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Dionne: Are we becoming a more benevolent nation?

  • Public opinion polls show declining support for capital punishment. (Associated Press)

Tired of gloom and ceaseless talk of American decline? Me too. So let's celebrate an important way in which the United States has become stronger — and a genuinely kinder and gentler nation.

That last phrase, used by George H. W. Bush in 1988 when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination, has become a cliche. But it was also a pledge. And in the years since, our country has lived up to that promise when it comes to reducing violent crime.

Over the past three decades, we have made great strides in battling lawlessness. Because of this, we are less inclined to insist on retributive justice. We are more open to reforming prisons, criminal sentencing and policing itself. And many more of us are prepared to repeal the death penalty.

In quieter political circumstances, a report from the Gallup organization last month might have drawn the attention it deserved. The firm found that support for the death penalty had dropped to its lowest point in more than four decades. At its peak, endorsement of capital punishment stood at 80 percent in 1994. Now, only 60 percent of Americans favor it.

Not since 1972, when Gallup found 57 percent support, has backing for the death penalty been this low. The last time that a plurality of Americans opposed it, according to Gallup, was 1966 when 42 percent favored capital punishment and 47 percent were opposed.

Those dates are no accident. The public's sympathy for the death penalty did not rise steadily after 1966 because our nation developed a new and abstract taste for vengeance. Many turned to the death penalty out of frustration with the criminal justice system and as a direct response to increasing fear of crime.

That fear was not paranoia. Beginning in the late 1960s, the country experienced a crime wave that shook all aspects of American life, including our politics. It turned “law and order” into a potent electoral issue, made “soft on crime” judges a prime target of mass ire (thereby enabling a broader attack on liberal jurisprudence), and created the pro-death-penalty surge.

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