Daniel LaChance in ‘Process’: “Capital Punishment and the Battle for America’s Soul”

Associate Professor of History Dr. Daniel LaChance recently authored a piece for Process: a blog for american history. Entitled “Capital Punishment and the Battle for America’s Soul,” the article examines official and public stances on capital punishment, especially in the context of cultural wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. LaChance, who is Andrew W. Mellon Faculty Fellow in Law and the Humanities, authored Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States with the University of Chicago Press in 2016. Read an excerpt of the Process piece below along with the full article here.

“These days, support for capital punishment is concentrated among whites, Protestants, and Republicans—key demographic constituencies of the conservative side of the late twentieth century culture wars. This may explain the unusual zeal with which the Trump administration has tried to prop up capital punishment despite its declining popularity. The federal government has not executed anyone since 2002, yet Attorney General William Barr recently announced that the Department of Justice would set December 2019 execution dates for five federal death row inmates…

“Given the symbolic value that the death penalty carried in the late twentieth century, Trump’s embrace of capital punishment is politically shrewd. His unapologetic enthusiasm for state killing plays to a white, Protestant, Republican base whose support for capital punishment has not faltered even as crime rates have fallen, perhaps because they see the death penalty as a positive good rather than a necessary evil. If that base shares the sensibility of their culture war forebears, support for the death penalty is not only a tool for controlling crime, but also an expression of allegiance to values—personal responsibility, the sacredness of innocent life, and the firmness of a nation’s convictions—that they feel have degraded in the United States since the 1960s. Trump’s defiant embrace of the death penalty is perhaps a sign to them that their nation is on its way to becoming great again.”