A couple of my readers have offered interesting defenses of the audience’s cheer the other night at the statement that Gov. Rick Perry’s state has executed 234 condemned murderers under his leadership. In an earlier post, I expressed my revulsion at an audience cheering for execution. Even if you support capital punishment, I said, it should be treated as a necessary evil, something to be approached soberly. Reader Randy Goodwin writes:

It is not fair or accurate to ascribed blood lust to the audience at the Reagan Library when they cheered during the question on capital punishment. The overwhelming majority of California voters have supported the death penalty for decades. A death penalty initiative in 1972 received almost 70 percent of the vote. The courts, however, overturned that law which received the votes of millions of Californians. As a result of that decision, killers like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment as did hundreds of other death row inmates. California endured Chief Justice Rose Bird who took it upon herself to nullify the death penalty because of her personal opposition to the law. She was recalled by the people for that outrage. So, be careful when you take a tone of moral superiority against those in the audience at the Reagan Library. They support the death penalty because they think it will lead to a less violent and more civil society. You can disagree, but don’t think for a minute that you are morally superior to the people who believe otherwise. They were not cheering like a crowd at the Roman Colisseum–as Chris Matthews said–they were cheering for the triumph of a state that had figured out how to make their justice system reflect the will of the people in spite of the ACLU and activist liberal judges. California, technically still has the death penalty, but as a practical matter it is almost non-existent (13 since 1976)–not because that’s what people want but because of the courts. If one believes that capital punishment is a deterrent to murder, as most supporters do, then cheering for capital punishment is neither vile nor morally reprehensible.

I still believe that it is vile and morally reprehensible to cheer for capital punishment, even if one believes it is just and effective. But I thank Randy and the other readers who have written to illuminate this aspect of the incident, which was not apparent to viewers outside of California. Along those lines, here’s an analysis by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. Excerpt:

There are, of course, reasonable arguments against the death penalty. But opponents are too resentful at their inability to steamroll over public opinion as if this were Europe or Canada to argue their case effectively. One of their most ludicrous tropes is to liken the U.S. to authoritarian regimes that also practice capital punishment. In reality, as Marshall showed, America still has the death penalty because it is less authoritarian than Europe. Thus whenever someone makes that argument, we feel a tinge of patriotic pride. We believe a similar sentiment lay behind last night’s applause.

In Taranto’s piece, and in Randy’s use of the phrase “don’t think for a minute that you are morally superior,” we can sense that the death penalty is one of those class-warfare touchstones in American political life. When people complain that someone else is asserting “moral superiority” over those who disagree, they don’t really mean what they think they mean. I think that my position here — that one should not cheer for the death penalty — is the morally correct one, therefore superior to its opposite. People who think the crowd’s cheer was salutary obviously believe theirs is the correct (therefore superior) position. So what? Would it make a lick of sense if I chastised Randy Goodwin for believing that he is morally superior to me for supporting the crowd’s cheer?

No, obviously not. But that is not what the “moral superiority” jibe is really about. For whatever reason, the death penalty, like evolution and climate science, are class markers in American politics. Randy Goodwin rightly perceives that for whatever reason, the death penalty is one of a handful of issues that has a meta-meaning in our politics. They resonate emotionally with many people, both liberals and conservatives, beyond the issue itself. Conservatives accurately perceive that “enlightened” liberals see them as barbaric for supporting the death penalty, and read into that a liberal rejection of conservative attitudes toward crime and punishment. I think they’re right, by the way, to perceive that they are scorned by liberals as barbaric for those views. Similarly, conservatives who reject evolution and climate science are correct to perceive that they are looked down on by liberals as ignorant hillbillies for believing these things.

People are confusing belief with identity. This is common — indeed, it is the basis for identity politics. On the death penalty, for example, some conservatives believe that by judging their cheering as wrong, the one making the judgment is asserting moral superiority not over their belief, but over their person. On the left, this is why many liberals find it impossible to accept that a conservative may reject gay marriage, but not gay people. It becomes impossible to disentangle one’s stance on an issue or principle from one’s personal identification with that issue.

The problem with this is that conservatives and liberals who allow their thinking to be driven by class resentment and identity politics may end up affirming things that are unsupportable as a thoughtless gesture of defiance. If it pisses off the liberal elites (or conservative yahoos), it must be right — that sort of thing.

This accounts for the popularity of Sarah Palin. When she first joined the McCain ticket, the outpouring of hysterical spite from liberal elites was overwhelming. This is something liberals really don’t get about themselves: they can be unbelievably snotty about conservatives, especially working-class conservatives. In this way, they practice class warfare, though to them it doesn’t come across that way; it only seems like they’re standing up for what is perfectly obvious to all right-thinking people. Anyway, readers of my old blog will recall that I responded with great bloggy ire in defense of Palin; it was quite clear that for whatever reason, she pushed all the right class-war buttons in liberal elites. The things they attacked her for, and the language they used to attack her, were dripping with class hatred — and I experienced it as hatred of people like me.

Both the attackers and the defenders (like me) didn’t really know much about Palin. She was, in those early days, less an actual politician as the biggest class-warfare marker of all. As the weeks rolled out, and it became clearer what her weaknesses were, I found that I couldn’t support her. She really wasn’t prepared to be president of the United States if McCain died. She might have been a wonderful governor of Alaska, but she wasn’t at all prepared for national leadership. This new information compelled me to recognize that the only reason I had left to justify my support of her was the fact that she angered liberal elites. That’s not reason enough. Emoting is not the same thing as thinking.

One reason so many 2008 backers of Barack Obama are so disappointed today is that their support for him was based more on what the man symbolized culturally than in the (limited) politician he actually was. They needed him to be a symbol, so they made him a symbol. Same with Palin. This is what our class politics get us.

To be sure, our politicians will always be more to us than the summation of their policies and opinions. And some of our political issues will always have broader and deeper resonance than merely being based on the facts of the given matter. This is why we have a culture war. Both sides are combatants, but conservatives always come at these issues as underdogs because, as the sociologist James Davison Hunter writes, “at a deeper level of public discourse, the knowledge sector” — populated almost exclusively by liberal elites — “has largely defined the rules for public argumentation.” As Randy Goodwin explains, in California, those elites have repeatedly thwarted the will of the people in the matter of the death penalty. Given that background, they — we — shouldn’t be surprised when a democratic polity responds as the California Republicans did the other night.

I see that. The only thing I want to say again is that thoughtful conservatives (and thoughtful liberals) shouldn’t allow their moral and political thinking to be conditioned by class resentment of this sort. If something is wrong, it’s wrong, even though to say so puts us on the same side as the people we don’t like and don’t identify with. And, being Our Sort of Person doesn’t make a politician capable of being a good and effective leader. It’s hard for all of us to keep that straight, but that’s what it’s like to act in the fog of culture war.