“It should be deeply disturbing for voters on the Left of the Democratic Party to vote for a candidate who, not only is likely to have sexually assaulted a woman—but who used a position of power to do it and get away with it for years.”
hosted Tara Reade, the woman who has accused former Vice President Joe Biden of a 1993 sexual assault, for a long-form, sit-down interview. This interview is bound to invite further conversations on Ms. Reade’s accusations—adding to an already frenetic Democratic Party primary process. arlier today, journalist Megyn Kelly
It was a primary process that saw a constantly shifting frontrunner. First, Vice President Biden enjoyed a comfortable advantage. Then, Senator Bernie Sanders nearly ran away with the nomination. Next, the establishment of the party finally coalesced behind Vice President Biden. And he became the presumptive nominee following a number of key victories. However, confidence in Vice President Biden’s electoral prowess is beginning to look somewhat less solid with accusations emerging about past sexual misconduct.
What this will mean for the election is still uncertain. Partisan Democrats are rallying behind Biden, but the left-wing of the party remains unconvinced about Vice President Biden, and his weaknesses are increasingly evident. Popular commentators on the Left such as The Hill’s Krystal Ball and Justice Democrats’ co-founder Kyle Kulinski, whose YouTube show Secular Talk has close to a million subscribers, have repeatedly expressed their view that left-wing voters do not owe Vice President Biden their vote. Furthermore, it looks as though a sizable portion of the voters agree: A recent Emerson poll found that 51% of Sanders primary voters are considering voting for a third party candidate. The former Vice President is facing serious obstacles, and Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation is among the most glaring.
As has been well-documented, Democrats’ approach to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings has come back to haunt them. The comparison between the two cases is inevitable, which is understandable, given that there are some clear similarities. Now, there is one sense in which—assuming both accusations are true—Vice President Biden’s case is actually worse in a way that matters. This is especially relevant, given how the Democratic Party is aiming to appeal to the Left. My goal here is not to relitigate Justice Kavanaugh’s situation but merely to discuss how they overlap, as well as to point out the lessons that can be gleaned.
In a piece for ArcDigital, in which he argues why Tara Reade’s claims are plausible, Ben Burgis summarizes the key parallels and points of divergences between the cases of Vice President Biden and Justice Kavanaugh. Both men were accused of offenses that happened many years before they were brought to light, and both accusations had some form of corroborating evidence that was produced before the accusations were made public. Now, in Ms. Reade’s case, there was more of such evidence, and most of it was produced much closer to the time of the alleged offense. I agree with Burgis that the standard that was applied by liberals to the Kavanaugh hearings is the correct one, and it is the one that should be applied to Biden. That is—it should not be treated like a criminal trial in which the goal is to prove guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. Criminal sentences deprive the sentenced party of their freedom, to which we arguably have a fundamental right. On the other hand, no one has a right to be President or a Justice on the Supreme Court. In that sense, it only matters that the account of the accuser is more credible than that of the person being accused. Vice President Biden himself made a very similar point during an appearance on the The View.
By that standard, most liberals agreed that Justice Kavanaugh should not have been confirmed. That being the case, however, there is all the more reason to believe Ms. Reade. I do think that—neither case being a criminal trial—we should take the side of both accusers. Whether each of these men should be convicted in court is a wholly different matter, and it is of no relevance here. If, then, we are to assume that both events happened, then there is one sense in which Vice President Biden’s case is considerably worse than Justice Kavanaugh’s. Then-senator Biden did it from a position of authority, whereas Kavanaugh did it at a high school party. To be clear, I am in no way arguing that Kavanaugh’s age at the time in any way mitigates his actions if they did indeed happen. If we were to judge both instances of sexual assault in isolation, I think it would be uncontroversial to say they are both equally bad. However, in addition to sexual assault, then-Senator Biden’s actions, if they happened, also constitute abuse of power.
I have argued previously that equality vs. hierarchy is the axis along which the Left-Right spectrum makes the most sense. In that view, it should be deeply disturbing for voters on the Left of the Democratic Party to vote for a candidate who, not only is likely to have sexually assaulted a woman—but who used a position of power to do it and get away with it for years. Now, of course, this is not meant to imply that President Donald Trump is somehow better regarding potential abuses of authority. As psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Karen Stenner have argued—based on statistical evidence—President Trump’s strongest appeal comes from the psychology of authoritarianism. Furthermore, President Trump has expressed opinions regarding his constitutional powers that are troubling, to say the least, and so has his Attorney General, William Barr.
