It was an ugly moment at the September 7 Republican debate when the discussion turned to the death penalty. “Governor Perry, a question about Texas,” moderator Brian Williams began. “Your state has executed two-hundred thirty-four death-row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times.” Suddenly, Williams was interrupted by an outburst of applause and cheers from the audience. The point being made by the Republican spectators could not have been clearer: The death penalty was not just a policy they favored. It was something to celebrate. And Rick Perry’s answer to the question was about as thoughtful as the audience’s reaction. “I’ve never struggled with that at all,” he said—a boast that was especially unsettling because Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, on Perry’s watch.
The death penalty is unlikely to be a pivotal issue in the upcoming campaign, and it is certainly not the most urgent question that the country faces. Liberals long ago stopped making a big deal of their opposition to the death penalty, and in some cases they actually embraced it. Bill Clinton, for example, famously returned to Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign to preside over the execution of a man suffering from mental retardation. And, while not all Democratic politicians have been so crude in staking out safer ideological ground, many have nevertheless done their best to avoid the matter.
We are opposed to the death penalty—we think it is constitutionally, practically, and morally wrong, and we think it is important for liberals to say so—but that is not the sole reason we were concerned by the Republican applause at last week’s debate. After all, the death penalty is probably here to stay for the moment. And, at the national level, aside from appointing liberal justices to the Supreme Court, there probably isn’t much that a president can do to hasten its demise.
But the applause at the debate reminded us that there was a time not so long ago when conservatives joined liberals in believing that compassion was an important societal virtue. Whatever one thinks of the death penalty, cheering about capital punishment is not exactly a compassionate thing to do. Even if you believe that executions of criminals are necessary, even if you believe that they serve justice, it is neither decent nor humane to glorify them.
The death penalty is hardly the only topic on which conservatives seem to have surrendered their compassion. Take immigration: However one feels about immigration—and it’s an issue where reasonable people can disagree—it seems fair to say that an element of empathy has been missing from the loudest Republican rhetoric on the subject. Just this summer, Representative Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican, declared he would “do anything short of shooting” illegal immigrants to get them to leave the country. Iowa Republican Steve King, vice chairman of the House’s immigration subcommittee, has described the influx of undocumented immigrants into America as a “slow-motion holocaust” and “a slow-rolling, slowmotion terrorist attack on the United States.” Meanwhile, Republicans remain, by and large, resolutely opposed to the DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to many illegal immigrants who were brought here as children. The measure is really less a proposal about immigration policy and more a common-sense idea intended to protect people who were not responsible for having been brought here and who have tried only to make the best of the circumstances they were handed–in other words, people who have done nothing wrong and everything right. Forget whether you are liberal or conservative. Any decent person ought to be able to understand that it is cruel and unjust to punish people who find themselves in this predicament.
Throughout American history, voices on both the left and the right have played a vital role in reminding their own sides when they have gone too far or betrayed their ideals. As liberals, we can’t play this role for the right. But it would be nice to see some principled conservatives step forward and make the case that conservatism need not be so starkly incompatible with human empathy. Applauding executions or directing hateful rhetoric toward immigrants are the marks of a political philosophy that is drifting toward a certain nastiness. There must be conservative intellectuals or politicians who worry about this phenomenon in private or in silence. Now would be a good time for them to loudly repudiate it.
This article appeared in the October 6, 2011, issue of the magazine.