions either doesn’t decrease or actually increases the abortion rate. It’s common sense that laws don’t always have much to do with actual human behavior. Even Christianity has been outlawed at different times and places, but it didn’t stop Christians from practicing.

Anyway, when did rural people ever worry about what political elite in far away big cities decided to tell the lower classes what to do? My ancestors in rural Indiana, besides including a country doctor who was an abortion provider, were also bootleggers. Screw you paternalistic, authoritarian a**holes! That is what my Kentuckiana ancestors would have told you. And I agree with them, on this issue.

We will make our own decisions and live as free patriots. Despite the laws, it’s obvious that the other rural people living around my country doctor ancestor were fine with what he did, for he was never prosecuted. These were his people, the place where he was born and raised. It was a typical community for the time. Few abortion cases were ever brought to court, despite it being extremely common at the time.


“History shows that women have always tried to terminate unwanted pregnancies. When safe medical procedures are banned by law, they have resorted to dangerous–sometimes deadly–“back-alley” abortions.”


“The court also said that because many of the state abortion laws dating tothe 1800s explicitly protect pregnant women from prosecution, it was a stretch to believe that lawmakers intended for the feticide law to be used against pregnant women who attempt to terminate a pregnancy.”


“In the early nineteenth century abortion simply did not elicit as much comment or controversy as today. Though not openly encouraged – and condemned in some circles – it was not necessarily dismissed out of hand if done early enough into the pregnancy. Abortion before “quickening,” the first signs of fetal movement, usually during the second trimester, was generally considered acceptable. “Most forms of abortion were not illegal and those women who wished to practice it did so.” As there were no laws specifically addressing abortion in the America of 1800, the only source for guidance was, again, English common law, which recognized quickening. […]

“These earliest abortion laws must be viewed contextually to be properly understood. In the main, they were not promulgated out of any fervor over the “morality” of abortion. As mentioned, quickening was generally accepted by both the courts and the public as the pivotal issue in abortion. Abortion was not generally considered immoral or illegal if performed prior to fetal movement. Because this was so widely accepted most American women did not have to “face seriously the moral agonies so characteristic of the twentieth century.” That Indiana’s law did not specifically mention quickening should not be seen as a step away from the doctrine. Instead, it is likely further evidence that quickening was so ingrained that it need not be especially written into the statute. […]

“Whatever the reasons, Indiana had an “anti-abortion” measure on the books after 1835. It seems to have been a law little regarded and little enforced. It also seems unlikely that it prevented many women who wished an abortion from obtaining one. Chemical or natural agents for producing abortions were readily available if a woman knew where to look – and most knew exactly where to fix their gaze. Mid-wives knew all the secrets; druggists advertised appropriate potions; medical texts provided answers.

“To judge the relative importance lawmakers attached to abortion, one need only compare the penalties involved. Assisting in an abortion, or performing a self-abortion, was punishable by a maximum fine of $500.00 and a year in the county jail. Burglary’s penalty was fourteen years in the state prison; murder (analogous in some modern minds with abortion) was a capital offense. Clearly, the state of Indiana did not equate abortion with murder, or even stealing your neighbor’s silver service.”


“As the above indicates, abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were “available, but dangerous.” This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the midwest, and the average midwestern woman likely had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one.

“It was not, however, impossible. Such information and abortifacients were within reach of a woman if she grasped hard enough. Herbal abortifacients were the most widely utilized in rural, nineteenth century America. Again, networking and word-of-mouth broadcast specious methods. Women who relied on such information sometimes resorted to rubbing gunpowder on their breasts or drinking a “tea” brewed with rusty nail water. Other suggestions included “bleeding from the foot, hot baths, and cathartics.” Midwives were thought reliable informants and were wont to prescribe seneca, snakeroot, or cohosh, the favored method of Native American women. Thomsonians claimed the preferred “remedy” was a mixture of tansy syrup and rum.

“More reliable sources of information were the ever popular home medical books. If a woman knew where to look the information was easily gleaned. One book, Samuel Jennings’ The Married Ladies Companion, was meant especially to be used by rural women. It offered frank advice for women who “took a common cold,” the period colloquialism for missing a period. It urged using cathartics like aloe and calomel, and bleeding to restore menstruation. Abortion information was usually available in two sections of home medical books: how to “release obstructed menses” and “dangers” to avoid during pregnancy.

“The latter section was a sort of how-to in reverse that could be effectively put to use by the reader. The most widely consulted work, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, advised emetics and a mixture of prepared steel, powdered myrrh, and aloe to “restore menstrual flow.” Under causes of abortion to be avoided, it listed violent exercise, jumping too high, blows to the belly, and lifting great weights. Clearly, any woman wishing badly enough to abort could find a solution to her dilemma, without relying on outside aid. If she wished to rely on herbal remedies, they could be easily obtained. Aloes, one of the most widely urged and effective abortifacient, were regularly advertised in newspapers as being available in local stores.

“Of course, the number of women who availed themselves of the abortion option cannot be properly approximated. It is enough to say that abortion was feasible, available, and used option; it was a likely contributor to the birth rate falling by mid-century.”

Why Is Clinton Disliked?

David Brooks has a short NYT piece with a title that offers a simple question, Why Is Clinton Disliked? He gives the data showing how unpopular she is and what most people think about her. It presents a harsh public perception about her as a politician.

“She is, at the moment, just as unpopular as Trump. In the last three major national polls she had unfavorability ratings in the same ballpark as Trump’s. In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, they are both at 57 percent disapproval.

“In the New York Times/CBS News poll, 60 percent of respondents said Clinton does not share their values. Sixty-four percent said she is not honest or trustworthy. Clinton has plummeted so completely down to Trump’s level that she is now statistically tied with him in some of the presidential horse race polls.”

Yet it wasn’t always the case. Before this campaign season, public perception was different.

As secretary of state she had a 66 percent approval rating. Even as recently as March 2015 her approval rating was at 50 and her disapproval rating was at 39.”

He goes overboard with his view of Hillary Clinton as being disliked for being a driven workaholic and an impersonal professional role. Still, I think he has a point.

Most people don’t connect with Hillary. Her husband is just as much a sleazy politician and yet people liked him because he connected to people on a personal level. The same thing with Bush jr.

People don’t vote for politicians. They vote for people. Elections really are popularity contests. Hillary is smart and saavy enough to know this. It’s just she lacks charisma and charm. It’s just not in her to be that way.

She is a capable professional politician. She knows how to play the game in Washington. I’m sure she is well liked or at least respected by those who directly work with and share her political goals, those who have careers that are aligned with or overlap with hers.

She just doesn’t have the personality for media attenion. She is a good professional politician. But that’s not necessarily a compliment. She flip flops and tells people what she thinks they want to hear. She is a player of the game of wealth and power. She does get things done. The issue is what she gets done.

That might be fine if no one knew her actual political record. That is where the problem begins. Before this campaign, few bothered to learn about her. Once people did learn about her, they quickly figured out that they don’t like her and trust her, much less share values with her.

It’s not complicated. They didn’t know her before and now they do. There is no point in blaming most people for not liking her for the simple reason they don’t find her likable.

Brooks mentioned another of what he considers a ‘paradox’. He writes that,

“[A]gree with her or not, she’s dedicated herself to public service. From advocate for children to senator, she has pursued her vocation tirelessly. It’s not the “what” that explains her unpopularity, it’s the “how” — the manner in which she has done it.”

That misses the point. She has dedicated herself to being a professional politician. That isn’t necessarily the same as public service. No one is arguing she has never done a beneficial thing in her life. It’s just that her doing good seems to serve the ulterior purpose of looking good, like a boy scout helping an old lady across the street to get a badge or a high school student volunteering at a soup kitchen to put on a college application.

Brooks does get to this point. Surely, she is a normal human with normal human interests, concerns, and preoccupations. “But,” as Brooks says, “it’s hard from the outside to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life. Except for a few grandma references, she presents herself as a résumé and policy brief.” One gets the sense that to her everything is politics. That is to say, in this kind of political system, that everything is about wealth and power, about connections and cronyism.

She is all about big money politics. She isn’t ashamed of being a servant of corporate interests. And she isn’t ashamed of using her authority to force US power onto others, even when it harms and kills thousands of people. That is politics in her mind and her life is all about politics. One suspects she thinks about little else. She is ambitious and has dedicated her life to this aspiration, whatever one thinks of it.

Brooks states, because of her lack of presenting herself with a personal life, that therefore “of course to many she seems Machiavellian, crafty, power-oriented, untrustworthy.” It’s not that she seems that way. She is that way. That is what the minority of people who like her mean when they say she is experienced and effective. She gets things done, by any means necessary.

What the majority dislikes about her is not just how she gets things done, but also what she gets done. Even if people were able to see a more personable side to Clinton, it wouldn’t change that most people disagree with her values and policies. Most Americans don’t support neocon wars of aggression and neoliberal ‘free’ trade agreements, two areas of policy that only find majority support among the upper classes.

No amount of personal image rehabilitation and public perception management is going to change that. People dislike and mistrust her because of issues of substance. She simply doesn’t represent what most Americans want and support. It doesn’t help her campaign that right now there is another candidate, Sanders, who does represent what most Americans want and support. This is a rare campaign season in that people feel they finally have a real choice and, as such, they are intentionally not choosing Clinton.

All of this might change after the nominations, assuming Clinton is nominated as the Democratic candidate. Maybe more people will rationalize that Clinton isn’t so bad, after all, at least compared to Trump. Or maybe even then most Americans won’t be able to stomach voting for her.

* * *

Additional note:

Brooks’ article unsurprisingly gets negative attention, one assumes mostly from Clinton supporters. There is no doubt that much bias exists in society against women in positions of power and authority. But it would be disingenuous to claim that is all or even primarily what is going on.

If Bill Clinton were running for the presidency now instead of back in the 1990s, he too would be facing some of these same problems. It’s not gender or even entirely personality. It’s just that back in the 1990s most Americans didn’t yet have a good sense of how bad neoliberalism was and they hadn’t seen the full brunt of neoconservatism that would come with the War On Terror.

The ideology of the Clinton New Democrats is no longer supported by most Americans. It really is as simple as that.


Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.

This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.

It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.

Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.

Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.

Not all of this can be blamed on pollsters, though. There was enough polling data to show major shifts were afoot. Some pollsters were able to discern that Millennials had a majority positive opinion of the ‘socialism’. That interesting fact of public opinion began showing up about a decade ago, but apparently few in the mainstream were paying attention until Sanders’ candidacy came along.

The older generations are shocked. As children of Cold War propaganda, they unsurprisingly have a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’. More interesting is that these older Americans also dislike libertarianism. For the young, socialism and libertarianism are two expressions of their growing extremes of liberal-mindedness.

So, it’s more of a divide of generations than of ideology.

Central to this are environmental concerns. Most older Americans probably assume they will die before major environmental catastrophes happen, allowing them to shut these problems out of their minds and pretend they aren’t fully real. Younger Americans, on the other hand, realize they’ll be forced to deal with these problems they’re inheriting.

* * *

Americans’ Identification as “Environmentalists” Down to 42%

Americans’ Concerns About Water Pollution Edge Up

U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy

Opposition to Fracking Mounts in the U.S.

In U.S., 73% Now Prioritize Alternative Energy Over Oil, Gas

Youth and Country

Corey Robin has a post about changes in politics, public opinion, and generations. Someone brought up a good point in the comment section:

I’d be careful not to overestimate the importance of individual self-report surveys as a way to gauge ideological drift. People are liable to say all sorts of stupid, poorly thought-out, and frankly incorrect things about their own beliefs depending on how a question is phrased and what positions they have the ideological language to articulate, which is especially pertinent when the questions are a simple yea/nay to ideological labels like “liberal”, “conservative”, or “socialist”. US discourse in particular has a long history of hollowing out such labels and filling them with meanings that would be all but unrecognizable in any serious intellectual context, e.g. how many people even among readers of your blog wouldn’t necessarily be aware that “liberalism” and “socialism” are traditionally considered mutually exclusive?

If there’s any of these “ideological label yea/nay” questions I’d consider potentially important, it’s the extent to which people are willing to explicitly reject patriotism and identify as citizens of the world — most other “leftist” commitments can be subverted fairly easily by appealing to nationalist solidarity against some group of foreigners or another, especially the ones who are allegedly “stealing our jobs”. But I’d want to see some more data before concluding that internationalism among young Americans is more robust and widespread today than back in the era of “Imagine there’s no countries…” and so on.

I’m feeling too lazy to analyze it at the moment, but it does make me curious. In lieu of my own thoughts on the matter, here is some polling data and analysis:

















American Populism, From Frustration to Hope

Every movement fails. Until it succeeds. And then, when it does, everyone says, of course it succeeded, it had to succeed. No, actually, it didn’t have to succeed. But what made it succeed—or at least helped it succeed—was that men and women, for a time, shook off the need for certitude, let go of the bannisters of certainty, remembered that they are not scientists, and put themselves into motion. Without knowing where they’d end up.
~ Corey Robin

There is a lot of frustration and demoralization in the air. It is quite the downer. The campaigns are moving into their nasty phase, and the rest of the population is following suit, those of us who aren’t simply feeling burned out and beat up by the endless harangue. It can lead to doubts and pessimism about the entire political system.

I noticed the effect of this with my dad who is showing signs of emotional fatigue. He utterly despises Trump. And he finds Cruz to be mean-spirited and divisive. As a last resort, he supported Rubio in the caucus, even though he sees him as a weak candidate against Democrats.

My dad has been in a despondent mood. Trump’s campaign, in particular, maybe makes him more sad than outraged. He can’t comprehend what it all means or why it’s happening. I could point out that the conservative movement has been intentionally pushing the GOP to ever greater reactionary extremism for a long time, but I don’t feel like putting my finger into that wound and wiggling it around.

I want to send my love out to the world. I know it’s bad. Instead of inspiration, we get politics as usual or else something worse. I hate seeing people turn on one another, especially average people who for decades have been dumped on by both parties. The voters on the other side aren’t the source of your problem. We don’t live in a functioning democracy and those people far off in Washington don’t represent you. If you want to take back America, whatever that might mean, then you’ll have to do it with more than a vote and a fight for your party, your candidate, your group.

Let’s get straight about the basics. Bernie Sanders isn’t a radical communist. Hillary Clinton isn’t a progressive feminist. Cruz isn’t a principled libertarian. Trump isn’t anything other than a car salesman in a fancy suit. And fergodsake NO! Sanders and Trump are not the same, populist rhetoric aside. Is that clear?

That is what these candidates aren’t. But the campaigns all share a commonality in responding to the public mood. People want something different and the candidates are all trying to present themselves in that light. For this reason, I suspect voters could so easily switch their loyalties as the campaign season continues. It’s not exactly politics as usual, although not as different as some like to pretend.

Let me further clarify a point. This campaign season isn’t an ideological battle. No, Americans aren’t particularly divided, at least not in the ways typically portrayed in the mainstream media (not even Obama has divided the public). When you look at polls, most Americans agree about most things, including healthcare and tax reform, even including taxing the wealthy more. Populism is in the air, all across the spectrum.

Even so, let me note something. Pew states that there is increasing polarization, although I’d point out that it is mostly among the activists and political elite. Anyway, Pew goes on to say that (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2014):

Even so, most Americans do not view politics through uniformly liberal or conservative lenses, and more tend to stand apart from partisan antipathy than engage in it. But the typology shows that the center is hardly unified. Rather, it is a combination of groups, each with their own mix of political values, often held just
as strongly as those on the left and the right, but just not organized in consistently liberal or conservative terms. Taken together, this “center” looks like it is halfway between the partisan wings. But when disaggregated, it becomes clear that there are many distinct voices in the center, often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and the right.

Looking at various data, I’ve noted that this mix or confusion even exists within ideological demographics and, of course, within the parties. For example, Pew data (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2011) showed that 9% of Solid Liberals self-identify as ‘conservative’. That is a broad conservative movement that includes a significant number of people who are liberal across most issues. This is how symbolic ideology can trump all else, at least under the right conditions.

Categories that seem distinct can be porous and overlapping. Plus, there are larger patterns that cut across the seeming divides. How we group people can at times seem almost arbitrary.

The following is some data from a 2011 Pew poll. Progressivism has found favored opinion in both parties and among independents, with more support than even conservatism. Meanwhile, both ‘socialism’ and ‘libertarianism’ have found growing support. Libertarianism oddly gets a more positive response from Democrats than Republicans. More interesting is the comparison of socialism and capitalism, as explained by Sarah van Gelder:

There is growing willingness to name corporate rule and global capitalism as key problems, and to look to decentralized, place-based economies as the answer. While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll. And more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than of the Tea Party.

The most telling part is the numbers among Republicans. Libertarianism and the Tea Party have lost favor, among those who are supposedly its strongest supporters. At the same time, only 66% of conservative Republicans have a positive view of capitalism, while 25% (1 in 4) of moderate-to-liberal Republicans have a positive view of socialism. Even though that means 90% of Republicans overall still dislike socialism (as of 2011), that leaves 1 in 10 with either a positive or neutral position and I bet that latter group has been growing, especially among young Republicans. Then again, the younger generation has turned away from the Republican Party and this might have played a part, as after a while it would be hard to maintain the cognitive dissonance of listening to candidates of your party who attack what you support.

