Since the 2010 elections, the activism of newly empowered conservative and Republican state legislatures has gained national attention with their wars on public employee unions, additional restrictions on abortion, and new barriers to voting.
Against this backdrop, the little state of Connecticut has loomed as a large progressive exception. Last year, it became the first state to require employers to grant paid sick leave. It also enacted a law granting in-state tuition to students whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as young children.
And last week, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy signed a law repealing the state’s death penalty. There are now 17 states without capital punishment, Illinois having joined the ranks last year. What happened in Connecticut brings home the flaw in seeing everything that has happened in the states since the midterm vote as embodying a steady shift rightward.
Where they hold power, progressives have also been using their states as laboratories, and Malloy is part of an impressive group of mostly smaller-state Democratic governors who have combined a moderate, business-friendly style with progressive policymaking. Their ranks include, among others, Govs. Jack Markell in Delaware, Martin O’Malley in Maryland, John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and outgoing Gov. John Lynch in New Hampshire.
After the 2012 election, a key front in the battle for America’s political future will involve how the various left and right experiments in the states are judged. Aggressive conservatives such as Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio are in the headlines now, and the recall Walker faces will keep him there for a while. But there will be a quieter and more comprehensive reckoning down the road.
Part of this reckoning will be a remarkable pivot in the politics of the death penalty, the premier issue on which an overwhelming consensus favoring what’s taken to be the conservative side has begun to crumble.
In the 1980s and ’90s, capital punishment was a staple of Republican campaigns against a handful of liberals who bravely stuck with their opposition to the ultimate punishment. George H.W. Bush used the issue effectively against Democrat Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, and so did Republicans in their 1994 electoral sweep, notably in defeating three-term Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in New York. And no wonder: In 1994, support for the death penalty hit its peak of 80 percent nationwide.
But a Gallup survey last fall showed how much things have changed: Support for capital punishment was down to 61 percent. Among the many reasons for the drop are a decline in crime rates, which has increased public confidence in the criminal justice system, and a stream of reports casting doubt on the guilt of some who were executed. In addition, significant groups of libertarian Republicans and opponents of abortion have crossed to the repeal side. An important test of the new politics of capital punishment will come this November in a California death penalty referendum.
For all this, it still takes political courage to end capital punishment. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week as Malloy signed the death penalty repeal found 62 percent of Connecticut voters still favoring executions of those convicted of murder, with only 30 percent opposed. Just 29 percent approved of the Legislature’s handling of the issue, while 51 percent disapproved.
But (and it’s a very important but) support for the death penalty, in Connecticut and elsewhere, is not as robust as it looks. When Quinnipiac asked a different question — “Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder, the death penalty, or life in prison with no chance of parole?” — only 46 percent favored the death penalty. An equal number chose life without parole. Death penalty opponents have an opening they haven’t had for some time.
Moreover, voters aren’t as agitated by the issue as they once were. Only 37 percent of Connecticut voters told Quinnipiac that the issue would be “extremely” or “very” important to how they cast their ballots in legislative elections.
Malloy is under no illusions about the strong residual opposition to repeal. When he signed the repeal bill last Wednesday, he did so with little ceremony, carefully observing that “many people whom I deeply respect, including friends and family … believe the death penalty is just.”
Nonetheless, what Malloy did was historic, and it was a sign that despite the dreary polarization that characterizes our debates, American politics is still capable of springing surprises.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com.