The Effect of Exposure to Political Rhetoric on Public Opinion About Criminal Justice
Degree awarded: Ph.D. Justice, Law and Society. American University
Over the past 40 years in the United States, politicians supported harsh criminal justice policies that created an era of "mass incarceration." Politicians justified their actions by saying that the public demanded punitive punishments for criminals. However, according to theories of issue framing, public opinion about political issues can be altered by the manner in which political elites discuss those issues. Framing theories imply that public support for harsh penal policies may be caused by politicians' "tough on crime" rhetoric. If there is, indeed, a causal link between punitive elite rhetoric and punitive public opinion, then politicians' justification of their support for harsh policies becomes tautological.In order to test this "elite manipulation hypothesis," I used an experiment embedded within a public opinion survey to expose respondents to statements about criminal justice made by members of the House of Representatives. These statements exemplify the "tough on crime" frame traditionally used to support harsher punishment, and a new, "smart on crime" frame that is presently being used by political elites across the country to criticize the high cost of mass incarceration.Contrary to the elite manipulation hypothesis, I found that exposure to the smart on crime frame did not significantly affect the opinions of respondents, while exposure to the tough on crime frame caused respondents to express less punitive responses than respondents in the control group. Further tests revealed moderated results that are more consistent with framing theory. Some findings indicate that higher levels of political awareness inoculate people against the influence of elite frames, while a person's political ideology moderates the manner in which she is affected by a frame. Compared to respondents in the control group who share the same political ideology, evidence indicates that political liberals reject the tough on crime frame and voice less punitive opinions, while political conservatives reject the smart on crime frame and voice more punitive opinions. This finding suggests that elites cannot push people to hold opinions that conflict with their personal values.
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