The youth vote is up in the air, for both parties—as described by Morgan Gilbard:

Millennials, usually categorized as individuals between 18 and 33, are less willing to identify with a party than ever before, according to a Pew Research study in April 2015. Only 18 percent identified as Republican and 28 percent as Democrat. A staggering 48 percent considered themselves independent, compared with 40 percent in 2008.

This is particularly true of a demographic Pew calls Young Outsiders. They are 14% of the general public, 15% of registered voters, and 11% of the politically engaged. Even Pew’s Next Gen Left (12%, 13%, 11%) could be pulled right based on their weaker support for a social safety net. And the relatively young Bystanders, 10% of the general population, could be inspired to become registered and politically engaged.

Although social liberalism is popular for Millennials, including among young Republicans, there are key issues that split the youth vote and could tip the balance in either direction. Frustration with the government could lead many otherwise liberal Millennials to vote Republican, just as frustration with the economy could lead many otherwise conservative Millennials to vote Democratic. Yet much of the frustration is basically the same across the board—Siraj Hashmi reports:

“Why are we fighting the Iraq War? Why are we spending billions of dollars trying to rebuild Afghanistan, which looks like the Moon, than spending money on our cities like Detroit? Why do we not care about putting Americans first? Those are very appealing questions,” Girdusky said. “They’re [Trump and Sanders] coming at different answers, but it’s the questions that millennials are asking themselves as well.”

The youth of today aren’t the same as the youth of the past. It is today’s youngest generation of voters that has the strongest support for both socialism and libertarianism (the opposite for older generations, including when they were younger), which maybe puts libertarian socialists such as Noam Chomsky in a new position of influence. It might even explain some of the appeal of Sanders, even for rural conservatives in his state, as his ‘socialism’ includes defense of gun rights. Among several demographics, there isn’t always a perfect alignment in their opinions about various labels. Blacks, for example, have a majority with positive views of conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. This seems to be related to what Pew recently has called the Faith and Family Left (30% Black, 19% Hispanic), 51% of which “hold an equal mix of liberal and conservative values”—while religiously and socially conservative in many ways, their liberalism being specifically a “strong support for government and a commitment to the social safety net.” So, conservatism can go along with ‘socialism’ just fine but even more strangely doesn’t even have to be opposed to liberalism. Ha!

This might partly relate to what “scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology” (Jost, Federico, & Napier). Few people seem to grasp this distinction. This explains the power of culture war rhetoric (i.e., symbolic ideology) and why that rhetoric will lose power as conditions change. Populist eras tend to defy easy ideological categorizations, and the public during such times isn’t as predictably easy to manipulate by machine politics. Symbolic ideology can quickly shift and morph, allowing the operational side to emerge. When people are hurting on a basic level of making a living and getting by, the symbolic and operational can come into alignment. That is the power and potential of populism, and also its danger.

Related to this, there have been many articles about Republicans turning to join the Sanders campaign. Who are these Republicans feeling the Bern? The more recent 2014 Pew poll (Beyond Red vs. Blue) tells us who they are. But first let me tell you who they aren’t. What Pew calls Business Conservatives is a demographic that is more socially liberal and pro-immigration, while of course being strong in their economic conservatism—74% of them believe that “Wall Street helps economy more than it hurts.” That is unsurpising. Now for the other major group on the political right, Steadfast Conservatives. Close to half of them (41%) disagree with this faith in Wall Street. Most Americans (62%) think that “Economic system unfairly favors powerful,” with Steadfast Conservatives being divided on this issue (48% unfair; 47% fair), but even almost a third (31%) of Business Conservatives agree that it is unfair. A larger majority of Americans (78%) think that “Too much power is concentrated in hands of few large companies”—in response to this, division is even greater on the political right with 71% of Steadfast Conservatives agreeing and once again about a third (35%) of Business Conservatives agreeing as well, although it should be noted that it is a small majority (only 57%) of the latter who state that the “Largest companies do not have too much power.”

These are the populists that Trump is also able to tap, but also the type of person who might choose Sanders over someone like Cruz. The era of culture wars is coming to an end and class war is taking its place. A divide is growing even among upper and lower classes in the conservative movement. Also, among Independents (even those who lean Republican: Pew’s Young Outsiders), the majority sees the Democratic Party as more caring about the middle class, an attitude that puts some wind in Sanders’ sails. In US politics, rhetoric about the middle class has immense symbolic force, as it speaks to both the fears of the shrinking middle class and the throttled aspirations of the working class.

On a slightly different note, some see nationalist fervor as being an area of divisiveness and conflict, that which could negate or mute all else. Conservatives supposedly think America is the best and anyone who disagrees should leave. It is true that many ‘conservative’ politicians and pundits talk that way, but it isn’t what most conservatives think in private. The majority of all Americans across the spectrum don’t believe that “The U.S. stands above all other countries,” even as they do think it’s a great country. On this note, most Americans don’t believe the US should use its capacity of ‘overwhelming’ force to fight terrorism. And, in a different area of policy, most Americans support a path to citizenship for immigrants and support affirmative action—a majority of conservatives supporting the former and a third of conservatives supporting the latter. Patriotic and prejudicial rhetoric is effective for getting strident activists and loyal supporters excited at GOP campaigns. It’s just not likely to sway most potential voters come election time. The average American simply isn’t all that concerned about such things, specifically not in terms of a chest-beating fear-mongering attitude.

Even religion isn’t going to do much for conservatives and Republicans, not even from Evangelicals. The majority of young believers are progressive and liberal, increasingly both in terms of how they label themselves and in what they support (e.g., same sex marriage). Minorities have higher rates of religiosity than even white conservatives. According to Pew’s 2014 Beyond Red vs. Blue, the most religiously-oriented demographic is the Democratic-voting Faith and Family Left—91% affirming that it is “Necessary to believe in God to be moral,” whereas this agreed to by only 69% of Steadfast Conservatives and 31% of Business Conservatives. As for the majority of Americans, they don’t hold this religious view of morality.

Similarly, most Americans don’t take the Bible literally, do acknowledge Darwinian evolution, think homosexuality should be accepted and favor gay marriage, support abortion in all/most cases, see no reason to expect people to prioritize marriage and children over all else, don’t believe Islam is inherently violent, etc. I could point to dozens of other issues that demonstrate the liberalism of Americans (e.g., majority support of global warming and need of improved environmental regulations, such as 71% saying “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment”), at least in terms of operational ideology and I’d argue increasingly in terms of symbolic ideology as well (e.g., the progressive label now being more popular than the conservative label).

The real Silent Majority, left and right, are those tired of the divisive and mean-spirited culture war rhetoric. Only the political and media elite remain divided by their own rhetoric. Still, the divisive minority is disproportionately vocal and influential, but my sense is that most Americans are growing tired of this minority dominating politics.

Obviously, people are beginning to see labels and ideologies in new ways, as they more and more question the status quo. You can begin to feel the change in the air. How the American public and the two main parties get described in the MSM simply no longer matches reality on the ground. The real divide is older and wealthier non-Hispanic white people versus everyone else. It’s ultimately a class divide, since most of the wealth is concentrated among the older generations and among non-Hispanic whites. The rest of the population is economically struggling or, at best, stuck and stagnating.

Let me return to the issue of what does and doesn’t divide most Americans. Over the years, I’ve talked to a variety of my fellow citizens, online and in my everyday life. I’m often surprised by the amount of agreement that exists, if and when you get past superficial divisive rhetoric. You wouldn’t know that by paying attention to the mainstream media and the partisan campaigning.

All the time, I find points of agreement with my dad who is a lifelong Republican, and this agreement usually involves the issues that get ignored by the mainstream. My mom, an old school conservative and former public school teacher, defends public education and she also supports a return of a New Deal work program for the unemployed. My second cousin is a right-wing libertarian and Tea Partier, and yet we both are inspired by the same ‘socialist’ vision of Star Wars: The Next Generation.

Heck, Sander’s own ‘socialism’ simply represents much of what most Americans state they already support in polls. One of the strongest arguments many Hillary Clinton supporters make is that they want a woman for president, but I doubt many other Americans oppose that, not even Republicans with their own female candidate. Likewise with libertarianism, even many on the political left (including many minorities) might be fine with a president who was a genuine libertarian, that is to say not an authoritarian corporatist theocon—see Reason Magazine’s take on this:

A majority—53 percent—of millennials say they would support a candidate who described him or herself as socially liberal and economically conservative, 16 percent were unsure, and 31 percent would oppose such a candidate.

Interestingly, besides libertarians, liberal millennials are the most supportive of a libertarian-leaning candidate by a margin of 60 to 27 percent. Conservative millennials are most opposed (43% to 48% opposed).

A libertarian-leaning candidate would appeal to both Democratic and Republican voters. For instance, 60 percent of Hillary Clinton voters, 61 percent of Rand Paul voters, 71 percent of Chris Christie voters, and 56 percent of those who approve of President Obama all say they would support a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate.

As for Trump’s followers, that is a whole other ball of wax. They are just outraged beyond all sense or reason. It really doesn’t matter what Trump says or advocates. I suspect his followers would follow him all the way to Soviet-style communism without blinking an eye, proclaiming conservative rhetoric all the while. The outrage may get a lot of attention and the mainstream media loves it for its entertainment value (i.e., advertising dollars), but it has little to do with what most Americans want, not even among Republicans.

Americans aren’t ideological in the sense that word is normally used. Social science research has shown this. Most Americans support liberal and progressive policies, even as they support symbolic conservatism. The latter is why culture war rhetoric is so persuasive. The thing about symbolic conservatism, though, is that it has no inherent meaning. It captures a mood, a sensibility, or an attitude—not so much a specific political system or worldview. When you look at the present and former communist countries, they are all socially conservative. It’s important to remember that conservatism isn’t the same thing as right-wing, which is particularly clear when one considers how socially liberal are most libertarians. Economic populism in the US in the past was strongly supported by conservatives. There is even an old history of Christian socialism.

In the end, labels are mostly meaningless. That is being demonstrated with Sanders campaign. It doesn’t matter what he calls himself. He is drawing support from many Independents and even is luring a surprising number of Republicans who are fed up with the GOP circus. In reality, Sanders is just an old school New Dealer. So was Reagan before he became a neoliberal (he never lost his admiration for FDR). There is nothing contradictory between conservatism as a general view and the economic left. Russell Kirk was the mid-20th century thinker who made American conservatism respectable again and yet he saw no problem voting for a Socialist Party candidate.

Clinton and other mainstream types point to Sanders’ history on gun policy. They see this as harsh criticism, proving he is no liberal. Such an argument merely proves how disconnected are the political and media elite. Most liberals, like most conservatives, are for gun rights. Just as most conservatives, like most liberals, are for stronger gun regulation. There is no contradiction here. As a politician, Sanders doesn’t just represent urbanites but also many rural folk. As in Iowa that usually votes for Democratic candidates in presidential elections, you don’t have to be a crazy right-winger to own a gun. On the political left, there is between a quarter and a third who have a gun in their homes (depending on the Pew demographic). That isn’t extremely different from the half of those on the political right who have a gun in their homes. It is important to remember also that conservation, a major issue supposedly for liberals, has always been strongly defended by gun-toting hunters.

None of this is about ideology in a simple sense. Nor is it about parties. Voters switch parties easier than do most politicians and candidates. Even entire parties shift over time, as with the GOP once having been the home of radical left-wingers—critics having called them Red Republicans. As for Democrats, it was common to find white supremacists among their ranks earlier last century. Obviously, the parties have changed… and they will keep changing. Until a short while ago, Sanders wasn’t even a Democrat. If an Independent politician can become a Democratic candidate, then maybe many Independent voters will follow suit.

Older Americans still live in the shadow of McCarthyism and many tremble with fear at being associated with communism and socialism, but younger Americans simply don’t give a frack about Cold War propaganda since they never knew the Cold War. Those among us who do remember it are simply tired of it and are ready for something new.

I’ll tell you what I care about—democracy! That is always the first victim of the US campaign season. I’m not a political animal. It doesn’t even take a Trump to make me despondent. Still, I care about democracy, if only as a vision and a glimmer of potential.

The first political candidate I ever cared about was Ralph Nader. That was back in 2000. I was entirely apolitical before that. It was a shock to the system when I heard Nader speak. Holy shit! This was a politician who had principles and actually believed them. You could hear it in his voice. I had never come across that before.

That was the first time I voted for a presidential candidate. It was a strange campaign to which to lose my political virginity. I felt dirty afterwards. The ugliness of that campaign season put this one to shame. Nader supporters like me got blamed for everything going wrong, even though the Democratic candidate won the election before it was handed over to Bush by the Supreme Court. Shouldn’t the Democrats instead have been mad at a system that was proven corrupt and been mad at their own candidate who bowed down before that corruption, refusing to challenge it?

It was disturbing that the members of a party called Democratic would be so accepting of a process that was shown to be so blatantly undemocratic. To many Americans, it was just corrupt politics as usual, as if there was nothing that could be done about it other than to repeat the same insanity and idiocy four years later.

Of course, the kind of Democrat that attacked Nader voters in the past are now attacking Sanders supporters now, with the DNC leadership trying to tilt the field in Clinton’s favor (e.g., shutting down debates or scheduling them when few would watch). It’s the same old game: defend the status quo at all costs, even as the status quo grows worse and worse. The reason given is that the only alternative to present problems are even worse problems. So, vote for the lesser evil, going down a road paved of good intentions, until by slow descent we all end up in hell. Third Way politics has turned out to be nothing more than an appeasement to the powers that be. More of the same will just get us more of the same, all the while expecting something different, what some define as madness.

Even Sanders isn’t some extreme alternative. On military issues, he might not be all that different from Obama who has followed the example of Bush. Even his economic views are really just mainstream social democracy, rather moderate and tame, and popular as well. The main advantage Sanders offers is the possibility of a shift in the political narrative, a chance to widen the range of allowable opinion. He isn’t much of a socialist, but just the ability to use that word in a national campaign is a breath of fresh air. It’s a sign of new options being put on the table. I’m so tired of replaying the Cold War endlessly. The Russians aren’t going to invade. We don’t need to constantly act in permanent panic mode—America against all the world, including too often American against other Americans. It’s time to look not to the past, but to the future, to new possibilities.

This is what gives me hope. The younger generations don’t carry all that baggage from last century. And it really is a heavy load on the shoulders of the Cold War generations. Americans haven’t been able to think straight about almost anything for a long time, our minds being in the vice grip of paralyzing rhetoric.

In the Cold War battle between left-wing communism and right-wing fascism (or what others call corporatism, crony capitalism, inverted totalitarianism, etc), the latter won and we are living with the results of that. Instead of Godless communism, the ruling elite promoted a religious-tinged culture war both in the US and around the world. The US and other Western governments took out the communist governments in places like the Middle East and helped to replace them with Islamic nationalism (or else ruthless dictators), in the hope that it would keep the oil flowing and neoliberal markets open. How did that work out? The youth today wouldn’t mind a bit of Godlessness at this point, maybe even a moderate dose of genuine leftism for a change.

I do believe that shifting public perception is one of the most important things we can do right now. It doesn’t matter that Sanders isn’t actually a socialist. I realize that electing him president won’t lead to revolutionary changes that will transform our government toward a functioning democracy nor our economy toward socialism. What it will do is open up a space where dialogue can begin. No other mainstream candidate is offering such an opportunity. That shouldn’t be dismissed with cynicism and supposed realpolitik pragmatism.

I sense many Americans agree with me on this. What we need right now is a way of speaking across the many divides of generations and skin color, parties and ideologies. As Americans, our concerns, our lives, and our fate is held in common. It’s not about finding the right leader to solve our problems, but to reenvision who we are as a people. We don’t need to take America back. We are America, all of us.

* * *

(I should make note of something. I wasn’t ignoring third party candidates. I actually despise the two-party system. I like that Sanders’ campaign is opening up discussion of important issues, such as what does and could socialism mean in a democracy, and heck what does and could democracy mean in a corporatist political system. Yet, all in all, I’m more likely to vote third party. But in a sense this post isn’t really about the presidential election. My interest is in what this all means for the American people, where is it that we are heading, what is possible.)

* * *

Political Revolution and the Third-Party Imperative

Bernie Sanders Wins Historically Accurate Mock Election

My Prediction: Bernie Sanders Will Win the White House

Shock Poll: Sanders Catches Clinton and Crushes Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire

The Blast That Swept Him Came Off New Hampshire Snowfields and Ice-Hung Forests

When you ask me to vote for Hillary

The Establishment’s Last Gasp

On Electability

90% of what goes on at The New Yorker can be explained by Vulgar Marxism

Hillary Clinton: The Ultimate Outsider


Why Is Hillary Clinton Using Republican Talking Points to Attack Bernie Sanders?

Hillary Clinton Is Using GOP Fear Tactics Against Bernie Sanders’ Health Care Plan

The Escalating Media Assault on Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Will Become President, Despite Rigged Debate Schedules, Skewed Polls, and Clinton’s ‘Inevitability’

Bernie Won All the Focus Groups & Online Polls, So Why Is the Media Saying Hillary Won the Debate?

Did Hillary Clinton really win the Democratic debate?

