This dissertation examines the waning of capital punishment in the immediate post-World War II period and its resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s. Some scholars understand the revival of the death penalty in the United States as part of a socially conservative backlash in a society undergoing immense social change. Qualifying and building upon these accounts, I argue that the migration of Americans' sense of political community away from the public sphere and a concomitant resurgence of individualism in the post-World War II period played an under-examined role in the growth of the American demand for capital punishment. State killing, I show, was compatible with a cultural consensus that social problems could be solved only by individual acts of will and not by large-scale social engineering. The revival of the death penalty reflected Americans' discomfort with the way that modern, utilitarian approaches to punishment, which peaked in the years after World War II, failed to take individuals seriously, prioritizing social goals over individual autonomy. In this context, capital punishment legitimized, rather than simply masked, the state's withdrawal of its claim to being the central provider of social, economic, and personal security. And it denied, rather than endorsed, the state's role as a dispenser of traditional morality. Contradictory understandings of the role of the killing state as normatively and descriptively strong and weak worked, moreover, to sustain the practice of capital punishment in the United States.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. January 2011. Major: American studies. Advisor: Elaine Tyler May. 1 computer file (PDF); iv, 222 pages; appendices p. 212-222.
Condemned to be free: the cultural life of capital punishment in the United States, 1945-present..
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