Joe Biden, America’s goofy uncle, is quickly proving why he’s the kind of guy you might avoid at Thanksgiving.
Former Nevada State Assembly member Lucy Flores published an account last week of being inappropriately kissed by the former vice president and probable Democratic front-runner at a 2014 campaign rally in Nevada. “I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair,” Flores wrote in The Cut. “I was mortified… He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head.”
Flores was careful to note that Biden’s behavior was not violent or sexual. Still, his actions were “demeaning and disrespectful,” she wrote, and clearly inappropriate for a work environment. “[H]e made me feel uneasy, gross, and confused,” she wrote, “and I felt powerless to do anything about it.” Flores’ account was far from surprising: There have been rumblings about Biden’s handsiness for years. Indeed, several more women have come forward with similar stories following Flores’ account.
Like many feminists, I’ve long carried a certain ill will toward Biden, who seems less like a person than a one-man demonstration of “failing up.” Flores is right that Biden’s archaic attitudes toward women — which are evident not just in his weird propensity to cuddle strangers, but throughout his career as a lawmaker — ought to be disqualifying. But removing Biden from the race does not get rid of that problem. Just look at who else is leading the polls.
Both of the Democratic frontrunners, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are white men in their seventies. Both have been accused of badly mishandling sexual harassment. In Biden’s case, by overseeing the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 that treated Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas with skepticism and hostility. In Sanders’ case, by failing to adequately quash the culture of sexual harassment that had apparently emerged on his 2016 presidential campaign. Both are currently pro-choice, but their commitment to women’s reproductive autonomy frequently seems half-hearted. Biden says he believes “abortion is always wrong.” Sanders has argued that Democrats should “get off the social issues [like] abortion [and] gay rights” and has been known to stump for anti-choice candidates.
On a more behavioral level, both men are alarmingly paternalistic and condescending in their interactions with women: Biden’s shoulder rubbing. Sanders’ finger wagging. Biden telling a teenage girl she needs “big dogs around the house” to keep neighborhood boys from taking her virginity. Sanders’ refusal to answer a young woman who asked him about sexual harassment on his campaign.
All of this gets more worrisome when you consider that one of the claims Sanders mishandled came from Lucy Flores herself. A Sanders surrogate in 2016, Flores was one of many women to allege misogynistic behavior from high-ranking Sanders staffer Arturo Carmona. Sanders continued to publicly support Carmona for nearly a year after those women went to the press with their accounts. Flores told NPR that “there was essentially a cover-up,” though she also cautioned that “this isn’t just something that’s limited to Bernie’s campaign.” (I’ll say.) Flores’ level of support for Sanders has become a hot-button topic, with Biden partisans tarring her as an undercover Sanders operative working to smear the Vermont senator’s biggest rival. It’s worth noting that Flores has thanked Sanders for saying he believes her account of Biden’s behavior and for introducing better sexual harassment practices on his 2020 campaign. It’s also worth noting that Flores has said she won’t be supporting Sanders in 2020, citing Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris as two primary candidates who have caught her eye.
If, as appears likely, one of these two men becomes the Democratic nominee, he will face off against a sitting president whose key vulnerabilities — white, male, septuagenarian, with a talent for alienating women—are alarmingly similar to their own. Yes, we can recognize a spectrum of offenses here, particularly when it comes to issues of harassment: Donald Trump stands accused of assault and rape; Biden and Sanders are guilty of inappropriate touching and a plodding response to harassment claims, respectively. There is a difference between ignorance and hostility, between dismissing women’s harassment claims and sniffing their hair, between sniffing their hair and raping them. But everything on that spectrum is still sexist, and all sexism is harmful. When we start arguing that our preferred candidate is less sexist than the other guy, we end up arguing that he is permissibly sexist, that his problems with women aren’t big enough to “really” matter. We allow sexism when it’s expedient, rather than treating it as a unilaterally disqualifying characteristic. Ignoring sexism for the sake of expediency is exactly how you get a Democratic vice president who routinely nuzzles the heads of his female constituents.
When Sanders and Biden were young men, much of the behavior described here — read: paternalistic, objectifying, condescending, hostile, aggressive, domineering, creepy — was socially acceptable. (Though women have likely always been perturbed by it, we’ve also been socialized not to raise a fuss — conditioning the #MeToo movement is just now breaking down.) Because of this, their supporters often try to play it off as endearing or harmless or argue that both men are simply products of their time. Biden himself, while ostensibly vowing to respect women’s personal space in the future, tried out some version of the “different time” excuse in his apology video: “It’s how I’ve always been,” he said in a clip posted to Twitter, but “social norms have begun to change.”
But that’s the point. Both men do hail from a different time (the same time: Joe Biden was born in 1942, Sanders in 1941), and that time was famously terrible for women. They were well into their twenties before the second wave of feminism hit, meaning they came to adulthood in a culture that taught them women’s main value was to be sexual outlets or helpmeets for men. If they carry those toxic attitudes into the present day, that’s a huge liability and a good reason for women not to trust them. The “different era” excuse is a compelling argument for why Democrats should pick a younger nominee — it’s hard to get past Mad Men–era sexual politics when both of your front-runners are around the same age as Pete Campbell — but it is not a good reason to stop holding these men accountable.
Yet, after several elections in which Democrats aimed to increase the diversity of representation — including, most notably, the 2018 midterms, which were fueled by female voters and left Congress more female than ever before — many Democrats have, unaccountably, decided that they need to ditch “identity politics” and embrace a white man in order to win. Not just any white man, either: What they want, as Vox pundit Ezra Klein puts it, is a nominee who “speaks the language of labor-liberalism without a lot of culture war.”
If you’re wondering what “culture wars” are, think: the interests and lives of anyone in this country who is not a white man. Thus, not only are Biden’s flawed gender politics far from unique, they aren’t even unique among Democratic primary front-runners. Democrats seem to have internalized the idea that power is naturally white and male and that we must throw our support behind white men in order to win. This is bad strategy: Sanders or Biden would be unable to cleanly hit Trump on his weakest points — like the misogyny that has alienated a substantial chunk of suburban female voters, and helped deliver Congress to the Democrats in the midterms — if Trump can plausibly accuse them of the same sins.
But, more importantly, to keep nominating white men who avoid “culture war,” at this stage of the game, is a moral failing. It is Democrats’ job to provide an alternative to Trump and Trumpism, which means they need to move beyond a notion of power that puts a premium on white men and their interests. There are still enough women and people of color in the running for us to provide a real alternative. The question is whether Democrats are brave enough to commit to that path.