Sanders: Timing of debates structured to help Clinton

Clinton bias accusations chase top Democrat Wasserman Schultz

Why Did the DNC Let the Bernie-Hillary Tech Story Leak?

Sanders Adviser Suggests Staffer That Breached Voter Data May Have Been DNC Plant


DISGRACEFUL: DNC Compromises Clinton Campaign Data, Then Blames Bernie Sanders

The Scandal of the DNC Data Breach


Bernie Sanders campaign claims DNC voter data was leaked multiple times

Report: Sanders campaign told DNC of data issue months ago

The “electability” argument is bogus: Why Bernie Sanders isn’t the second coming of George McGovern

Bernie Sanders is no Ron Paul: What the press gets all wrong about the Vermont senator

Bernie Sanders, First Libertarian Socialist?


Libertarian voting for Bernie Sanders in primary

How Bernie Sanders Helped Kill Rand Paul’s Campaign

How Reddit (and Bernie Sanders) helped kill Rand Paul’s campaign

Ron Paul Gives Bernie Sanders a Boost… Sort Of

The Republicans who love Bernie Sanders

The Lifelong Republicans Who Love Bernie Sanders

Republicans for Bernie

Republicans for Bernie Sanders

Why Surprising Numbers of Republicans Have Been Voting for Bernie Sanders in Vermont

Bernie Sanders Is a Loud, Stubborn Socialist. Republicans Like Him Anyway.

GOP Senator: I’d Vote For Bernie Sanders Over Ted Cruz

Millennials in Poll Fake Right, Go Left

Millennials have a higher opinion of socialism than of capitalism

Hey, GOP, Here’s Why Millennials Hate Us


Clinton looks to sisterhood, but votes may go to Sanders

Who Are the American Religious?

I was looking at polling data for the religious. Just minor curiosity, on this Sunday morning.

Like the rest of the population, the overall US trend is toward progressivism and liberalism (I wonder what the trend is in other countries and across the world). One poll from Beliefnet was done in 2008.

Beliefnet Poll: Evangelicals Still Conservative, But Defy Issue Stereotypes

It’s probably a little out of date, as the results of demographic shifts are quickly changing and becoming more apparent. In the intervening years, progressives have increased among Evangelicals, although many others have left Evangelicalism. More broadly, religious progressives now outnumber religious conservatives.

Anyway, what interested me was the following section from the above link:

“In some ways, the survey reveals evangelicals to be quite conservative: 41-percent said they were Republican compared to 30-percent who were Democrats; 47-percent said they were conservative versus 14-percent who said they were liberal. Almost 80-percent said they attended church weekly or more than weekly and 84% said the Bible is the “inerrant word of God.”

“Generally speaking, however, evangelicals ranked traditionally progressive or Democratic causes as more important than traditionally conservative or Republican ones. Twenty three percent said their views had become less positive about Republicans, twice the number who said they’d soured on Democrats, though half of respondents said they had become less positive about both parties. Almost 60-percent said they favored a more progressive evangelical agenda focused more on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDs, and alleviating poverty and less on abortion and homosexuality.”

That mirrors the same confusion of labeling confusion as found in the general population. This weird phenomenon creates problems in interpretation. It is rare to see the self-identification data clearly compared and contrasted with public opinion data.

Still, this is far from an unknown social reality, as far as it concerns academic researchers.

Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities
by John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, & Jaime L. Napier

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

It interested me to see this same type of thing in the religious polling. But it isn’t surprising. Confusion abounds, especially when it comes to politics on the left.

By the way, the following are links to some of the data on changes in the religious demographic(s), especially among the younger generations. I’ve seen much of this data over the years. There is a shift that has been happening for a long time. It’s nothing new, but it’s good to keep in mind.

Survey | Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights

Young Evangelicals in the 2012 Elections
by Sojourners

Are Millennials Killing Off the Religious Right?
by Amanda Marcotte

More than half of evangelicals oppose cutting government funds for poor, survey shows
by Electa Draper

Survey shows diversity in political opinion among mainline Protestant clergy
by Mary Frances Schjonberg

Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage
And the Bible isn’t getting in their way.
by Jim Hinch

Young U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly accepting of homosexuality
by Michael Lipka

Millennial Christians Are More Socially Progressive Than You Might Expect, Shattering Some Conservative Stereotypes
by Emma Cueto

Why Pope Francis is Polling The World’s Catholics
by Jack Jenkins

If Vatican conservatives are so afraid of gay rights, young Catholics aren’t going to wait around
by Zach Stafford

Young Christians Are Fleeing Evangelicalism—And Here’s Why
by Eleanor J. Bader

Politico: Catholic Republicans Have a Pope Problem
by Courtney Coren

Poll: Americans Prefer Gay President To Evangelical Christian
by Alan

How evangelicals won a war and lost a generation
by CNN


Republicans, Who They Are and Where They Are Heading

I love looking at demographic and polling data. It can bring up insights that one would otherwise not have considered. Public Policy Polling put out a release that broke down Republican opinion. I highly recommend looking at the data for yourself.

Some reporting on it has focused on the gender divide. Republican men are more motivated by fiscal issues. And Republican women are more motivated by social issues. That leads to the odd results of Republican women being stronger supporters of Christian theocracy in America, despite the obvious fact that would harm women the most. Fortunately, female Republicans are a smaller proportion of the GOP.

One sad part of the data is the age component. Younger Republicans aren’t becoming more liberal. What the data doesn’t show is that the younger cohort in general is becoming more liberal, and they are also less supportive of the Republican Party. What is happening is that the few young folk left remaining in the Republican Party are the most extreme elements. Basically, there are almost no moderate young Republicans left. Moderate Republicans have been disappearing for a long time, but we are about ready to declare them finally extinct.

Considering this, I wonder what the Republican Party will look like 10 to 20 years from now. They are at a crises point. The party has been mostly some combination of older people, whites, and men. Obviously, it can’t stay that way. As the few remaining young reactionaries push the party even further toward radical right-wing politics, a choice will have to be made. If they continue down that path, they will become obsolete.

The Court of Public Opinion: Part 2

Part 2: Offline Sources

In Part 1, I offered the results of web searches. I was mostly interested in the answers given to public polls and scientific surveys. I did include some analysis as well, but this post will focus more on that aspect. So, I’ve turned to the books I own in order to gain more context, about the data itself as well as about the political and historical background.

I’ll highlight one issue. It is a chicken or the egg scenario.

The political elites are fairly clueless about the views of the general public, including their own constituents. At the same time, the average American is clueless about what those in government are actually doing. This disconnection is what one expects from a society built on a class-based hierarchy with growing extremes of inequality. In countries that have lower inequality, there is far less disconnection between political elites and the citizenry.

It isn’t clear who is leading who. How could politicians simply be doing what the public wants when they don’t know what the public wants? So, what impact does public opinion even have? There is strong evidence that public opinion might simply be following elite opinion and reacting to the rhetoric heard on the MSM.

Populations are easily manipulated by propaganda, as history shows. That seems to be the case with the United States as well.

As such, it isn’t clear how punitive most Americans actually are. When given more and better information, when given more and better options, most Americans tend to focus away from straightforward punitive policies. Imagine what the public might support if we ever had an open and honest debate based on the facts.

From Books: Data and Analysis

Inequality & Violence in the United States: Casualties of Capitalism
By Barbara H. Chasin

Kindle Locations 319-367

Owners of the media have the power to decide the content of what we see. Violence and action are very appealing to producers. Media analyst and critic George Gerbner, former dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, is convinced that economic motives explain much media content. Violence, he claims, is a “good commodity for the global market.” It “travels well, you don’t need to trans- late.”36 In other words, violent entertainment can be more easily exported. Grunts, yells, and moans can be understood in many languages. There is no need to deal with possibly delicate issues of sex or politics, and humor is often culture-bound.

The managers of the media decide how we will be entertained and what information we will have. In chapters 4 and 5 we will be discussing the power of corporate executives, but here we will look at one aspect of that power as part of our discussion of the relationship between the media and violence. Media executives are at the top of what sociologist C. Wright Mills termed the “cultural apparatus,” where information, interpretations of reality, and entertainment are produced and distributed.37

The media focuses much more attention on street crime than on the more harmful corporate wrongdoing. A report issued by Arizona State University’s School of Justice, “Confronting Violent Crime in Arizona,” claims, “Corporate crimes, which are not only prevalent but physically dangerous, even deadly, receive little attention and may not be covered as crime at all, but rather as a business matter.” In 1999 media critic Morton Mintz asked the chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division, James Robinson, the following question: “How often have you seen or heard of a newspaper editorial or column … or talking head criticizing grave corporate crime or misconduct?” Robinson answered, “I can’t remember the most recent occasion.”39

Since the media is both interlocked with major corporations and is also dependent on them for advertising, their reluctance to criticize corporate practices is understandable. Emphasizing street crime over business crime is useful to political figures as well. As George Gerbner points out, “Fear of the mean world is politically exploitable.” As we shall see, politicians are not very likely to offer constituents protection from corporate malfeasance, but they do claim they can lessen the harm from other forms of violence.

Journalists engage in self-censorship, a way of protecting their jobs. The Pew Center for the People and the Press polled 287 news personnel in 2000. One-third of those surveyed said they would not report on news that might be harmful to the financial interests of their media outlet or advertisers. Sixty-one percent of investigative reporters believed that corporations influenced what was reported as news. In the same year another study was conducted by the Project on Excellence in Journalism. Here also one-third of TV news directors admitted that they had been asked to either promote positive stories about their advertisers or, at least, stay away from negative ones.39

Television news is dominated by crime stories in the belief that this will increase ratings. The motto of television news producers seems to be “if it bleeds, it leads”; “a lurid crime report with a high body count will … become the lead story, no matter how insignificant its actual news value.” Media commentators sometimes use the phrase “body-bag journalism” to convey how news programming aims toward the sensational.40

Television crime coverage does not reflect actual crime rates, according to the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). From January 1989 to January 1992, the three major networks spent an average of “67 minutes a month on crime stories.” In the period from October 1993 to January 1994, they were spending over 157 minutes a month on this topic. In the six months between June and November of 1993, media stories of violent crime went up by 400 percent.41

If you watched television news in the New York area between 1996 and 1997, you would not know that homicide rates had declined. The director of the city’s CBS station, Bill Carey, remarked, “The fact that percentages are down doesn’t affect our coverage.” Joseph Agnotti, a communications professor at the University of Miami, himself a former executive at NBC news, studied local news programs in eight cities in 1997. His research team discovered that about one-third of local news was devoted to crimes. Agnotti had an explanation: “It’s the easiest, cheapest, laziest news to cover because all they do is listen to the police radio, react to it … and put it on the air.” The team also found that in some of the cities studied the highest ratings were going to stations with the least amount of crime news.42

In Los Angeles researchers sampled thirty-five hours of news coverage on local TV, finding that crime stories made up “23 percent to 54 percent of all news coverage.” It was news presented as entertainment with little analysis. Much less attention was given to upcoming elections in California. “Of 2,059 minutes of news, just over eight minutes concerned the gubernatorial primary.”43

Television news has been found by sociologists to have an especially strong impact on viewers’ fear of crime. In 1994 Ted Chircos, Sarah Escholz, and Marc Gertz surveyed 2,092 people living in Tallahassee, Florida, at the peak of a media frenzy about violent crime. Listening to television and radio news was significantly related to having a higher level of fear, with white women being the group most likely to be afraid, even though this is a category with a relatively low rate of victimization. The researchers hypothesized that the women were identifying with the victims who were more likely to be white and female than either male or non- white.44 Nonwhite young males are the most likely, in fact, to be victims of violent street crime.

In January 1994 U.S. News and World Report had a cover story on crime, claiming crime has been increasing since 1960, a distortion of the data. Crime rates have gone up and down in that thirty-four-year period.41 Time magazine’s August 23, 1994, cover story was “America the Violent,” with a subheading noting, “crime is spreading and patience is running out.” The bright red cover had a lurid illustration of a sinister-looking young man, with a frightening inhuman face glaring out, not a well-dressed executive with a briefcase. Inside, the reader was told that people are in danger doing the ordinary things of life: going to the hospital, a fast-food restaurant, or the shopping mall.

A Los Angeles Times survey reported that 65 percent of respondents got their information about crime from the media.46 Between June 1993 and February 1994 the percentage of those telling Washington Post pollsters that crime was the most important issue facing the country rose from 5 to 31 percent.47 National survey data also showed a steep rise in the general feeling that crime is the most important problem in the nation. Between January 1993 and January 1994 the percentage of respondents identifying crime as the most important problem in the country rose from 9 percent to 37 percent, a 400 percent increase, but not a reflection of any similar increase in crime rates.48

Sociologist Barry Glassner thinks many Americans have excessive fears of things that won’t harm most of them while being far less aware of the real dangers confronting many. He calls this a “culture of fear,” noting:

We often fear the wrong things…. One of the paradoxes of a culture of fear is that serious problems remain widely ignored even though they give rise to precisely the dangers that the populace most abhors. Poverty, for example, correlates strongly with child abuse, crime, and drug abuse. Income inequality is also associated with adverse outcomes for society as a whole. The larger the gap between rich and poor in a society, the higher its overall death rates from heart disease, cancer, and murder.49

These are issues less likely to be attention-grabbing items.

While a careful reading of the media can provide useful information, there is much that is missing or distorted in the analysis we get from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. For instance, the relationships between corporate goals and resources, political decisions, and the conditions that give rise to interpersonal violence are rarely discussed. The media also do not often report on collective efforts that have helped solve social problems, and they rarely give information on how problems have been alleviated and the quality of life improved in other countries.50

* * * *

Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse
By Todd R. Clear

Kindle Locations 1019-1036

But during that same time, public concern about crime also began to grow. By the late 1960s, there began to be the earliest glimmers of a tough-on-crime movement in many areas of the country, and in fact, crime concerns became a national theme during the second Nixon presidential campaign (1972). For a brief period in the 1970s, a consensus of conservative and liberal intellectuals argued that the “rehabilitation” era of penology had failed and that the proper purpose of prisons was to punish those who broke the law. There was a difference of opinion about the value of prisons for anything else, however. It is hard to believe today, but at the outset of the 1970s, the Left was excited about the growing irrelevance of prisons in crime policy (American Friends Service Committee 1971). Meanwhile, the Right was convinced that prisons were a central weapon in the War on Crime (van den Haag 1975; Wilson, 1975). They agreed that the next step in penal policy should treat prisons as primarily an instrument of punishment.

In those years, there came to be a hard edge to public sentiment about crime. Crime rates began to rise in the 1960s and continued their rise throughout the 1970s. Public opinion polls consistently found that crime was at or near the top of people’s worries about the country (Flanagan and Longmire, 1996). This concern about crime also served as a symbol for other, less easily voiced worries about civil-rights unrest, antiwar disturbances, and bubbling reaction to the underlying principles of the welfare state and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. In the public mind, the social fabric of American society had broken down and disorder and disruption were rampant. A strong response—law and order—was required.

Public debate was accompanied by political action. Predictably, the action started where consensus was greatest, so by the end of the 1970s, seven states had abolished parole release—sometimes for everyone and sometimes for people convicted of certain “serious” crimes—by establishing a “presumptive” sentence to be served (minus good time). For the most part, public debate about these laws lacked any defenders of the status quo, and debaters differed only in the degree to which the sentences should get longer.

Kindle Locations 2077-2089

Sociologist Robert Crutchfield has been interested in the way social conditions, such as labor markets, affect attitudes toward society and community, especially social cohesion and trust as building blocks for social capital (see Crutchfield and Pitchford 1997). Recently Crutchfield (2005) investigated the impact of concentrated levels of young men in reentry on the attitudes of neighbors who had not been to prison. In a survey of residents of Seattle, Washington, Crutchfield asked respondents a series of questions regarding their attitudes toward the legitimacy of the law and the belief in authority—questions tapping social cohesion and trust. He found that in neighborhoods where there are high rates of young men returning from prison, overall social cohesion and trust are affected: in “neighborhoods with relatively large concentrations of former prisoners and, by extension . . . communities with more churning of people into and out of the prison system . . . [the negative attitude] in those places that we ordinarily attribute to economic disadvantage is due in part to sentencing patterns and correctional policies” (2004). This disrespect of formal institutions portends badly for community safety, as earlier work has shown that individuals whose jobs hold no future have less of a stake in conformity and are more likely to engage in criminal activity (Crutchfield and Pitchford 1997). In similar research in New York City, Tyler and Fagan (2005) show that people in the neighborhoods where incarceration rates are highest tend to view the police as unfair and disrespectful, corroding their views of the legitimacy of policing and broader governmental authority, and in turn signaling their withdrawal from social regulation and political life.

