Put Your Best Facet Forward

Those interested in the study and practice of policy change should pick up The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence by Frank R. Baumgartner, Suzanna L. DeBoef and Amber E. Boydstun (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008). Baumgartner and his colleagues track media coverage, public opinion, death sentences and executions to explain how changes to the first two have lead to a decline in the second two.

In approaching their work the Baumgartner et. al. write that “the death penalty, like other issues, is multifaceted” (p.11) and argue that issues of innocence have replaced issues of morality in the national death penalty discussion. This shift doesn’t mean that Americans didn’t care about innocent people on death row before the late 1990s, or that people no longer believe capital punishment is an appropriate response to some crimes. But the focus on innocence at the expense of morality has led to the inevitable retreat of the death penalty.

More broadly, the authors argue we are bears of little brains. Most of us can only focus on one aspect of an issue at a time. The aspect on which we focus determines the rest of the debate – as they write, “Shift the attention and you shift the attitude. It’s that simple.” (pp.14-15) If advocates change the subject about a topic from an area of disagreement to an area of agreement, they can win. As Baumgartner notes in Policy Dynamics (edited with Bryan Jones, University of Chicago Press, 2002), “people can change their views on an issue without changing their minds...” (p.19)

The Decline of the Death Penalty discusses the outcomes of advocacy efforts, not the mechanics of those efforts themselves. Similarly the book does not try answer the question of why innocence resonates when other issues do not (or why innocence beats morality). Such omissions are reasonable – issue campaigns do not lend themselves to rigorous quantitative analysis, and how people think about justice is not the point of the work.

Those who helped create the change the book maps examined how people think about the death penalty and cast the arguments in ways that the audience already agreed with. Most people believe in “just desserts” including death sentences, and most people also believe in protecting the innocent. Anti-death penalty arguments rooted in morality run into the first belief, arguments rooted in the latter belief create agreement. The Justice Project and others who led the reframing succeeded because they found a way to make the death penalty about something most people believe, rather than trying to get people to accept something new (I was The Justice Project’s first director).

A similar approach can be taken by any advocacy organization. The group needs to figure out what change it wants, who has power over that change, how power thinks about the issue. The next step is to put the issue in a context with which power already agrees. As your mom says, put your best facet forward.