It is true, however, that many instances of sexual assault also involve abuses of power. One obvious example is Harvey Weinstein, whose multiple cases of sexual misconduct gave rise to the #MeToo movement. However, there is a multiplicity of factors that really changes how we should look at Vice President Biden’s case. As Michel Foucault observed, power is more complex than simply a tool wielded by oppressors over the oppressed. Power is more like a net than, for example, a hammer. People in different situations can hold it, pull at it, or get entangled for different reasons. In 1990, when Mr. Biden was a senator for the state of Delaware, he introduced the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This happened three years before the alleged sexual assault took place, so by that time, Senator Biden already had a reputation as a fierce advocate for women. One final issue to take into consideration is his role in the Anita Hill hearings. This is a complicated issue and most likely a net negative for then-Senator Biden. Even shortly after the hearings took place, he expressed some regrets about how he handled them, so he knew that his role was not exemplary. The hearings happened before the VAWA was passed—but after it was introduced. In that sense, he might have been motivated to push the bill due to his role in the hearings, as University of Delaware Professor Emeritus Joseph A. Pika has suggested, but his initial introduction of the bill was, in all likelihood, sincere.
But this just means that he would naturally be seen as an ally of women and as a person with some notion of the issues facing women. In this sense, he would be in a position of power in several different ways.
Human psychology is highly complex, and I do not think that we can make a definitive conclusion about every action someone has ever taken. I think it is entirely possible that when then-Senator Biden introduced and voted for the VAWA he was doing it out of a sincere concern for violence against women. But this just means that he would naturally be seen as an ally of women and as a person with some notion of the issues facing women. In this sense, he would be in a position of power in several different ways. First, he wielded power as an elected representative and, importantly, one seen as a leader on the side of women’s issues. Secondly, and perhaps most obviously, he was Ms. Reade’s boss. Lastly, and, I would argue, most importantly, he was likely a figure trusted by women. This would have necessarily placed any women who worked for him in somewhat of a vulnerable position. If the abuse in fact happened, then this is the context in which we should understand it and how the abuse of power factors in.
With the evidence that has already been presented in the media, I think it is unlikely that anyone who has already taken up a position regarding whether to believe Ms. Reade or not will change his or her mind. Because of that, it is not my intention to change minds regarding the plausibility of Ms. Reade’s accusation. At this point in the development of the story, the only thing that could do this is the kind of evidence that would sway a jury in a criminal trial. Given how long ago the alleged incident took place, this may be unlikely. (However, at the time of writing, The Tribune, a newspaper serving San Luis Obispo County, California, is reporting having uncovered a 1996 court document making reference to the alleged assault.) My goal, consequently, is only to encourage those who already see some merit in the accusations to think about this additional angle.
As I said before, none of this is meant to say that some instances of sexual assault can be better or worse than others. Of course, though, there can always be aggravating factors such as added physical assault or, as in this case, abuse of power. It is also not meant to say that Vice President Biden is uniquely bad in terms of potential abuses of power. I do think that this makes the argument for utilitarian voting much weaker. While votes are always utilitarian to a degree—it is highly unlikely that a candidate will ever represent an individual’s own positions perfectly—everyone probably has a threshold at which voting for someone, even the “lesser evil,” becomes unconscionable. Electoral democracies are certainly not perfect, and I doubt that such a claim is even controversial. Part of their problem is, of course, that there will always be a limited set of options. However, while arguments such as harm reduction can be compelling, there must be a limit to their usefulness. Metrics like the abstention rate are important indicators of disenchantment with the system as a whole. Without abstentionism or third party voting, there is no way of knowing when the mainstream of the political system has strayed too far from the preferences of voters. If true, Tara Reade’s allegations are as good of a reason as any decide that Vice President Biden does not merit one’s vote. Certainly not everyone will make the same calculation, as the recent New York Times op-ed entitled “I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting For Biden Anyway” suggests. That is one argument, but not voting for someone whom one believes to be guilty of sexual assault and abuse of power is a very valid one, too.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.