* * * *

Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration
By Devah Pager

Kindle Locations 2114-2124

7. J. H. Lipschultz and M. L. Hilt, Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking, and Live from the Scene (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002). Coverage of violent crime, in particular, is often sharply disconnected from actual crime trends. As the murder rate fell by roughly 40 percent during the 1990s, for example, the number of murder stories on NBC, ABC, and CBS evening news shows increased by more than 600 percent. This increase does not include stories related to the O. J. Simpson case. Author’s calculations based on data from the Center for Media and Public Affairs; see also Joseph F. Sheley and Cindy D. Ashkins, “Crime, Crime News, and Crime Views,” Public Opinion Quarterly 45, no. 4 (1981): 492-506; and D. A. Graber, Crime News and the Public (New York: Praeger, 1980). Media distortions notwithstanding, trends in public opinion did respond to falling crime rates. The percentage of Americans who ranked crime/violence as the number-one problem facing the country peaked in 1994 and then declined during the late 1990s. Likewise, between 1992 and 1999, a decreasing proportion of Americans believed that there had been more crime in the United States that year than in the year before. Nevertheless, the percentage ranking crime/violence as the number-one problem facing the country in 1999 (17 percent), after a decade of falling crime rates, was far higher than it had been at the start of the decade (1 percent), and more than half of all Americans in 1999 continued to believe that there had been more crime in the United States that year than in the year before. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Source book of Criminal justice Statistics (2003), tables 2.1, 2.33; see also Katherine Beckett, Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press,1997), 17-20, for a striking analysis of public opinion about crime and drugs during the preceding decades.

* * * *

Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs
By Doris Marie Provine

Kindle Locations 1467-1508

The Media and the Message about Crack

Crack cocaine proved the key to rekindling public interest in tough punishments for illicit drugs. Public concern about illicit drugs had stayed at a low ebb in the early years of the Reagan administration, despite the president and Nancy Reagan’s efforts to focus public attention on the issue (Jensen, Gerber, and Babcock 1991, 655-56). In 1985 and through most of 1986, Gallup public opinion surveys rated drugs a distant fourth among all problems facing the nation (Gallup Institute 1986). Crack, though on the streets in some large cities, was largely unknown to the American public. This changed dramatically in the spring of 1986 after the cocaine-related deaths of two celebrity athletes: Len Bias, a University of Maryland basketball star who had just signed a contract with the Boston Celtics, and Don Rogers, a member of the Cleveland Browns who died the day before he was to be married. Crack was initially blamed for their powder-induced fatalities.

Orcutt and Turner (1993) describe an unprecedented “media epidemic” of coverage in 1986 that began with the deaths of Bias and Rogers. In July, the three networks offered seventy-four evening news segments on drugs, half about crack. In the three months before the 1986 election, there were one thousand stories discussing crack. Fifteen million viewers watched a CBS documentary on crack in the fall of 1986, the highest on record for a news documentary. The competition for audience spawned other primetime and news programs. NBC, for example, produced four hundred separate stories devoted to crack. Newsweek called it the biggest story since Vietnam and Watergate, describing crack as “the most addictive drug known to man,” while Time made crack its issue of the year in 1986 (Szalavitz 1999; see generally Reeves and Campbell 1994, 162-83). Several media outlets ran stories suggesting a pandemic of crack use. Public concern about drugs rose in tandem with media coverage (Shoemaker, Wanta, and Leggett 1989, 77-79). Buried in all the attention devoted to crack were a few dissenting voices who suggested that the extent of the recent wave of drug abuse had been seriously exaggerated (Reinarman and Levine 1988, 252). For the most part, however, and in keeping with previous drug wars, there was a lack of critical attention to the actual incidence of crack abuse and to the reliability of the government sources on which the media depended for its stories.

The crack issue returned to the airwaves in 1988, another election year. In April 1988, ABC described crack as “a plague that was eating away at the fabric of America” (Reinarman and Levine 1995, 153). The Washington Post ran 1,565 stories on the drug crisis between October 1988 and October 1989. News coverage, as in the past, typically framed the issue of drug abuse in terms that promoted a criminal justice response (Beckett and Sasson 1998,3o; Reeves and Campbell 1994). The tone grew increasingly moralistic and dramatic over time. News stories included many misleading and inaccurate claims about an “epidemic” of drug use, about crack as a violence-inducing drug, and about pathetic “crack babies” destined to struggle with addiction. The principal theme-that immoral, mostly nonwhite users and dealers were laying siege to middle-class white America-resonated with earlier anti-drug rhetoric and supported the government’s expansionist, law-enforcement approach (Beckett and Sasson 1998,30-33).

Reeves and Campbell looked at 27o news reports broadcasted on the major networks between 1981 and 1988. They found a “cocaine narrative” that spoke menacingly of the drug’s dangers. Cocaine was presented as a pollutant, threatening the purity of vulnerable groups, particularly children, teenagers, and mothers. Important segments of the economy were deemed at risk in these portrayals, especially professional sports and college campuses. Hollywood was infected and might spread its infatuation with drugs more broadly (1994, 15, 19). These news reports, Reeves and Campbell showed, were also clearly raced: “Perhaps the central finding of this study is the disparity in news treatment of `white offenders’ and `black delinquents.’ … Whites were generally depicted as `repentant deviants’ while blacks were often branded as `enemy’ or `contesting deviants”‘ (1994, 42).

The Federal Role in Fomenting Fear of Crack Cocaine

Federal officials actively encouraged the media to focus on crack, but they also benefited from its own fascination with this new threat. The National Institute for Drug Abuse carried out an active campaign in 1986 to “increase public awareness” of the drug problem, offering public service announcements, numerous news releases, and “ride alongs” on federal drug busts. The New York representative of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Robert Stutman, gave hundreds of interviews to encourage media interest. He recalls: “I began a lobbying effort and I used the media. The media were only too willing to cooperate, because as far as the New York media was concerned, crack was the hottest combat reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War” (quoted in Beckett 1997, 56). All of the major networks followed the reports of these agencies closely in their news programs (Reeves and Campbell 1994, 165).

Katherine Beckett demonstrated the extent of government influence on media coverage of drug issues in the Reagan period by analyzing “interpretative packages” in television stories between 1982 and 1991. Each of these packages has a set of “signature issues” that identify it, and a core frame that makes the package coherent, such as “zero tolerance,” or “need more resources,” or “get the traffickers.” She found that most drug stories had their basis in government information, such as footage provided by law-enforcement organizations. These stories tended to be more favorable to escalating the effort than those produced through private sources:

The ascendance of the discourse of law and order in the news … was largely a consequence of officials’ capacity to call attention to and frame discussions of the crime and drug issues. Conservative politicians and law enforcement personnel were particularly successful in defining themselves as the relevant “authorities” on the crime and drug issues. (1997, 65-76,77)

Government officials, including the president, went as far as staging events to promote the idea that crack posed an imminent threat to the nation. To gain support for his $7.8 billion National Drug Control Strategy, newly elected President George H. W. Bush, in his first national television address in September 1989, dramatically held up a bag of crack that he claimed had been bought in Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House. The clear implication was that crack could be bought anywhere: “It’s turning our cities into battle zones, and it’s murdering our children” (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum). The truth was that federal agents had been unsuccessful in finding anyone in the Lafayette Park selling crack. They resorted to luring eighteen-year-old Keith Timothy Jackson there to make the sale with a promise of $2,400 and with a DEA agent driving him there. The staged sale required two attempts because of initial difficulties with the filming (Lusane 1991, 66-67; and see Elwood 1994, 41; Reinarman and Levine 1997, 23). The strategy was nevertheless successful. Shortly after President Bush’s speech, 64 percent of those responding to a New York Times/CBS News poll labeled drugs the nation’s most important problem. In January 1985, only i percent had held that opinion (Reinarman and Levine 1995,156; Jensen and Gerber 1998, 20).

* * * *

Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy
By Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen

Kindle Locations 1244-1262

Changing criminal justice policy has a political foundation. The character and perception of public opinion about crime and punishment is one important component. Figure 4.8 graphs an open-ended question that has been asked of poll respondents every month since the early 196os: What, in their opinion, is the “most important problem facing the nation”?-‘l The remarkable volatility in the importance of crime to the public is a puzzle. Compared to macroeconomic indicators, for example, crime rates are relatively stable from month to month or year to year, yet public concern shifts-often violently-over short periods of time. As Katherine Beckett and others have pointed out, fear of crime appears to be uniquely responsive to mobilization by political leaders.21’ The rapid spike in concern with crime and violence from 5 percent in 1992 to 37 percent in 1994, for example, tracks the fanfare surrounding public debates of President Clinton’s crime bill of that year. Similarly, public concern over drug use as the nation’s most important problem rose rapidly in the late 198os to a peak of 27 percent (and even in one month, September 1989, reaching an astonishing 64 percent after a major speech by President George H. W. Bush). But it diminished rapidly thereafter, to just 6 percent by 1993 and negligible proportions more recently.29

Analysts of crime politics have usually focused on the role of the mass media in shaping fears and influencing public support for harsh punishment practices. The nightly news programs aggressively cover crime stories, exaggerating the problem and feeding public fears. And widespread media depictions of the race of offenders are thus particularly important in the overall s tory and in magnifying public fears. Although African Americans may commit proportionately more crimes than whites, media coverage vastly exaggerates the extent to which blacks are the perpetrators. A political and cultural model that incorporates race is likely the best explanation for rising levels of criminal punishment in the United States.30

One piece of evidence supporting media impact can be seen in the difference between fears of crime in general versus fears of crime in one’s own community. We learn about the nation’s (or a state’s, or a metropolitan area’s) crime problem from the mass media, but we “know” our neighborhood’s crime problem from lived experience. Unlike the sharp peaks shown in the “most important problem” nationally, fear of crime in one’s own neighborhood has been far more stable over the past three decades. We can see this in figure 4.9, which plots an indicator from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey against the rate of serious Index Crimes reported in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Fear of neighborhood crime tracks the reported crime rate far better than public opinion indicators such as the “most important problem.” People are far more likely to perceive a worsening crime rate in the nation as a whole than to perceive a worsening crime rate in their own neighborhoods. In sum, most Americans do not fear crime in their immediate environment but do fear it elsewhere. Even more striking, there is some evidence that reported experiences with crime in people’s own neighborhoods actually tracks the aggregate crime rate rather closely, trending downward sharply in the 1990s.

Kindle Locations 2241-2252

The main evidence of strong public support for punitive policies comes from repeated survey items asked since the 196os and 1970s. Three items have been tracked the most consistently-and have been the most widely cited-in support of the view that the public has become more punitive: (i) support for the death penalty; (2) beliefs that courts do not treat criminals harshly enough; and (3) beliefs that the government spends too little on crime. Figure 9.1 charts the trends on these three items.

Overall, support for these items follows a common trend. Public punitiveness steadily increased from the i96os through 1980, fluctuated at high levels through the 198os, but has declined since the early 199os. The increase in the 1970s parallels the beginnings of the incarceration boom, but what is striking is that ever-higher levels of punishment from the mid-19706 to the 199os did not lead the public to withdraw support for more punitive measures. It was not until the 199os that support began to fall. To account for this anomaly, one public opinion researcher has suggested the metaphor of a “broken thermostat”: public support for harsh punishment failed to decline even though policymakers repeatedly delivered such policies.

The master trends represented in figure 9.1 have framed the debate over criminal justice policy. The predominant interpretation of public opinion in these debates has typically been that the public wants even more and stricter punishment. But there are at least two reasons to be cautious about such an interpretation. First, and most obviously, since the mid-199os public support for two of the three measures (harshness and spending) has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s (with support for the death penalty declining as well, but not nearly as far). The “broken thermostat” metaphor was therefore more appropriate a decade ago than it is today.

Second, the most plausible interpretation of the source of these trends is that political elites have shaped public attitudes, rather than the other way around.4

Kindle Locations 2257-2265

The mere fact that the public responded to the anti-crime agenda with support for tougher sanctions is in itself significant. Trends in public opinion gain meaning when political elites “read” them as reflecting a desire for some policy direction, in this case greater punishment. Yet the widely shared view of public support for harsh criminal justice policies may be a product of narrow opinion measures that fail to capture the complexity of public attitudes in this area. For example, what happens when survey respondents are given more choices, or are allowed to express more than one preference? A variety of experiment-based survey research suggests that the views of the public on criminal justice are much more complex, and less one-dimensional, than is suggested by the narrow range of items in figure 9.1.

Consider attitudes about the death penalty. While most Americans support the death penalty, this support drops drastically when respondents are presented with the alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole.” Similarly, support for long prison terms is reduced when community-based alternatives are presented as a sentencing option, especially for nonviolent offenders.’ And when given the opportunity to express multidimensional preferences, many survey respondents report wanting both to incapacitate offenders and to rehabilitate them., None of this means that punitive views are not strongly held in the mass public, but experimental survey designs reveal a far more complex portrait than is commonly supposed. Rather than a clear consensus in favor of harshness, public opinion in the area of criminal justice is better characterized as multidimensional and subject to issue-framing effects.

Kindle Locations 2298-2313

A sophisticated public opinion literature has criticized the view that policy preferences of most citizens are measurable in meaningful ways by opinion polls and surveys. According to this argument, people have notably low levels of information about policy issues, leading them to guess in response to survey research questions. Such responses are thus characterized as “non-attitudes,” in the famous formulation of political scientist Philip Converse.’

The existence of non- or weakly held attitudes may be precisely the aspect of public opinion that permits easy manipulation by elites. In this view, “public opinion surveys present only a rough idea of what people generally think because the results are highly sensitive to a number of factors…. Polls may even create the impression of public opinion on questions in which none actually exists. “‘8

But a countermovement in public opinion research has challenged these conclusions. One response is that it is the ambiguities of the questions, or the complexities of the issues, rather than non-attitudes, that produce respondent instability.”’ Political scientist John Zaller’s powerful theoretical model of survey response claims that people sample among the different possible answers they have in their heads in responding to surveys. The likelihood of any particular response is based on the relative strength of the different possible answers known to the respondent. This explains response inconsistency, but also implies that polls convey meaningful information, where the latter is accordingly subject to the framing of questions and to the contingent nature of individuals’ short-term memory and information level.'” The second, increasingly influential individual-level response has been to show how citizens are capable of reasoning through cues and heuristics of various sorts, even in the absence of detailed information or policy understandings.” The introduction of cognitive psychology into survey research has produced a massive literature showing how survey respondents can-at least sometimes-provide meaningful answers even when they have to guess. Finally, at the macro level, political scientists Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro argue that even if some individuals guess in response to survey questions, examination of aggregate responses provides a systematic means of filtering out response instability and non- attitudes.22

It is important to consider at the outset the possibility that surveys may be measuring non-attitudes in the case of felon disenfranchisement. Most survey respondents will know very little about felon voting rights. In responding to survey questions, they may thus be doing exactly what Converse suggested: guessing. On the other hand, since questions about felon disenfranchisement tap sentiments concerning issues of democracy and crime, survey responses may instead reflect considerations about which most respondents do have real opinions. Felon disenfranchisement questions may thus provide, particularly in the aggregate, a plausible portrait of Americans’ reasoning and policy evaluations of this issue.

* * * *

Daedalus 139:3 (Summer 2010) – On Mass Incarceration
By Charles Loeffler, Robert J. Sampson, Jeffrey Fagan, Candace Kruttschnitt, Loic Wacquant, Marie Gottschalk, Bruce Western, Glenn C. Loury, and Becky Pettit

Kindle Locations 1232-1244

Based on the research of Graham and Lowery, conscious bias is not a significant producer of racial disparity either, but subconscious bias may be, as well as racial differences in punitiveness and racial stereotypes. Sociologist Lawrence Bobo and Victor Thompson, for example, summarize public opinion research to show that negative racial stereotypes, antiblack affect, and collective racial resentments translate into increased punitiveness.60 We have no reason to believe that this might not apply to probation workers and police officers who produce a supply of cases for the juvenile court. Research on “colorism” shows that both African Americans and white Americans associate skin tone with criminality and deserved punishment.61 In a series of tests on implicit bias, every population group except African Americans unconsciously associates “African American” with crime or danger and reacts accordingly.62 Tests include recognition of African American faces in crime situations (including possession of weapons)63 and whether to shoot unarmed suspects when they are shown holding ambiguous objects other than guns.64 Confirming what Bridges and Steen and Graham and Lowery reported, the Plant and Peruche tests given to police officers produced the same results.

Kindle Locations 1635-1641

Mounting fiscal pressures on their own will not spur communities, states, and the federal government to empty jails and prisons. The race to incarcerate began in the 1970s, at a time when states faced dire financial straits. It persisted over the next thirty years despite wide fluctuations in the crime rate, public opinion, and the economy. The 2001 recession raised hopes that the prison population would shrink as severe budget deficits forced states to close prisons and lay off guards. But the surge of sentencing and drug-law reforms enacted in the wake of that recession did not make a dent in the U.S. incarceration rate. If history is any guide, rising public anxiety in the face of persistent economic distress and growing economic inequalities may, in fact, ignite support for more punitive penal policies.

Kindle Locations 1661-1667

Studies of the United States and other industrialized countries indicate that the imprisonment rate tends to rise with the unemployment rate, regardless of whether the crime rate is rising or falling.5 Experts disagree about the underlying causal relationship between the unemployment rate and the incarceration rate. We do know that public opinion about crime and punishment is highly susceptible to political manipulation. Some suggest that during hard economic times, it is easier—and more tempting—for government officials and politicians to exploit the popular stereotype of a marauding underclass. Deteriorating economic conditions do not necessarily cause a spike in the crime rate—but the public often believes they do. As the sociologist W. I. Thomas once said, if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

Kindle Locations 1829-1836

Yet policy-makers grossly misperceive public opinion on penal matters, mistakenly seeing the public as more supportive of punitive measures than it actually is.24 This judgment error may explain policy-makers’ persistent reticence to make bold moves that would slash the incarceration rate and why politicians across the political spectrum respond to increases in the crime rate by reflexively calling for more prisons and tougher sentences.

