The Death Penalty

With Bill Richardson outlawing the ultimate punishment, John has some thoughts on conservatives:

One of the things I have never understood is the seeming breakdown on opposition to and support for the death penalty. I have never figured out why conservatives, the people who flip out about zoning boards and if their taxes are raised 3% and who shout limited government until they are blue in the face have absolutely zero problem with the government taking that which is most precious- someone's life. All this posturing about the "ability to tax is the ability to destroy" just seems silly when you turn a blind eye to the government executing people.

There's more over at his place. But I'd offer one theory. I think a sizable, maybe not a majority, of the conservative base doesn't actually believe in small government. They believe in government not not taking their tax dollars and using it to help people who they don't like. This goes back to state's rights, Jim Crow and reconstruction. I don't mean to impugn principled liberarians, but there's certainly a strain of "small government" conservativism that's rooted in those old racist notions.

It's very difficult to disentangle debates over criminal justice, from race. Felon disenfranchisement laws have their roots in the efforts to keep black men from voting. I don't think the death penalty is a racist plot. But I wonder if the face of crime were more familiar, where we'd be on the issue. This is all a long way of saying that some conservatives don't hate big government, they simply want big government to work strictly for them.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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