When I read a recent account in The Cut recalling an incident with Joe Biden that made a young woman extremely uncomfortable, I wasn’t at all surprised. Biden has a history of “over-affectionate” acts that, while probably well-intentioned, have seriously creeped out those on the receiving end. The photo record on this is unmistakable, and women continued to come forward with stories of the discomfort they’ve felt from his gestures—though Stephanie Carter has said she felt the opposite.
There have been many takes on this issue, and I think one of the most thoughtful has come from Emily Jashinsky at The Federalist, a popular conservative online magazine, who argues that “the question of whether Biden’s behavior is wrong and the question of whether it’s disqualifying” are two completely different issues.
I’ll admit that before this latest exposure of the issue, it wasn’t one of the main reasons I didn’t want Joe Biden to get the Democratic nomination. But now, I acknowledge that my thinking needs to change, and I recognize that this ongoing issue might indeed be disqualifying for him, as stated by his recent accuser, Lucy Flores.
My other major reason for wanting Biden to keep his hat out of the ring is highly related to these incidents, though, so I want to lay out my thinking.
First, let me acknowledge that Vice-President Biden comes across to me as a caring and empathetic person, who’s dedicated his life to public service, and who should be admired for many reasons. His 2015 interview with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show really solidified this image in my and many others’ heads.
But Joe Biden has a blind spot. He’s an excellent example of the fact that when one has privilege, it’s so difficult to step outside of it and understand the experiences of those without it. As a straight, white man—a status that he and I share—Biden lives at the apex of basically all the convergent privileges that blind us to the plight of others. And in this case he has failed to understand the fraught dynamics that exist between powerful men and the women in their orbits.
While I’m willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt that he’s never intended to take advantage of his positions of power to target women for sexual predation, Biden does not seem to understand the experience of so many women who are forced to fend off flirtations from men on a regular basis, often in highly inappropriate circumstances. Only with the advent of social media do men finally get a consistent window into these experiences for women, with the message that this is not okay. But people have been commenting on Biden’s behavior for years, and it never seemed so sink in with him that his affectionate touch was crossing a line.
Onto my reason for preferring that Biden not be the 2020 Democratic nominee. It may seem offensive to some, at first blush, that my major reason is that he’s a straight, white man. Indeed, it’s not just those who lament the rise of “identity politics” who disagree with me on this. Plenty of progressive Democrats argue that it should purely be the best candidate, who perhaps is the most electable, who should get the party nod. Many of them, of course, support Bernie Sanders for the Oval Office.
But there are multiple reasons why demographics should be an actual factor in our choice for president. We absolutely need to have our leadership reflect the country it serves, and after 230 years of (ostensibly) straight, almost-exclusively white men, my preference is that we don’t have yet another in 2020.
Not only does diversity within the office help to engender the variety of experience we need for the role, but it also sends a powerful message about the opportunity for those who don’t look like Joe Biden or Donald Trump to be able to aspire to the highest office. It’s about time that everyone recognize that the “leader of the free world” can be a woman as well.
Better Angels fully recognizes that a leadership that doesn’t reflect those who it purports to represent has much less claim on legitimacy. For this reason, the organization has striven to achieve balance at every level of leadership, and done a remarkable job, from board members, to senior leaders, down to the newest workshop organizers. And since workshop attendees are leaders in their own right, helping to bring back what they’ve learned to their own lives and communities, Better Angels is pushing to have its membership be more reflective of the country that we serve as an organization. David Blankenhorn, our president, recently sent out a plea to support this initiative to potential donors—you can still support the Reflect America campaign with a donation—because it’s so central to who we are and what we do.
I feel the same way about our country. We should be doing everything we can to inject that element of diversity into every level of our government, and all organizations for that matter. But the office of the President is particularly important. Little black girls may not yet know who their senator is, but they sure know who the president is, and sending the message that they could one day have the top job is vital to building their sense of self and empowerment.
So, Joe, I thank you for your service to this country throughout your career. But I do believe that the public office portion of that career has come to an end. Let’s let the incredibly diverse generation that followed you, or even my generation—in the form of Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, IN, a 37-year-old who, if elected, would be the first openly gay president in our history—take the torch from you, and continue the drive for a more perfect union.
Photo: Creative Commons, 2017.