In reality, public opinion research indicates that Americans have a much more nuanced view of spending on criminal justice than the popular media or public-policy debates suggest. The public overwhelmingly favors spending more on policing, crime prevention programs for young people, and drug treatment for nonviolent offenders. But it strongly opposes additional funding for prisons.25

Kindle Locations 3076-3085

Note, finally, one particularly important feature of these American electoral dynamics. Crime ranks among the most important issues identified in national opinion surveys and is seen as an especially salient electoral issue when the economy is performing well.47 Local officials like district attorneys and mayors, therefore, stand to gain electorally by promising tougher measures on crime. Yet, crucially, they may not have to fund the costs of such measures themselves or, if they do have to fund them, may not face the full political costs of their economic choices. Mayors, for example, are not responsible for most aspects of a city’s economic performance. In fact, even state governors are rarely regarded by voters as notably responsible for the state of the economy; economic management is primarily attributed to the federal level. In this context, tough law-and-order policies are electorally attractive—and politically costless. This is a powerful recipe for a prisoners’ dilemma in which political actors—including voters—become locked into policy choices that would be in their best interest (individually and as part of a community) to avoid.

Kindle Locations 3506-3512

Whatever the synergy between intellectual movements and policy change, we have recently begun to see some lessening of the earlier political demagoguery around crime as well as greater respect for the worthiness of investment in rehabilitation and reentry. Polling suggests that the public is at least slightly less passionately in favor of prison and long sentences as the solution to the crime problem, especially because we now have less of a crime problem. Politicians do not want to credit the recent econometric studies suggesting that the post-1985 spike in incarceration probably accounts for no more than a quarter of the 1990s crime drop2; but it has been beneficial for the movement against mass incarceration that crime is currently a less salient public issue.

Kindle Locations 3795-3801

Disparities by social class in this punishment binge are enormous, and they have far-reaching and often deleterious consequences for the families and communities affected. The prisoners come mainly from the most disadvantaged corners of our unequal society; the prisons both reflect and exacerbate this inequality. The factors that lead young people to crime—the “root causes”—have long been known: disorganized childhoods, inadequate educations, child abuse, limited employability, delinquent peers. These are factors that also have long been more prevalent among the poor than the middle classes, though it has for some time been unfashionable to speak of “root causes.” Nevertheless, as Bruce Western stresses in his comprehensive empirical survey of this terrain, “punishment” and “inequality” are intimately linked in modern America, and the causality runs in both directions.4

* * * *

Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma
By Michael Tonry

Kindle Locations 1514-1639

White Americans, especially political conservatives and fundamentalist Protestants, tend to support harsh punishments, including the death penalty. Black people tend to support harsh punishments at much lower rates. Whites have substantially greater confidence in the justice system and its practitioners than do blacks. Researchers repeatedly find that racial animus and resentment are strong influences on whites’ punitive attitudes. Reciprocally, low levels of confidence in the fairness of the justice system are a major influence on blacks’ attitudes. Most black Americans believe the criminal justice system is racially biased and that black suspects and defendants are treated unfairly. Most whites disagree.

A substantial literature on racial differences in attitudes toward and opinions about crime control policy shows that whites have rationalized a criminal justice system that is disparately severe toward blacks. Early research on the influence of race on attitudes toward the criminal justice system found that racial prejudice (measured by support for racial segregation and belief in black inferiority) was associated with whites’ support for harsh sentencing (Cohn, Barkan, and Halteman 1991), as were negative racial stereotypes (Hurwitz and Peffley 1997), and racial antipathy (a preference for maintaining social distance from blacks; Gilliam and Iyengar 2000).

More recent work has tried to disentangle the influence of racial beliefs and attitudes, distinguishing among racial bigotry, racial resentments, and negative racial stereotyping. Findings consistently show that whites’ belief in inherent black inferiority has almost disappeared. Encouraging as that is, however, findings also demonstrate widely shared white resentments of post–civil rights era efforts to integrate blacks into mainstream American society, and a powerful association between those resentments and support for the crime control and drug policies that have ensnared so many black Americans.

The relevant literature has grown rapidly. The initial focus was on racial differences in support for harsh sentencing policies and for the death penalty. The death penalty literature began to develop after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 228 (1972), which suspended use of capital punishment in the United States, and Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), which reinstituted it. Researchers examined a wide range of issues, including characteristics of death penalty supporters and opponents, whether people’s views changed if they learned more about the subject (sometimes), whether the availability of sentences of life without possibility of parole changed opinions (sometimes), and whether blacks and whites had different views (yes, very).

Efforts have been made to see whether people’s attitudes change when they learn that blacks disproportionately occupy death row cells and that the race of the victim is a primary determinant of whether a murderer is sentenced to death. The most sophisticated study of racial attitudes about the criminal justice system, the National Race and Crime Survey, interviewed a representative sample of 600 white and 600 black Americans (Peffley and Hurwitz 2010). Randomly selected subgroups of the respondents were asked in three different ways whether they favor or oppose capital punishment for persons convicted for murder and whether they held their views strongly. In the first version of the question, they were simply asked their views. Sixty-five percent of whites said they strongly or somewhat favored capital punishment compared with 50 percent of blacks.

In the second version of the question, respondents were first told “Some people say that the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are African Americans” and were then asked whether and how strongly they favor capital punishment. The percentage of black respondents favoring capital punishment fell to 38 percent, but the white percentage in favor increased to 77 percent. In the third version, before being asked their views respondents were told that some people “say the death penalty is unfair because too many innocent people are being executed.” The white percentage was strongly or somewhat in favor (64 percent) and was unchanged from whites’ answer to the first version. Black support fell further, to 34 percent (see table 5.1).

Summarizing those patterns of response, the white percentage was unchanged when reminded that some innocent people are believed to be executed, and it increased substantially when reminded that blacks make up a disproportionate share of those executed. Blacks’ overall support of the death penalty was lower to begin with and fell when respondents were reminded of racial disparities and risks of executing innocent people.

The explanations for those discordant patterns were teased out from analyses of a large number of other variables relating to respondents’ characteristics. Blacks’ lower levels of support are related to the widespread belief that the criminal justice system treats black defendants unfairly; being reminded of problems of racial disparities and possible executions of innocents heightened those anxieties and led to lower levels of support. Few whites, however, believe that the system treats blacks unfairly. Instead, when whites are confronted with an argument about racial bias, “they reject it with such force that they end up expressing more support for the death penalty than when no argument is presented at all” (Peffley and Hurwitz 2010, 175).

In an earlier study, Lawrence Bobo and Devon Johnson (2004) examined blacks’ and whites’ support for capital punishment and the crack cocaine 100-to-1 law and the extent to which opinions changed in light of information about the racial dimensions of those problems (e.g., the disproportionate presence of blacks on death rows; that killers of whites are much more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of blacks; that most crack dealers are black). In general, except concerning the 100-to-1 law, information did not significantly affect whites’ opinions. Racial resentment was strongly related to whites’ support for the death penalty:

The most consistent predictor of criminal justice policy attitudes is, in fact, a form of racial prejudice. While racial resentment does not ever explain a large share of the variation in any of the attitudes we have measured, it is the most consistently influential of the variables outside of race classification itself. This pattern has at least two implications. It further buttresses the concern that some of the major elements of public support for punitive criminal justice policies are heavily tinged with racial animus and thus quite likely to be resistant to change based on suasion and information-based appeals. (171–72)

James Unnever and colleagues have tried to isolate the influence of racial resentments on other issues. One analysis examined data from the 2006 African American Survey undertaken for the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University to explore people’s explanations for racial disparities in imprisonment. This is a huge survey of 1,328 African American men, 507 African American women, and 1,029 members of other racial and ethnic groups. Blacks were substantially likelier than whites to cite denial of jobs and bad schools as “big reasons” for the disparity, but the largest differences concerned bias in the legal system. Seventy-one percent of blacks, but only 37 percent of whites, believed police bias was a primary cause of disparities. Similarly, 67 percent of blacks blamed “unfair courts,” but only 28 percent of whites (Unnever 2008, table 1). The degree to which black respondents had personally experienced what they perceived as racial discrimination “predicts whether African Americans believe that criminal injustices, such as whether the police target black men and whether the courts are more willing to convict African-American men, are reasons for the high incarceration among black men” (527).

The racial difference in perceptions of bias in the justice system that Unnever found is echoed in findings from many other projects. The leading scholar of the subject, Lawrence Bobo, a Harvard sociologist, organized two representative national surveys on race, crime, and public opinion. The 2001 Race, Crime, and Public Opinion Study is a survey of 978 non-Hispanic whites and 1,010 non-Hispanic blacks living in American households. Only 38 percent of whites said they believed the criminal justice system is biased against blacks; 89 percent of blacks said it was. Only 8 percent of blacks said that the justice system “gives blacks fair treatment”; 56 percent of whites said it did. Seventy-nine percent of whites expressed confidence that judges treat blacks and whites equally, compared with only 28 percent of blacks. Concerning police the gap was even bigger: 68 percent of whites expressed confidence in the police, and only 18 percent of blacks did (Bobo and Thompson 2006, 456). The findings of the Peffley and Hurwitz (2010) survey discussed above are similar. Seventy percent of blacks but only 18 percent of whites believed that police and courts treat blacks unfairly (189).

Approaching the same kinds of issues from another angle, Unnever, Cullen, and Jones (2008) analyzed data from the 2000 National Election Study to investigate racial differences in support for social policies to address economic and social causes of crime. Respondents were asked whether they thought “the best way to reduce crime is to address social problems or to make sure criminals are caught, convicted, and punished, or something in between.” A series of follow-up questions asked whether the preferred approach was a “much” or “somewhat” better way to reduce crime. Their main aim was to investigate whether and how people’s attachment to egalitarian beliefs influenced their attitudes toward adoption of nonpunitive anticrime policies (yes, a lot). Their premise was that people with strong commitments to equality are more likely than others to support social policies aimed at preventing crime by reducing the social and economic inequalities associated with it. A variety of demographic (age, sex, race, education, place of residence) and attitudinal (egalitarian beliefs, racial stereotypes, racial resentment) variables were analyzed. Blacks were much more likely than whites to support social policy approaches to crime reduction. Whites with racial resentments toward blacks were much more likely to oppose social policy approaches and to support criminal justice approaches. Here, too, the findings reported by Peffley and Hurwitz (2010) are similar: twice as large a percentage of whites as blacks preferred harsh punishments over social welfare programs as a crime control strategy (162).

Devon Johnson (2008) carried out a particularly comprehensive analysis of the reasons for racial differences in attitudes toward punishment. I describe it in considerable detail to show the basis of the conclusions she drew. The data came from the 2001 Race, Crime, and Public Opinion Study (Bobo and Thompson 2006). A “punitiveness index” was calculated on answers to four questions on a 1–4 scale (1 = “strongly disagree”; 4 = “strongly agree”): Do you favor life sentences for third-time felons? Should parole boards be more strict, less strict, or continue current practices? Should fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds accused of violent crimes be tried and sentenced in adult courts? Are current punishments for violent crimes too harsh, too light, or just about right? Whites were much more likely than blacks to favor three-strikes laws and trying young people as adults, to believe parole boards should be more strict, and to believe that punishments for violent crimes are too light.

To find out whether and how racial attitudes and beliefs influence punitive attitudes, Johnson developed a measure of perceived racial bias in the justice system and various measures of racial prejudice. Perceived racial bias was calculated from responses to three questions about confidence that the police, prosecutors, and judges treat blacks and whites equally.

Racial prejudice was measured in three ways. To calculate “racial resentment,” respondents were asked to agree or disagree with six propositions (shortened and paraphrased here):

1. Members of other ethnic groups have overcome prejudice and succeeded; blacks should do the same without special favors.
2. Blacks in recent years have gotten less than they deserve.
3. Government officials pay less attention to requests and complaints from black than from white people.
4. Blacks who receive welfare could get along without it if they tried.
5. If blacks would only try harder, they’d do as well as whites.
6. Generations of slavery and discrimination created conditions that make it hard for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.

To calculate “negative affect” in general attitudes to black people, respondents were asked two questions: How often have you felt sympathy for blacks? How often have you admired blacks?

Finally, to calculate “racial stereotypes,” respondents were asked to characterize on a 1–10 scale as accurate or inaccurate four negative descriptions of black people: as lazy, aggressive or violent, preferring to live on welfare, and complaining.

The analysis took account of demographic characteristics of the survey respondents, including age, sex, income, education, and place of residence, and of other characteristics such as political beliefs, fear of crime, and having a relative or friend imprisoned. When all these characteristics were taken into account, two factors stood out. For blacks, perceptions of racial bias in the system were the major distinguishing characteristic. For whites, it was racial resentment. The other two measures of prejudice—negative affect and racial stereotypes—had discernible effects that were dwarfed by the power of racial resentment.

It might in some sense seem encouraging that whites are less likely than in earlier times to harbor beliefs about racial inferiority or about race-based negative characterizations of laziness, violence, and querulousness. Their displacement by racial resentment is no cause for celebration. The consequence in some ways is more pernicious, especially in light of what we now know about statistical discrimination, colorism, Afro American feature bias, and implicit bias. Widespread beliefs that blacks are racially inferior have been replaced by beliefs that the conditions of life that lead some black people to crime are their own fault and they deserve whatever punishment they get. Put differently racial resentments provide a powerful basis for lack of sympathy for people caught up in the legal system. If disproportionate numbers of blacks are arrested for drug dealing and for violent crimes, they’ve no cause to complain.

Devon Johnson summed up where things stand:

Given the association between race and crime in political discourse, in media accounts, and in the minds of many whites, it is probable that racial prejudice will continue to play a significant role in whites’ support for punitive policies for some time. Moreover, in light of the … inability of those in privileged positions to perceive racial discrimination in the administration of justice (or their unwillingness to acknowledge it), it is unlikely that blacks’ cynicism toward the criminal justice system will markedly improve in the short term. (2008, 205)

That seems right. The explanation for whites’ attitudes can be found in the history of American race relations.

Kindle Locations 2111-2142


The question usually asked is narrower than that: How can we explain national differences in imprisonment rates? None of the commonly offered answers provides much illumination.

Crime rates and trends are not the explanation. Crime trends have been much the same throughout the Western world since 1970: rises through the early or mid-1990s and declines since. There is no relationship, however, between crime rates and imprisonment rates. Since 1973, in the face of similar crime rate trends in most Western countries, imprisonment rates increased five-fold in the United States and doubled in England and Spain, but declined by more than half in Finland, held steady in the rest of Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium, and zigzagged in France and Italy (Tonry 2007). In Canada, where since 1980 crime trends have closely paralleled those in the United States, the imprisonment rate has fluctuated around 100 per 100,000 for, fifty years (Webster and Doob 2007).

Nor is public opinion the answer. In the English-speaking countries at least, penal policies and imprisonment rates vary enormously, but public opinion has stayed much the same. Majorities of the public believe crime rates are rising when they are falling. Large majorities believe judges are too lenient, on the basis of mistaken underestimates of the severity of punishments. The sentences citizens say they believe are appropriate are typically less severe than those judges actually impose. When citizens are asked whether they prefer more punitive policies or increased investment in rehabilitative programs, majorities usually prefer rehabilitation (Roberts et al. 2003).

David Garland in his 2001 book, The Culture of Control, attributes toughened penal policies in England and America to a number of conditions of “late modernity.” These include the limited capacities of governments to affect crime rates, the destabilizing effects of economic globalization, increasing population diversity, increased sensitivity to risks of all kinds, and increased vulnerability to crime of privileged segments of the population. The result, he suggests, is a proliferation of “expressive” policies meant more to reassure the public and show that government is doing something, anything, than to reduce crime.

The insuperable difficulty for the analysis is that, if Garland is correct, all Western countries should have experienced steeply rising imprisonment rates and steadily harshening penal policies. The developments he describes happened everywhere; imprisonment rates and policy trends, however, diverged dramatically.

Recent research looks deeper and tries to explain imprisonment trends and penal policy differences in terms of such factors as income inequality, citizens’ perceptions of the legitimacy of governmental institutions, citizens’ trust in each other and in government, the strength of the welfare state, and the structure of government. All these things matter. Moderate policies and low imprisonment rates are associated with low levels of income inequality, high levels of trust and legitimacy, strong welfare states, professionalized as opposed to politicized criminal justice systems, and consensual rather than conflictual political cultures (Lappi-Seppälä 2008). For each of those factors the United States falls at the wrong end, the end associated with more punitive policies and practices, but that’s the beginning, not the end, of the search for explanations. The question is, Why is the United States at the wrong end of every distribution?


That is the $64,000 question. American politicians, and therefore ultimately American citizens en masse, do not much care about the human rights of opponents in the War on Terror. And, as I demonstrated earlier, Americans do not much care about the human rights of their domestic enemies in the wars on drugs and crime.

