Distrust of Government, the Vigilante Tradition, and Support for Capital Punishment

By Messner, Steven F.; Baumer, Eric P. et al. | Law & Society Review, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Distrust of Government, the Vigilante Tradition, and Support for Capital Punishment


Messner, Steven F., Baumer, Eric P., Rosenfeld, Richard, Law & Society Review


This study probes the interconnections among distrust of government, the historical context, and public support for the death penalty in the United States with survey data for area-identified samples of white and black respondents. Multi-level statistical analyses indicate contrary effects of government distrust on support for the death penalty for blacks and whites, fostering death penalty support among whites and diminishing it among blacks. In addition, we find that the presence of a "vigilante tradition," as indicated by a history of lynching, promotes death penalty support among whites but not blacks. Finally, contrary to Zimring's argument in The Contradictions of Capital Punishment, we find no evidence that vigilantism moderates the influence of government distrust on support for the death penalty, for either whites or blacks. Our analyses highlight the continuing influence of historical context as well as contemporary conditions in the formation of public attitudes toward criminal punishment, and they underscore the importance of attending to racial differences in the analysis of punitive attitudes.

Social scientists and legal scholars have devoted renewed theoretical attention in recent years to the symbolic and social contexts of punitive social control (Blomberg & Cohen 1995; Garland 1990, 2001). An important theme of the new sociology of punishment emphasizes how victims' advocates and elected officials have mobilized support for tougher punishment policies by symbolically reconstructing the punishment of criminals as a victim's right (Beckett & Sasson 2000:156-64). In his recent book The Contradictions of Capital Punishment, Zimring (2003) applies a provocative variant of this "social constructionist" theme to the toughest punishment of all: the death penalty.

Zimring (2003) asks why the death penalty was resurrected in the United States, when most of the rest of the world was abandoning it, and why its application is so heavily concentrated in Southern states. His answer is that capital punishment was given new life through its symbolic reconstruction as an acknowledgment of the victim's rights and as a form of compensation for the loss suffered by the victim's family. The symbolic transformation of capital punishment was essential in overcoming a potent obstacle to popular support for the death penalty, Americans' distrust of government, which otherwise would result in opposition to such a harsh and irreversible imposition of state power over citizens. According to Zimring, "vigilante" cultural traditions sustain the idea of harsh punishment as a communal ritual on the victim's behalf and counteract the inhibiting effect of distrust of government on support for the death penalty. Such vigilante traditions are most likely to have taken root in areas with a legacy of lynching, which are heavily concentrated in the South.

Zimring (2003:118) cautions that the data at his disposal are limited, and he calls for further research to substantiate his claims. The purpose of the present article is to probe the interconnections among distrust of government, the historical context, and public support for the death penalty in the United States using a multilevel statistical framework. We translate Zimring's discursive arguments into a formal causal model and derive explicit hypotheses from this model. We then test these hypotheses with data on death penalty attitudes, government distrust, and other attributes for 5,140 white and 1,192 black respondents from the General Social Survey (GSS; Davis & Smith 1998). The GSS has been used widely to study correlates of public opinion in the United States since the early 1970s, including attitudes toward the death penalty. It is the only nationally representative survey in which data on both governmental distrust and death penalty attitudes are available for relatively large samples of whites and blacks. The GSS survey data have been linked to aggregate-level measures of social context, including data on lynching, which serves as an indicator of a vigilante tradition. …

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