With his official declaration that he’s running for president again, Joe Biden is now considered the front-runner in the crowded Democratic race to take on Donald Trump in 2020. Biden’s status as the early favourite is another example of the #MeToo movement showing itself to be an ineffective tool when it comes to Democratic politics in the United States.
Last fall, the Democrats dramatically failed to leverage sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, then a Supreme Court nominee and now a justice on the court. Weeks before Biden declared his official candidacy, various factions of the Democratic party alleged the former U.S. vice-president engaged in “inappropriate conduct” with women at previous campaign and fundraising events.
Politician Lucy Flores alleged in an article for The Cut that during her campaign for lieutenant governor of Nevada in 2014, Biden approached her from behind, put his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair and kissed the back of her head. Flores recounts that the incident left her feeling “uneasy, gross and confused.” She describes Biden as “America’s creepy uncle.”
On the heels of Flores’s allegations, Amy Lappos, a former congressional aide in Connecticut, alleged Biden grabbed her head, pulled her toward him and rubbed his nose against hers at a 2009 political fundraiser. Lappos describes the interaction as having crossed “a line of decency,” noting that it was “incredibly uncomfortable.”
At least two other women later took to Twitter with similar accounts.
Strikingly, none of these stories were overtly sexual. They sit at the outer edge of the “gray zone,” a category that refers to inappropriate behaviour that falls below the level of criminal sexual assault.
Flores appeared ambivalent about the sexual nature of Biden’s actions, noting that “even if” they were not “violent or sexual,” they were nevertheless “demeaning and disrespectful.” Lappos said that Biden’s alleged nose-rubbing “wasn’t sexual.”
Flores asked: “Is it enough of a transgression if a man touches and kisses you without consent, but doesn’t rise to the level of what most people consider sexual assault?”
Central to the logic of #MeToo is the weaponization of trauma in the service of power politics. That is, the movement justifies its claims on the back of individual stories about pain and suffering, and the anger that so often attends these stories. However, #MeToo has only been successful in unseating powerful men when the interests of public morality and the political ruling class converge. Neither of these conditions are met with respect to Biden.
Biden’s alleged creepiness presents a test for #MeToo. It presses us to consider how wide we want to cast the censorious net: should it include behaviour that is not overtly sexual? It also demonstrates that the goal of women’s empowerment is often not aligned with the de-platforming of powerful men.
In contrast to the Kavanaugh situation, where it was relatively straightforward that someone accused of sexual assault should not sit on the Supreme Court, it is far less clear whether “creepy uncle” status should disqualify a presidential candidate.
In this case, it is simply not enough to believe women, because doing so does not resolve the political question of how to evaluate Biden’s candidacy. In other words, it doesn’t tell Democrats whether they should abandon Biden or close ranks around him. If it is true that Biden would likely beat Trump in the presidential election, it may not be savvy to sacrifice him on the altar of #MeToo.
In response, Biden has said he never intended to act inappropriately toward women, nor believed that he had done so. He said that though he “may not recall these moments the same way,” he “will listen respectfully” to complaints made against him. Biden has also done things early in his candidacy to appeal to female voters, including holding his first post-announcement interview on The View and making a phone call to Anita Hill to express his regrets over how she was treated during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.
Flores and Lappos hail from different Democratic factions; both are opposed to a potential Biden candidacy.
Flores is firmly embedded within the progressive wing of the Democratic party and previously served on the board of Our Revolution, a political action organization affiliated with the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Lappos previously served as an aide to Congressman Jim Himes, former chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, the centre-left pro-corporate wing of the party. The political motives behind her allegations seem obvious. She has said that “if Biden truly supports women and gender equality, he would step aside and support one of the many talented and qualified women running.”
MeToo fails to address structures of inequality
Though it failed to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation, #MeToo as a political tactic was more likely to succeed against him than it was against Biden. The allegation of sexual assault is much more severe than mere creepiness.
Christine Blasey Ford was a less politically invested complainant than either Flores or Lappos. Kavanaugh did not have the benefit of Biden’s long history of goodwill and political support. Further, the decision on Kavanaugh had to be made quickly under quasi-judicial circumstances, whereas the Biden question was litigated in the court of public opinion, many months before the actual primary race.
The allegations against Biden are far from game-changers; at best, they fall into the can’t-hurt tactical category.
In the realm of electoral politics, #MeToo itself is a tactic, not a substantive strategy. Whether it should be leveraged depends on the strength of the political projects on whose behalf it is deployed.
This is especially true where that candidate has credibly committed to engaging productively with the allegations against him. Actress and #MeToo advocate Alyssa Milano has backed Biden as a champion of women’s rights, tweeting how she has “been fortunate to accompany him to events with survivors where he has listened to their stories, empathized with them, and comforted them.”
The #MeToo movement has been sharply criticized for being both enabled and propelled by neoliberalism, and for failing to question the economic structures at the root of feminine inequality. Ironically, and perhaps tragically, with the Biden allegations, women on the left of the political spectrum are attempting to use the master’s tools to dismantle the political economy that is the source of so much harm.