Kindle Locations 2203-2240

Research on public opinion about punishment tells a subtle story about the effects of conservatives’ efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the judicial system. Tom Tyler (2006) and others have demonstrated the importance of the perceived legitimacy of legal institutions in the eyes of people they affect. People who believe that police and judges treat them impartially and fairly, consider their interests, and listen to their stories are more likely to respect legal institutions and to accept adverse decisions as appropriate than are people who believe they are treated unfairly. Neither Hegel nor Dworkin would be surprised by this. A different conception of legitimacy instructs that citizens who believe institutions operate fairly and honestly are more likely to respect them in general than are people who do not believe these things. Duhh!

The unhappy consequences of a half-century’s effort to undermine the legitimacy of the courts can be seen when Americans’ attitudes are compared with those of people in other countries. In both the United States (Roberts et al. 2003) and the Netherlands (Elffers and de Keijser 2006), for example, public opinion research has examined whether citizens believe judges sentence too severely, too leniently, or just right, and what sentences citizens say they themselves would impose in particular cases. The findings from English-speaking countries show that large majorities of citizens believe judges sentence too leniently. However, when the sentences citizens say they would impose are compared with those judges do impose, the comparison almost always shows that judges impose longer sentences than citizens say they would. Citizens’ beliefs about sentences are not based on the ordinary run-of-the-mill cases that make up the bulk of court dockets, but on aberrant or special cases that are distinctive or sensational enough to attract media attention. As a result most people systematically underestimate the sentences typical offenders receive.

A parallel but more nuanced body of research in the Netherlands produces similar and also strikingly different findings. Do Dutch citizens believe judges sentence too leniently? Yes. Do judges know that citizens believe this? Yes.

So far the story is the same, but then it diverges. Do Dutch judges impose sentences less severe than Dutch citizens would? Yes. Dutch citizens, unlike American citizens, are right: judges are less severe than citizens say they would be.

But now the corker: Do Dutch citizens believe judges should impose harsher sentences in order to reflect citizens’ preferences? No. That last finding is unimaginable in the United States. For decades voters have been electing politicians who run against “lenient” judges.

How do Dutch citizens explain this finding, which to Americans is bizarre? It’s easy. They trust their judges. They say that it is the judge’s job to consider the facts of cases, consult the relevant laws, and then in good faith make decisions he or she believes to be right. For a judge to do anything else would be to make a decision he or she believed to be wrong, and that’s incompatible with what an honest, conscientious judge is supposed to do.

Why would Americans have such a different outlook? To a large extent it is because conservative politicians’ efforts for fifty years to delegitimize judges have sunken in. And partly it is because many American judges and prosecutors are blatantly political. Dutch judges, like those of most developed countries, are apolitical career civil servants who are selected meritocratically. Most American judges are chosen in partisan political elections, and for limited terms. Many run for office spending campaign funds donated by lawyers who practice before them, and most of the rest are appointed in partisan political ways. It doesn’t take a great deal of cynicism for Americans to believe that what prosecutors and judges do is influenced by their political self-interest and the possible effects of their decisions on future electoral or other political prospects.

If judges cannot be trusted to handle cases brought against alleged terrorists and criminals, then other agencies of government must do it. If alleged terrorists and offenders and drug dealers and illegal immigrants and welfare recipients are evil, the embodiment of immoral behavior, then of course their interests need not be taken into account in deciding how to address the threats they represent.

All of us in our personal lives want to be treated with equal respect and concern in proceedings that affect us and our interests and our loved ones and their interests. The paranoid style, however, has too often led policy makers to forget that their enemies are human beings and to abandon the sympathy and mutual respect that distinguish human beings from animals. From that forgetting come Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and three-strikes laws and life sentences without the possibility of parole for children.

Kindle Locations 2290-2296

Unnever, Cullen, and Applegate’s examination of attitudes toward capital punishment concludes that those fundamentalists “who have a rigid and moralistic approach to religion and who imagine God as a dispassionate, powerful figure who dispenses justice are more likely to harbor punitive sentiments toward offenders” (2005, 304). A slight but fascinating article based on a representative survey of Oklahoma City residents showed that Protestant conservatives viewed nearly all crimes as “very wrong” and thus did not differentiate among them in terms of seriousness (Curry 1996, 462). This finding goes a long way toward explaining why traditional ideas about proportionality in punishment are irreconcilable with many modern three-strikes, mandatory minimum, and life without the possibility of parole laws.

Kindle Locations 2458-2474

Substantial evidence exists that public anxiety about crime and support for severe policies in the late twentieth century was shaped by politicians’ and media preoccupation with crime, rather than vice versa (e.g., Beckett 1997). Politicians and the media in the 1970s through the 1990s often did not respond to public anxiety, but provoked it in order to win elections, sell papers, and attract viewers and listeners. Table 6.1 summarizes survey results of Americans’ views about the most important problems facing the country over a quarter century beginning in 1984. Crime ranked high only during the mid-1990s, when candidates competed to endorse the toughest anticrime policies and legislatures rushed to enact three-strikes, truth-in-sentencing, mandatory minimum, and Megan’s laws. After the anticrime politicking stopped, crime dropped to the bottom of citizens’ concerns. A similar pattern appears for drugs. The bigger picture, however, is that for a time the public did become concerned, whatever its reasons for doing so. As a result it is commonly said that current policies are as they are because the public demanded them. If that were true in the early and mid-1990s, it is true no longer.

Contemporary public opinion cannot be invoked as justification for the injustices of the American justice system. Crime and drugs no longer rank high as matters of public concern. Between 2002 and 2008 only 1 to 3 percent of Americans named crime or drugs the most important problem facing the nation. In the twenty-first century concerns about crime or drugs rank far below the economy, unemployment, terrorism, health care, and education.

Crime has not featured prominently in an American presidential election since 1988, and in recent years has only occasionally been a major element in state and local elections. The flurry of adoptions of unprecedentedly severe sentencing laws ended in the mid-1990s. Many states have since enacted amendments mitigating some effects of these laws.

* * * *

Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment
By Meda Chesney-Lind and Marc Mauer

Kindle Locations 569-575

Yet when asked by the Gallup organization which approach they favored for bringing crime rates down in this country—education and jobs to address “the social and economic problems that lead to crime,” or “more prisons, police, and judges” to deter crime—we find a different picture of the American mood. In the periodic surveys taken between 1989 and 2000, between one-half and two-thirds of the respondents favored education and jobs, and between one-quarter and two-fifths favored more prisons, police, and judges. When given policy choices, the American public favors prevention over enforcement. As noted by Di-Iulio et al., “even in ‘get tough’ or ‘do justice’ periods there has been substantial public support for efforts to keep offenders from turning to crime and to keep ex-offenders from returning to it.”55

Kindle Locations 715-733

The irony of public policy in this area is that there exists substantial support for a more compassionate approach to these problems. Law enforcement leaders have recognized for some time that criminal justice responses alone are not likely to solve the nation’s drug problem. In a 1996 poll, nearly three-fourths of police chiefs indicated that mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession had been only somewhat effective or were not really the answer to the drug problems in their communities. More than half (59 percent) believed that sentencing drug users to court-supervised treatment programs was more effective than sending them to prison or jail.2

Other polls have shown that public support for treatment is strong as well. A 2001 ABC News poll found that Americans, by nearly a three-to-one margin, prefer treatment programs over incarceration for first- and second-time drug offenders.3

These sentiments are supported by research documenting that treatment is a cost-effective response to addiction. Every dollar invested in treatment results in savings between $2.50 and $7 in reduced costs of crime and social services. Treatment is also more cost-effective than punishment-oriented drug policies, with estimates that treatment for cocaine addiction is seven times more effective than domestic law enforcement, ten times more effective than interdiction, and twenty-three times more effective than source-country activities.4

At the national political level, however, these polls and data are ignored by policy makers in favor of reliance on punishment. Such approaches play on the fears of many Americans that they will be victimized by individuals with drug and alcohol problems, despite the general support for treatment.

This fear fuels discrimination and creates the impression that substance abusers are not worthy of compassion or assistance. These attitudes make individuals with alcohol and drug problems ashamed and afraid to come forward for help, thereby perpetuating the problem. But as General Barry McCaffrey, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has pointed out about the “war on drugs” metaphor, addicted individuals need to be helped, not defeated.5

* * * *

The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander

pp. 54-56

Once in the Oval Office, Bush stayed on message, opposing affirmative action and aggressive civil rights enforcement, and embracing the drug war with great enthusiasm. In August 1989, President Bush characterized drug use as “the most pressing problem facing the nation.” 93 Shortly thereafter , a New York Times /CBS News Poll reported that 64 percent of those polled— the highest percentage ever recorded— now thought that drugs were the most significant problem in the United States. 94 This surge of public concern did not correspond to a dramatic shift in illegal drug activity, but instead was the product of a carefully orchestrated political campaign. The level of public concern about crime and drugs was only weakly correlated with actual crime rates, but highly correlated with political initiatives, campaigns, and partisan appeals. 95

The shift to a general attitude of “toughness” toward problems associated with communities of color began in the 1960s, when the gains and goals of the Civil Rights Movement began to require real sacrifices on the part of white Americans, and conservative politicians found they could mobilize white racial resentment by vowing to crack down on crime. By the late 1980s, however, not only conservatives played leading roles in the get-tough movement, spouting the rhetoric once associated only with segregationists. Democratic politicians and policy makers were now attempting to wrest control of the crime and drug issues from Republicans by advocating stricter anticrime and antidrug laws— all in an effort to win back the so-called “swing voters” who were defecting to the Republican Party. Somewhat ironically, these “new Democrats” were joined by virulent racists, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, which announced in 1990 that it intended to “join the battle against illegal drugs” by becoming the “eyes and ears of the police.” 96 Progressives concerned about racial justice in this period were mostly silent about the War on Drugs, preferring to channel their energy toward defense of affirmative action and other perceived gains of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the early 1990s, resistance to the emergence of a new system of racialized social control collapsed across the political spectrum. A century earlier, a similar political dynamic had resulted in the birth of Jim Crow. In the 1890s, Populists buckled under the political pressure created by the Redeemers, who had successfully appealed to poor and working-class whites by proposing overtly racist and increasingly absurd Jim Crow laws. Now, a new racial caste system—mass incarceration— was taking hold, as politicians of every stripe competed with each other to win the votes of poor and working-class whites, whose economic status was precarious, at best, and who felt threatened by racial reforms. As had happened before, former allies of African Americans— as much as conservatives—adopted a political strategy that required them to prove how “tough” they could be on “them,” the dark-skinned pariahs.

pp. 105-108

The media bonanza inspired by the administration’s campaign solidified in the public imagination the image of the black drug criminal. Although explicitly racial political appeals remained rare, the calls for “war” at a time when the media was saturated with images of black drug crime left little doubt about who the enemy was in the War on Drugs and exactly what he looked like. Jerome Miller , the former executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, described the dynamic this way: “There are certain code words that allow you never to have to say ‘race,’ but everybody knows that’s what you mean and ‘crime’ is one of those. . . . So when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we’re really talking about is locking up more and more black men.” 37 Another commentator noted, “It is unnecessary to speak directly of race [today] because speaking about crime is talking about race.” 38 Indeed, not long after the drug war was ramped up in the media and political discourse, almost no one imagined that drug criminals could be anything other than black.

A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education . Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. 39 These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like. The same group of respondents also perceived the typical drug trafficker as black.

There is no reason to believe that the survey results would have been any different if police officers or prosecutors—rather than the general public— had been the respondents. Law enforcement officials, no less than the rest of us, have been exposed to the racially charged political rhetoric and media imagery associated with the drug war. In fact, for nearly three decades, news stories regarding virtually all street crime have disproportionately featured African American offenders. One study suggests that the standard crime news “script” is so prevalent and so thoroughly racialized that viewers imagine a black perpetrator even when none exists. In that study , 60 percent of viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one, and 70 percent of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be African American. 40

Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individual does not want to discriminate. 41 The quotation commonly attributed to Nietzsche, that “there is no immaculate perception,” perfectly captures how cognitive schemas—thought structures— influence what we notice and how the things we notice get interpreted. 42 Studies have shown that racial schemas operate not only as part of conscious, rational deliberations, but also automatically— without conscious awareness or intent. 43 One study, for example, involved a video game that placed photographs of white and black individuals holding either a gun or other object (such as a wallet, soda can, or cell phone) into various photographic backgrounds. Participants were told to decide as quickly as possible whether to shoot the target. Consistent with earlier studies, participants were more likely to mistake a black target as armed when he was not, and mistake a white target as unarmed, when in fact he was armed. 44 This pattern of discrimination reflected automatic, unconscious thought processes, not careful deliberations.

Most striking, perhaps, is the overwhelming evidence that implicit bias measures are disassociated from explicit bias measures. 45 In other words, the fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may even have black friends or relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias. Implicit bias tests may still show that you hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about blacks, even though you do not believe you do and do not want to. 46 In the study described above, for example, black participants showed an amount of “shooter bias” similar to that shown by whites. 47 Not surprisingly, people who have the greatest explicit bias (as measured by self-reported answers to survey questions) against a racial group tend also to have the greatest implicit bias against them, and vice versa. 48 Yet there is often a weak correlation between degrees of explicit and implicit bias; many people who think they are not biased prove when tested to have relatively high levels of bias. 49 Unfortunately, a fairly consistent finding is that punitiveness and hostility almost always increase when people are primed— even subliminally— with images or verbal cues associated with African Americans. In fact, studies indicate that people become increasingly harsh when an alleged criminal is darker and more “stereotypically black”; they are more lenient when the accused is lighter and appears more stereotypically white. This is true of jurors as well as law enforcement officers. 50

Viewed as a whole, the relevant research by cognitive and social psychologists to date suggests that racial bias in the drug war was inevitable, once a public consensus was constructed by political and media elites that drug crime is black and brown. Once blackness and crime, especially drug crime, became conflated in the public consciousness, the “criminalblackman,” as termed by legal scholar Kathryn Russell, would inevitably become the primary target of law enforcement. 51 Some discrimination would be conscious and deliberate, as many honestly and consciously would believe that black men deserve extra scrutiny and harsher treatment. Much racial bias, though, would operate unconsciously and automatically— even among law enforcement officials genuinely committed to equal treatment under the law.

Whether or not one believes racial discrimination in the drug war was inevitable, it should have been glaringly obvious in the 1980s and 1990s that an extraordinarily high risk of racial bias in the administration of criminal justice was present, given the way in which all crime had been framed in the media and in political discourse. Awareness of this risk did not require intimate familiarity with cognitive bias research. Anyone possessing a television set during this period would likely have had some awareness of the extent to which black men had been demonized in the War on Drugs.

pp. 203-204

Those who claim that mass incarceration is “just like” Jim Crow make a serious mistake. Things have changed. The fact that a clear majority of Americans were telling pollsters in the early 1980s— when the drug war was kicking off— that they opposed race discrimination in nearly all its forms should not be dismissed lightly. 60 Arguably some respondents may have been telling pollsters what they thought was appropriate rather than what they actually believed, but there is no reason to believe that most of them were lying. It is more likely that most Americans by the early 1980s had come to reject segregationist thinking and values, and not only did not want to be thought of as racist but did not want to be racist.

This difference in public attitudes has important implications for reform efforts. Claims that mass incarceration is analogous to Jim Crow will fall on deaf ears and alienate potential allies if advocates fail to make clear that the claim is not meant to suggest or imply that supporters of the current system are racist in the way Americans have come to understand that term. Race plays a major role— indeed, a defining role— in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility— a feature it actually shares with its predecessors.

All racial caste systems, not just mass incarceration, have been supported by racial indifference. As noted earlier, many whites during the Jim Crow era sincerely believed that African Americans were intellectually and morally inferior. They meant blacks no harm but believed segregation was a sensible system for managing a society comprised of fundamentally different and unequal people. The sincerity of many people’s racial beliefs is what led Martin Luther King Jr. to declare , “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” The notion that racial caste systems are necessarily predicated on a desire to harm other racial groups, and that racial hostility is the essence of racism, is fundamentally misguided. Even slavery does not conform to this limited understanding of racism and racial caste . Most plantation owners supported the institution of black slavery not because of a sadistic desire to harm blacks but instead because they wanted to get rich, and black slavery was the most efficient means to that end. By and large, plantation owners were indifferent to the suffering caused by slavery; they were motivated by greed. Preoccupation with the role of racial hostility in earlier caste systems can blind us to the ways in which every caste system, including mass incarceration, has been supported by racial indifference— a lack of caring and compassion for people of other races.

pp. 208-209

Yet another notable difference between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is that many African Americans seem to support the current system of control , while most believe the same could not be said of Jim Crow. It is frequently argued in defense of mass incarceration that African Americans want more police and more prisons because crime is so bad in some ghetto communities. It is wrong , these defenders claim, for the tactics of mass incarceration— such as the concentration of law enforcement in poor communities of color, the stop-and-frisk programs that have proliferated nationwide, the eviction of drug offenders and their families from public housing , and the drug sweeps of ghetto neighborhoods— to be characterized as racially discriminatory, because those programs and policies have been adopted for the benefit of African American communities and are supported by many ghetto residents. 70 Ignoring rampant crime in ghetto communities would be racially discriminatory, they say; responding forcefully to it is not.

