This article examines distinctive American political institutions that contribute to explaining the continued use of the death penalty. In the light of wide popular support for capital punishment, strong political leadership is considered to be a principal channel for the abolition of capital punishment. The dilemma of the US death penalty, however, lies in populist features of political structures that greatly limit the political leverage and possibilities available to leaders. The institutional arrangements in the United States allow public support for the death penalty to influence political decision making more directly than it can in the European counterpart. A strong receptiveness of US political leaders to the public also implies that once public opinion changes, political leaders are likely to respond to the public’s new attitude. Unlike most countries, which abolished the death penalty through political initiatives that were counter-majoritarian, the United States may abolish it only after a change in public opinion.
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