The Economist’s Lexington blog has a post about democracy and the death penalty, pointing out that major strides have been made to eliminate the death penalty in many states despite strong public support of this ultimate punishment. Those achievements, then, go against public opinion:
All of this is pretty pragmatic, if you check opinion polls by such outfits as Gallup or the Pew Center for Research. These find that most Americans support the death penalty (though that support has fallen from 80% a generation ago to around 60% today). Most Americans think that executions are morally acceptable and applied fairly in America. Yet majorities also believe that the innocent are likely to have been executed by mistake, and are sceptical that executions have a deterrent effect. When offered life without parole as an alternative punishment to execution for murder, Americans divide almost evenly…
The story of the last few years has been of an abolitionist movement that has been refining and honing its arguments with ever greater success. However, and I write this as someone who is a moral absolutist against the death penalty, the abolitionist camp has not done so well tackling a gigantic question: that of democracy.
In every Western democracy that has scrapped the death penalty, politicians have acted against the wishes of a majority of voters. If you were to draw a pyramid of accountability (or its lack), the pinnacle would be occupied by the European Union, which has made abolition of the death penalty a condition for membership of the club, irrespective of the wishes of any voter or political party. A European politician running on a platform of restoring capital punishment would be wasting his and the voters’ time, unless he was willing to leave the EU as well…So is abolition democratic at all? That depends on what version of democratic accountability you favour. The most combative abolitionists, such as Mario Cuomo, openly argue that they know better than their voters, and are saving them from their baser instincts. This represents the representative model eloquently outlined by Edmund Burke, when he told his 18th century constituents in Bristol that while he was most interested in their opinions, and would attentively listen to them, he would reject any talk of “authoritative instructions” or “mandates issued” which he might be expected to obey, even when they ran counter to his own conscience and judgment.
I’m with Mario Cuomo. Because democracy is not the end goal, it’s a means to an end: liberty. And when democracy and liberty are in conflict, and they often are, I care far more about the latter than I do the former. This is the entire point of the Bill of Rights, the whole reason why we put our most basic rights out of the reach of majorities (except with a constitutional amendment, which is, quite intentionally, very rare).