This argument , on the surface, seems relatively straightforward, but there are actually many layers to it, some of which are quite problematic. To begin with, the argument implies that African Americans prefer harsh criminal justice policies to other forms of governmental intervention, such as job creation, economic development, educational reform, and restorative justice programs, as the long-term solution to problems associated with crime. There is no evidence to support such a claim . To the contrary, surveys consistently show that African Americans are generally less supportive of harsh criminal justice policies than whites, even though blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. 71 This pattern is particularly remarkable in that less educated people tend to be more punitive and blacks on average are less educated than whites. 72

The notion that African Americans support “get tough” approaches to crime is further complicated by the fact that “crime” is not a generic category. There are many different types of crime, and violent crime tends to provoke the most visceral and punitive response. Yet as we have seen in chapter 2, the drug war has not been aimed at rooting out the most violent drug traffickers, or so-called kingpins. The vast majority of those arrested for drug crimes are not charged with serious offenses, and most of the people in state prison on drug charges have no history of violence or significant selling activity. Those who are “kingpins” are often able to buy their freedom by forfeiting their assets, snitching on other dealers, or becoming paid government informants. Thus, to the extent that some African Americans support harsh policies aimed at violent offenders, they cannot be said to support the War on Drugs, which has been waged primarily against nonviolent , low-level offenders in poor communities of color.

The one thing that is clear from the survey data and ethnographic research is that African Americans in ghetto communities experience an intense “dual frustration” regarding crime and law enforcement. As Glenn Loury explained more than a decade ago, when violent crime rates were making headlines, “The young black men wreaking havoc in the ghetto are still ’our youngsters’ in the eyes of many of the decent poor and working-class black people who sometimes are their victims.” 73 Throughout the black community, there is widespread awareness that black ghetto youth have few, if any, realistic options , and therefore dealing drugs can be an irresistible temptation . Suburban white youth may deal drugs to their friends and acquaintances as a form of recreation and extra cash, but for ghetto youth, drug sales— though rarely lucrative— are often a means of survival, a means of helping to feed and clothe themselves and their families. The fact that this “career” path leads almost inevitably to jail is often understood as an unfortunate fact of life, part of what it means to be poor and black in America.

* * * *

Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It
By Lisa Bloom

pp. 197-198

And yet evidence of racial bias is all around us, though a yawning perception gap divides whites and blacks on our understanding of it. About three times as many 101 blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites at work, in stores or restaurants , in public schools, and by the health care system. And even when looking at the criminal justice system, where injustices against African Americans have been long known and well documented , mainly it is blacks who see racial discrimination and whites who do not. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 102 twice as many blacks as whites say that African Americans are treated less fairly by the police. More than twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the courts.

In fact, astonishingly, a 2011 study 103 by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School found that “Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.”

Some accuse African Americans of “playing the race card,” of seeing bias where none exists. So how can we get to the truth as to the extent of racial bias that still remains in America? To measure it today, researchers can’t bring in a bunch of subjects and straightforwardly ask them whether they are bigots, because everyone will simply deny it. So like Richard LaPiere before them, social scientists have gotten creative. For example, in a 2012 poll that was ostensibly about the presidential election, after a long list of political questions, the Associated Press snuck in some questions about the characteristics of people of color. When asked to associate adjectives with different racial groups, the majority called African Americans violent, lazy, and irresponsible 104 —the worst stereotypes about blacks that have lingered since the days of slavery, when the system required degradation and dehumanization to justify enslavement. Yet surely these very same people, if contacted individually and not anonymously, would strongly deny harboring any racial biases.

This disturbing poll result is consistent with the results of clever, cheat -proof tests of our subconscious attitudes developed and refined by social scientists over the last fifteen years and administered internationally.

pp. 224-225

In polls, overwhelming majorities of blacks 148 believe that African Americans are treated differently by police and the courts. Only half as many whites agree. Unfortunately, the complaints of African Americans are borne out by the research, which reveals that disparity at every turn.

Consider juries, which should be drawn randomly from the community, and which we’d hope would reflect the diversity of the local population. In reality, that’s rarely the case. In most places in the United States, African Americans in court are highly unlikely to have a jury of their peers. Of the six women who served on the Zimmerman jury, for example, five were white. The sixth, Maddy, identifies as Hispanic . When the jury was empaneled, many commentators felt that the lack of African Americans on the panel in this racially-charged case was unfortunate, but that it “just happened,” the luck of the draw. But as it turns out, it’s the norm for minorities, especially African-American men, to be underrepresented on American juries, as a direct result of laws barring them from jury service. Most states prohibit felons from jury duty and even voting—usually for life. Those with a criminal record, even veterans, even those who did their time years ago and have been contributing, taxpaying citizens ever since, cannot serve on juries. More than two million African Americans cannot vote or be jurors because of felon disenfranchisement laws— four times higher than the rest of the population.

* * * *

Race to Incarcerate
By Marc Mauer

Kindle Locations 646-667

A society’s level of incarceration may be related to a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. The findings of the international victimization surveys tell us that of sixteen nations surveyed in regard to public attitudes on sentencing, the United States registered as the most punitive. When asked what sentence was most appropriate for a 21-year-old second-time burglar who had stolen a television set, a high of 56 percent of U.S. respondents chose prison, compared to an average of 34 percent for all nations, and in striking contrast to support of just 20 percent, 19 percent and 12 percent in Denmark, Finland, and France respectively.25

The survey’s authors also find that changes in policy can lead to increased support for alternatives to incarceration. After Finland introduced a formal community service sentencing option, public support for such penalties increased markedly, such as the 46 percent support for the burglary case above (compared to a level of 20 percent in the U.S.).

How these cultural attitudes affects rates of imprisonment is a complex process, but one factor that has been identified is the relative diversity of the population. A study of incarceration rates in the one hundred richest nations concluded that “levels of imprisonment increased with population heterogeneity.”26 So, attitudes conditioned by divisions along racial, ethnic, language, or religious lines are likely to contribute to differing rates of imprisonment, controlling for other factors.

The practical impact of these dynamics can be seen in some European nations. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, it is not unusual to participate in policy discussions regarding the “appropriate” level of incarceration in a society, with scant regard for crime rates. For example, beginning in the mid-1970s, officials in Finland introduced changes in criminal justice policy designed to lower the national rate of incarceration out of concern that their use of imprisonment was abnormally high by Scandinavian standards. By U.S. standards, this type of approach is a bit jarring, since public dialogue on imprisonment all but assumes that the only critical variable is the level of crime. Clearly, though, this assumption is far from universal.

While the analysis of comparative incarceration rates is subject to debate, what seems clear is that the issue is far more complex than conventional political or public discourse often suggests. The degree to which a society engages in prison-building, far from illustrating a direct correlation between crime and incarceration, is subject to a host of decisions made within and outside the criminal justice system.

Kindle Locations 678-704

The first decades after World War II represented a modern peak in the influence of the rehabilitative ideal on the corrections system. The country was emerging from a deadly but victorious conflict; the “baby boom” that followed in its wake brought on an era of hopefulness and optimism about the future. With the United States escaping from the war relatively unscathed on the home front, visions of an “American Century” became enticing to many business and political leaders.

This emerging economic might and sense of rebirth influenced public attitudes on social policy in a variety of ways. An expanding economic pie potentially meant greater goods and services, and allowed for more compassionate and generous public policy responses to social problems. In regard to crime and justice, this laid the groundwork for growing support for a broader acceptance of the goal of rehabilitation. We can see this perhaps most clearly in public attitudes on the death penalty. While the death penalty has been employed since the colonial period, it reached its peak of use in modern times during the Depression, with as many as 199 persons being executed annually by 1935. By the 1950s, though, the pace of executions had slowed to less than half that rate, and by 1963, there were just 23 executions.1

This decline does not appear to have reflected any dramatic drop in the number of murders; rather, it seems to reflect a growing public unease with the use of the ultimate punishment. Survey data show declining support for use of the death penalty in the postwar era, reaching a low of 42 percent support in 1966.2 A newly energized abolitionist movement gained strength as well, motivated in part by such celebrated cases as those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Caryl Chesman in California.

As public opposition mounted, legal challenges to executions began to develop as well, so that by the late 1960s, executions all but ceased as it became clear that only a Supreme Court decision would resolve the issue. Thus, in 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the court ruled that the Georgia death penalty statute was cruel and unusual in its application—and, because the same infirmities existed in the statutes of other states, they were all in effect declared unconstitutional. The decision removed all inmates from Death Row and halted death sentences nationally, but only until the court ruled in 1976 that statutes which defined more specifically the circumstances under which death could be imposed were permissible.

The postwar move toward abolition of capital punishment was accompanied by support for rehabilitation within prison as well. As late as 1968, a Harris poll showed that 48 percent of the public thought that the primary purpose of prison was rehabilitation and that 72 percent believed the emphasis should be on rehabilitation.3

During the 1960s, though, this support for rehabilitation was challenged from two very distinct directions. From the left came a broad critique of the concept of rehabilitation in an inherently coercive institution such as a prison. Numerous liberal critics wondered whether the nature of personal transformation required a voluntary desire for change, and they questioned whether it could be accomplished under conditions of forced confinement. This critique, of course, applied not only to prisons but to other institutions as well, particularly mental hospitals.

Kindle Locations 2239-2258

One final problem associated with statistical analyses of the role of race in sentencing relates to the underlying assumptions behind sentencing policies themselves. In many jurisdictions around the country, minorities constitute two thirds or more of the defendants in many offense categories. To what extent are “get tough” sentencing policies a reflection of the race and ethnicity of those likely to be affected by such policies? As the hue of the defendant population changes, do legislators and judges set different sentencing standards?

In the realm of policy development, recent research suggests that this is precisely the case. A key study examined the degree of punitiveness expressed by Americans as a function of the extent to which they perceived crime as a “black” problem. That is, if crime is viewed as disproportionately committed by blacks, does that translate into greater support for harsher responses to crime? Among whites, the authors found strong support for this hypothesis, concluding that “racial typification of crime is a significant predictor of punitive attitudes toward crime,”26 controlling for other factors. And certainly, there is no reason to believe this finding is any less true among white policymakers than among the white population overall.

We can see this as well in white support for the death penalty. One national survey concluded that “White support for the death penalty in the United States has strong ties to anti-black prejudice. For white people living in an all-white county, racial prejudice emerges as the strongest predictor of white death penalty support. . . . For their counterparts in more [racially] integrated counties, this effect is more than doubled.”27

These dynamics translate directly into the world of sentencing and incarceration policy, as seen in a study that examined changes in state prison populations between 1971 and 1991.28

The study concluded that by 1990, controlling for a variety of factors, the size of a state’s black population was an even stronger predictor of the prison population than the rate of violent crime. The authors suggest that while these findings may reflect large-scale bias within the criminal justice system, they may also be a result of harsher sentencing policies and a greater commitment to prison construction in states with larger black populations.

Kindle Locations 2284-2286

The point here is not whether one believes that marijuana is a dangerous drug or not; rather, it is how the public perception of the appropriate societal response was shaped by the composition of the user population. As whites became a larger proportion of the user population and replaced blacks in the public image of the pot user, public policies changed rapidly in a more understanding and less punitive direction.

Kindle Locations 2300-2311

Who are the individuals arrested for these offenses? Drunk drivers are predominantly white males, representing 78 percent of the arrests for this offense as of 1990. They are generally charged as misdemeanants and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Persons convicted of drug possession, though, are disproportionately low-income, and African American or Hispanic; they are usually charged with felonies and frequently sentenced to incarceration. Overall, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment; for drug offenders, though, the response has primarily involved greater use of law enforcement and incarceration. At the same time, while drug treatment remains popular and available for middle-class drug users, it is in short supply for low-income persons. We have already seen how sentencing practices in Western Europe are less harsh for some offenses than in the United States. In comparing the United States with Scandinavian nations, for example, many skeptics contend that the relatively humane sentencing policies of Scandinavia are due to the fact that these societies are more homogeneous. Precisely! Communities that feel a sense of commitment to their members are able to see the humanity of offenders despite their criminal behaviors and to see the potential for positive change in their lives.

* * * *

Race, Incarceration, and American Values
By Glenn C. Loury

Kindle Locations 253-263

The entire political effect of criminal disenfranchisement laws is impossible to calculate. But it is telling that the states that disenfranchise the largest number of citizens also have some of the most draconian criminal codes, and it is not entirely clear in which direction the causal arrows run. It may well be that it is precisely because their electorates are skewed that they enact increasingly harsh laws that reinforce the skew. This may be especially true to the extent that the criminal law is enforced in a racially biased or disproportionate way. Angela Behrens’s recent work argues that perceived “racial threat” is a major variable in predicting a state’s disenfranchisement practices. She concludes:

The racial composition of state prisons is firmly associated with the adoption of state felon disenfranchisement laws. States with greater non-white prison populations have been more likely to ban convicted felons from voting than states with proportionally fewer nonwhites in the criminal justice system.

Conversely, states with a small proportion of African-American prisoners are most likely to abolish ex-felon voting restrictions.

Despite this discouraging reality, the tenor of the debate over felon disenfranchisement has taken a remarkable turn. After a generation of unsuccessful litigation against disenfranchisement laws, politics has made some dramatic strides. Recent public opinion surveys find that over 80 percent of Americans believe that ex-offenders should regain their right to vote at some point, and more than 40 percent would allow offenders on probation or parole to vote. A conservative Republican governor of Alabama signed legislation making it easier for ex-offenders to regain their voting rights. Several other states have made the restoration of voting rights automatic upon completion of an offender’s sentence or within a short period of time thereafter.

The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1

Part 1: Online Sources

This is about public opinion and public perception as it relates to public policy (see previous posts). I also include some analyses of the opinions of politicians as it relates to public opinion or rather their perception of what they think or want to believe about the public (for background, see here and here).

I’ll begin with a problematic example of a poll. Here is an article that someone offered as proving the public supports tough-on-crime policies:

There were stunning findings in a new poll released Monday on crime in New York City. Keeping crime down is way more important to voters than reforming the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program…

a new Quinnipiac University poll…reveals that public safety is uppermost on the minds of voters…

Asked which was more important, keeping crime rates down or reforming stop and frisk, 62 percent said keeping crime rates low and 30 percent said reforming stop and frisk.

The article itself isn’t important. There are thousands like it, but I wanted to use it for the polling data it was using.

I don’t know of any bias from Quinnipiac, beyond a basic mainstream bias, and so maybe the wording of the question was simply intellectual laziness. It was phrased as a forced choice question that implied choosing one negated the possibility of the other and it implied those were the only choices for public policy.

I looked further into data related to stop and frisk. It isn’t as simple as the forced choice presents it. For one, a number of studies don’t show that stop and frisk actually keeps crime rates low, as the question assumes. Secondly, when given more information and more options, Americans tend to support funding programs that either help prevent crime or help rehabilitate criminals.

The general public will favor punishment, when no other good choices are offered them. Still, that doesn’t say much about the fundamental values of most Americans. I’m not just interested in the answers given, but also the questions asked, how they are framed and how they are worded.

All of this and more is detailed in the following and in Part 2.

Disconnected Politicians, Uninformed Public


There is substantial evidence that political leaders misperceive the public mind on crime and justice issues.l Moreover, these misperceptions appear to be in one direction: that of assuming that citizens are more conservative and resistant to innovation in criminal justice than they actually are. These errors dampen imaginative thinking about crime control policy, cause premature rejection of promising policies and programs, and make certain policy options (cg, decriminalization of some offenses) taboo subjects.


Surveys in the United States, Canada and Australia have consistently found that the public has an inaccurate and negative view of crime statistics, including the general beliefs that the crime rate is rising dramatically and that a high percentage of crime involves violence (Roberts 1992; Roberts & Stalans 1997). Similar findings have also been reported in Britain (Hough & Roberts 1998).


To summarize, these findings showed that:

Respondents (even Criminology students!) were misinformed about the issue of sex offending at the beginning of the project;

The attitudes towards sex offenders were indeed different when measured using plain surveys as compared to deliberative polls; and

The change in attitudes experienced as a result of the deliberative process remained stable 10 weeks later.

What does all this mean? Although these results are not generalizable to the public at large, they do provide some insight into the differences between public opinion and public judgment as sources for criminal justice policy-making. When asked to answer a survey, people express their views on a topic they may or may not know something about. If they know something about it, that information may be based solely on what is reported in the media. Maybe respondents never even thought about the topic until they were asked to answer the survey. In deliberative polls, people receive balanced, scientific information about the different aspects of the issue at hand and they are provided an opportunity to think and discuss. Whatever their views on the subject may be, they reflect a carefully considered opinion. In those cases in which legislators are willing to take into account public opinion when designing criminal policies, shouldn’t we try to make sure that the public views those policies are based on are not just fruit of the spur of the moment, but representative of what society really wants?

Growing Doubt, Shifting Opinion


Importantly, in addition to helping us understand the expansion of the U.S. carceral state, the public’s punitiveness may also help explain more recent developments in the U.S. criminal justice system. As Tim Newburn has noted on this blog, some politicians and policies are beginning to reflect a shift in a less punitive direction. This shift is consistent with the declining public punitiveness observed above. In fact, if the public’s punitiveness had not declined in recent years, we would expect even more individuals would have been incarcerated.


