The Strategic Nature of Politics
Scholarship shows that the social construction of crime is responsible for the public?s demand for tougher criminal justice policies. Yet, there remains disagreement over several key issues regarding the relationship between strategic communication and the punitiveness of the mass public. Little is known about the magnitude and direction of changes in punitive sentiment over the last 50 years. Moreover, there is disagreement over when the public began to demand punitive solutions to crime over alternative policies. Many scholars point the racial turmoil of the 1960s, but none have shown conclusive evidence of any fundamental change in punitive sentiment. Finally, there is disagreement over what type of strategic appeal is most effective at shaping public opinion. The argument of this research is that the democratic nature of American pol- itics creates an environment where the competition of ideas flourish. Political ac- tors can use several types of strategic communication (agenda-setting, persuasion, priming, framing) to shape political outcomes. The effectiveness of an appeal does not remain constant over time, but should evolve around systematic social changes? environmental conditions and social norms. Thus, there is a time varying relationship between various appeals and public opinion. A content analysis of crime news in the New York Times provides measures of four types of strategic messages. Instrumental factors such as the economy and public policy are also shown to influence the public?s desire for punitive criminal justice policies. A Bayesian changepoint model provides a means to test when, if any,fundamental change occurred in the public?s punitive sentiment. Contrary to most accounts, the changepoint model identifies 1972 as having the highest probability of a breakpoint suggesting a public backlash against the Supreme Court?s Furman vs. Georgia decision to abolish the death penalty. Estimates from a state-space model show that different types of messages in the media shape punitive sentiment and that the effectiveness of racial primes and presidential attention to crime changes over time. Moreover, these changes are shown to be a function of changes in social context and norms suggesting ways to improve political communication.