A public opinion survey reveals a substantial majority of persons harbor doubts about the effectiveness of the American criminal justice system. The nationwide survey reveals a crisis of confidence in our nation’s legal system, says the non-profit Center for Prosecutor Integrity.

The presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of the American legal system. But two-thirds (66.8%) of the survey respondents believe the presumption of innocence is becoming lost in our nation’s legal system.

Equal treatment is promised by the 14h Amendment to the Constitution. But three-quarters (74.8%) believe our legal system often does not follow the rule of ‘equal treatment under the law.’

Prosecutors occupy a central role in the criminal justice system, but over two-fifths (42.8%) say prosecutor misconduct is widespread. Strong majorities of persons say most cases of prosecutor misconduct are kept hidden from the public (71.4%), and similar numbers say prosecutors who commit misconduct are almost never punished (73.5%).


Surveys and opinion polls conducted by government, academic, or private groups provide snapshots of the workings of the criminal justice system. Collecting information from original sources or coordinating data from existing streams, these studies provide new insights into the effectiveness of policies and programs as well as revealing public perceptions and attitudes. They also serve as benchmarks when measured against past studies and offer guidance for future planning.

This article examines some of the sources for surveys and public polling concerning the criminal justice system. In addition to overview studies about the application of surveys to criminal justice, the selected topics include: crime, criminal histories, death penalty, public defense, sentencing, sex offenses, treatment, and reentry.


Public opinion on crime and criminal justice has undergone a significant transformation over the past few years. Support for long prison sentences as the primary tool in the fight against crime is waning, as most people reject a purely punitive approach to criminal justice. Instead, the public now endorses a balanced, multifaceted solution that focuses on prevention and rehabilitation in concert with other remedies.

Other Public Opinion Data


Our survey results show that this image of individual attitudes toward crime and criminal justice as hardened, punitive, and inflexible may be incorrect. Through the use of survey experiments, we find that attitudes toward crime and criminal justice depend on information and context. Depending on these factors, individual attitudes can be changed in either a more punitive or less punitive direction. The lesson to be learned is that traditional survey methods may present a biased image of what individual citizens are willing to support and tolerate when it comes to crime.


According to a national public opinion poll conducted in 2007, the public is losing confidence in the death penalty. People are deeply concerned about the risk of executing the innocent, about the fairness of the process, and about the inability of capital punishment to accomplish its basic purposes. Most Americans believe that innocent people have already been executed, that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, and that a moratorium be placed on all executions.


In April, 2009, NCCD commissioned Zogby International to conduct a national public opinion poll about American voter attitudes toward our nation’s response to nonviolent, nonserious crime. The results of this poll showed that striking majorities favor using methods other than incarceration to respond to nonserious crime.


In February, 2006, NCCD commissioned Zogby International to conduct a national public opinion poll about American attitudes toward rehabilitation and reentry of prisoners into their home communities. Except where noted, the questions pertained to prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as drug or property offenses. The results of the poll showed that striking majorities favor rehabilitation as a major goal of incarceration. The public appears to recognize that our current correctional systems do not help the problem of crime, that prisoners face enormous barriers to successful reintegration to the community, and that rehabilitative services should be provided as a means of reducing crime.


This paper presents experimental survey results about Americans’ attitudes towards the disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons. Two long-term trends in public opinion provide the backdrop: strong public support for conservative anti-crime policies, and growing public support for civil rights and civil liberties for most groups. We find that 80% favor restoring voting rights to former felons once they complete their sentences, 60% support voting for parolees and 60-68% for probationers. Only 31%, however, favor allowing current prisoners to vote. In the clash between the desire to punish and the desire to protect the civil liberties of unpopular groups, we find greater public support for the latter view.

Racial Profiling: Widespread and Unfair



A Gallup poll released today revealed that the majority of Americans — both black and white — believe that racial profiling is both widespread and unfair.


The purpose of this investigation was to provide data on the experience of racial profiling that cannot easily be dismissed by those who regard the accounts of ordinary citizens as unreliable and based on a lack of understanding of police work. Although some law enforcement leaders lack confidence in the ability of the general public to identify racial profiling, it could also be argued that denials of the reality of racial profiling by White authorities are unreliable and based on a lack of understanding of being Black in America. African American police officers have the unique vantage point of having the lived experience of being Black in America along with the professional knowledge and experience that comes with being police officers.

More than two thirds of the officers in our study reported having been on the receiving end of racial profiling at some point in their lives. Indicating that racial profiling is not just a thing of the past, 43% of respondents said that they had experienced racial profiling in the past 5 years, and 1 in 4 reported having been racially profiled in the past year. The degree to which racial profiling is a particular problem for Black men is indicated by the fact that nearly 3 out of every 4 of the male respondents to our survey said that they had been subjected to this practice. Suggesting that dark-skinned African Americans are targeted to an even greater degree than those with light or medium skin tones, respondents who identified themselves as “dark-skinned” reported the highest percentages of having been racially profiled. Finally, despite having obvious reasons to oppose racial profiling, 1 in 10 of the officers in our survey reported that they engage in racial profiling them-selves and believe it is a necessary tool of law enforcement.

The responses of the African American police officers in this survey must be added to the growing body of evidence of racial disparities in traffic stops and to the stream of first-person accounts by African Americans from all walks of life showing that racial profiling is a reality. Unfortunately, the obstacles faced by those who wish to bring an end to racial profiling include a context in which this practice is both denied and condoned. Even as police administrators deny the reality of racial profiling, they reward officers for effective use of drug courier profiles that rely on racial stereotypes. Even as the Supreme Court claims to guarantee equal protection for all citizens, it has all but condoned racial profiling by allowing police to use the pretext of traffic enforcement to stop anyone they want. Despite claims by some that civil rights for racial minorities have been achieved in the United States, racial discrimination continues to contaminate the criminal justice process.Though police officers are the gatekeepers to that process, they do not create their own marching orders. Bringing an end to racial profiling will require strong leadership dedicated to putting an end to racially biased policing in all its forms. Because of the failure of the Supreme Court to take decisive action to end racial profiling, police administrators must aggressively develop clear and direct policy guidelines that severely restrict police discretion when it comes to the use of race as a factor in determining potential criminality. These guidelines should be strictly enforced with disciplinary procedures for their violation. There must be an unequivocal message that racially biased policing will not be tolerated.

Stop and Frisk: Leads to Mistrust and Unwillingness to Cooperate



The NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program is essentially a program in which black people are stopped and frisked due to their display of criminal risk factors, like being nonwhite. A shocking new poll finds that black people tend to believe there’s something wrong with the program.

First, allow us to remind you of these little NYCLU factoids published just months ago: “Though they account for only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406). Ninety percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”


Overall approval for stop and frisk was at 45 percent, while disapproval was at 50 percent.

Stop and frisk is a Bloomberg-era policy many voters want to amend.  58% of registered voters citywide want the next mayor to significantly change the Bloomberg policy of stop and frisk.  36%, however, want the controversial policy to continue.  Seven percent are unsure.

Racial differences exist.  75% of African American voters and 63% of Latino voters want the policy of stop and frisk to be overhauled.  This compares with just 44% of white voters who share this view.


A landmark study has found that stop-and-frisk policing leads to so much mistrust of cops, many young adults won’t go to cops to report violent crimes — even when they are the ones victimized.

The study, by the Vera Institute of Justice, found a stunning correlation between those who have been stopped and frisked, and an unwillingness to cooperate with the police.

For every additional time someone was stopped, that person was 8% less likely to report a violent crime, the researchers found.

“Our main finding is pretty plain and simple: Stop-and-frisk is compromising the trust needed for public safety,” lead researcher Jennifer Fratello said. […]

The Vera study surveyed 500 men and women ages 18 to 25 in five “highly patrolled neighborhoods” — Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York in Brooklyn; Jamaica, Queens; East Harlem, and the South Bronx — who said they had been stopped at least once by cops.

Of those surveyed, 46% said cops had used physical force on them, and 29% said they were never given a reason for why they were stopped.

Yet most of those stopped had done nothing wrong.

Of those surveyed, 85% said they were not involved in any illegal activity and were let go — a finding that matches NYPD stats that found 89% of people subjected to stop-and-frisks last year were innocent of any wrongdoing.

The researchers said the experience of being stopped affects the willingness of young adults to cooperate with the police.

Of the 500 people interviewed, most of whom were black or Latino, 76% said they would not go to the police to report someone they knew had committed a crime. And 59% said they wouldn’t go to cops even if they were the victim of a violent crime.

Nearly 9 in 10, 88%, said residents in their neighborhood don’t trust the police.

The study also found a stunning percentage of young adults who were stopped again and again.

Of those surveyed, 80% said they had been stopped more than once in their lives, and 44% said they had been stopped at least nine times.

Some of the young adults said they had been stopped 20 or more times.


The New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk initiative may not be getting guns off the street or reducing crime, but it is certainly making an impact on public opinion. A new poll by the New York Times found that a significant majority of New Yorkers think police favor whites over blacks. The sentiment is especially strong within the African American community; 80 percent of the respondents agreed that police favor whites, compared to 48 percent of white New Yorkers. The poll also found that a majority of black New Yorkers think stop-and-frisk has led to the harassment of innocent people.

This perception may come from the fact that the NYPD made more stops of young black men in 2011 than the total number of young black men in the city. Police have been accused of practicing racial profiling through stop-and-frisk, which would explain why attitudes towards the policy fall along racial lines:

Opinions about stop-and-frisk fall are divided by race. Fifty-five percent of whites described the use of the tactic as acceptable; 56 percent of blacks called it excessive. Among Hispanics, 48 percent said it was acceptable and 44 percent said it was excessive. Republicans, independents and residents of Queens generally support the practice; Democrats and Manhattanites generally deem it excessive.

Overall, 64 percent of New Yorkers say the police favors one race over the other, a steep rise from the early years of the Bloomberg administration, when less than half of residents agreed with that sentiment. The perception of police favoritism has not been as widespread since the final years of Mr. Giuliani’s tenure, when race relations were noticeably more tense. (The question has not been asked in a Times poll since 2003.)

These views, in many cases, appear to have been influenced by personal experience. A third of the New Yorkers surveyed, including 37 percent of black people, said police officers had used insulting language toward them. A fifth of the respondents said they had been stopped by a police officer because of their race or ethnicity, and almost all were black or Hispanic, and more likely to be young and male.


Besides damaging their relationship with minority communities, the NYPD has also alienated journalists and activists through the program, prompting several allegations against police officers for beating up, intimidating and arresting anyone who films them.


Just over one-out-of-three voters favor a stop and frisk law like New York City’s and think such a law actually fights crime.

The New York City law allows police to stop and frisk anyone on the street whom they consider suspicious, but 50% of Likely U.S. Voters oppose having a stop and frisk law where they live. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 36% favor such a law, while 13% are undecided.


Thursday’s poll also shows that 50 percent of of New York City voters disagree with the notion that a reduction in the practice would lead to an increase in crime, while 41 percent believe it would cause crime to go up.


Ninety percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent, the report says. And there are other reasons to doubt that stop-and-frisk makes the city safer. First, the number of people caught carrying weapons during stop-and-frisk is minuscule. In 2011, police found weapons on only 1.8 percent of blacks and Latinos frisked, and 3.8 percent of whites. (If anybody should be stopped-and-frisked more, it’s …)

Second, the practice has no impact on the level of gun violence in New York City, according to a recent investigation from DNAinfo.com.

While the NYPD was stopping and frisking a record 685,724 people last year, 1,821 people were victims of gunfire, according to NYPD and city statistics. That’s virtually the same number as in 2002, Bloomberg’s first year in office, when 1,892 people were shot, but just 97,296 people were frisked.

Third, analysis from New York Daily News shows that stop-and-frisk has no impact on NYC’s murder rate either.

The city’s murder rate started dropping long before Kelly’s current tenure as commissioner, and there’s no evidence stop-and-frisk had anything to do with it. There were 2,245 murders in 1990. By 2001, the year before Bloomberg hired Kelly, the number of murders had dropped to 649. That total fell to 587 in 2002, the year before the commissioner initiated his aggressive stop-and-frisk regime.

Still, apparently, those who approve of stop-and-frisk believe that if it decreased, gun crime would increase. The percentage of black, white and Latino voters who believe that is 28 percent, 39 percent, and 46 percent respectively.

More State Public Opinion Data


In the last several years, Texas shifted from building more prisons to closing prisons, saving $2 billion while, most importantly, achieving the state’s lowest crime rate since 1968. This poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Texans embrace this empirically validated approach. Whether Republican, Democrat, or independent, Texans turn out to have a very practical view of criminal justice, informed by common sense.


85 percent of Massachusetts residents polled support a reform agenda that includes a focus on rehabilitation, increased use of probation, reduced sentences for non-violent criminals and drug users, and reduced reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing. Support for these reforms rises to 91 percent when respondents learn that other states have lowered crime with similar reforms, the report stated.


1. Massachusetts residents want the criminal justice system to focus on prevention and rehabilitation – two areas where the current system is not seen as effective

2. Two-thirds want reforms that result in fewer people sent to prison, reversing previous high levels of support for new prisons.

3. Residents show little support for mandatory minimum sentencing.

4. The public sees drug use as a health problem rather than a crime, and seeks an increased focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

5. Concerns about supervision cloud picture of public support.

6. In areas where more inmates are released, residents agree with the broad, pro-reform sentiment of the rest of the state.


“Voters really are less supportive of the prisons and the budgets that are given to the prisons,” DiCamillo added. “They’d much rather fund the K-12 schools or higher education or health care.”

The most significant finding came when voters were asked whether the state’s three-strikes law, which passed in 1994, should be modified to allow judges and juries more discretion when sentencing a criminal for a third felony.

The poll found 74 percent of voters would support allowing that discretion to ease prison overcrowding, with 24 percent opposed.


Despite voters’ ambivalence over capital punishment, a ballot measure seeking to amend the three-strikes law is attracting strong support from a broad cross section, including conservatives. Proposition 36 takes aim at what critics of three strikes call its unfairest feature by changing the law so that offenders whose third strikes were relatively minor, such as shoplifting or drug possession, could no longer be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.


Ethnic groups in California want to see more treatment and rehabilitation programs in the state’s penal system and less reliance on jail time, according to a new poll of ethnic Californians on the state’s criminal justice policies.

The multilingual poll shows a vacuum of faith in the penal system among some of the populations most affected by the policies that have put California on the map as having some of the nation’s toughest criminal justice laws. […]

For all the groups polled, large majorities–ranging from 83 to 91 percent–believed that people with drug problems convicted for minor crimes should be sent to drug treatment programs rather than prison. Clear majorities in all the groups also thought that community service was a preferable punishment for petty crimes by strong majorities.

A majority of respondents in all but one of the groups thought that ex-convicts should be eligible for government education loans and also keep their right to vote. Less than half, or 48 percent of American Indians, thought that this was a good idea. […]

The poll reports mixed opinions on the controversial Three Strikes law, which requires a term of 25 years to life for any felony committed by a defendant with two previous serious or violent felony convictions.

Most groups expressed mixed opinions on the Three Strikes Law with no clear majorities expressing themselves either way. The exceptions were 76 percent of African-American respondents who said they opposed the law and 61 percent of Latinos who said they supported the law.

But when told that many defendants sentenced under Three Strikes had committed nonviolent crimes, “like stealing a pair of sneakers or forging a check,” Asians and Latinos shifted their answers. Latinos changed from being 61 percent in favor of the law to 64 percent opposed. Asian Americans, meanwhile, went from being 48 percent in favor of the law to 56 percent against Three Strikes.

The poll also revealed a contradiction between how communities feel about their neighborhood cop and how they feel about the criminal justice system as a whole.

Majorities in all the groups polled–Latinos, Asians and Middle Easterners, African Americans, American Indians and non-Latinos–feel their neighborhood cops are doing a satisfactory job. Still, majorities in all the groups ranging from 54 percent for Asians and 88 percent for African Americans also said that the system favors the rich and powerful.

Three-fourths of African Americans and a significant proportion of Latinos (48 percent) feel police harass and detain people with darker skin or foreign accents more than others.

Opinions diverged on capital punishment. The poll asked respondents whether they were in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. African Americans and Latinos showed the most disapproval. Among African Americans, 55 percent said they are against the death penalty and 34 percent said they were in favor; among Latinos, 47 percent were against the death penalty and 41 percent were in favor.

Roughly two-thirds of American Indians, non-Latino whites, Asians and Middle Easterners said they supported the death penalty in these cases.

As the cash-strapped state decides which services to cut, a majority of respondents in all groups said they would rather see prison funding cut over social services or education funds. In proportions that ranged from 82 to 98 percent, respondents in all groups support spending more money on educating youth and less on building more prisons.

Responses suggested that many ethnic Californians favor more lenient policies toward youth offenders. When asked if they supported the death penalty for 16 and 17-year-old juveniles convicted of murder all the groups polled showed major opposition, from 52 percent of non-Latino whites to 74 percent of Latinos. Respondents were asked about voter-approved law Proposition 21 passed in 2000 that allows juveniles as young as 16 to be tried as adults. Clear majorities of African Americans, Latinos, and Middle Easterners and significant portions of other groups showed opposition to Proposition 21.