Last month, a former aide to Joe Biden came forward with an allegation that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. The woman's name is Tara Reade, and she said that the then-senator for Delaware digitally penetrated her without her consent. Reade is the first woman to come forward publicly with such a claim, which is a significant departure from the well-documented interactions and stories of the vice president touching, kissing, and massaging women without their consent.
By and large, young progressive Democratic voters listed the former vice president as their third or fourth choice among the dozen-plus contenders who, up until February, were vying for the space at the top of the ticket. Now, Biden is the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee for president. Faced with a candidate they weren't excited about to begin with, these young voters are wondering whether they can square their personal values with the idea of voting for an a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, in addition to behaving in a way that many women said made them uncomfortable. (Mic reached out to Biden's staff for comment about his alleged behavior and did not receive a response. We'll update this story if we do.)
"Just because you're voting for Biden does not mean that you don't believe Tara Reade," Christina Pugliese, the vice president of the University of Florida College Democrats, says. Pugliese, who has survived multiple assaults and advocates for survivors on campus, says that she never wants a woman to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, nor does she want to tell people how to vote. It's complicated, Pugliese says, because the political system is supported by patriarchy and favors men's stories over women's. It's made worse, too, by the fact that America's two-party system means realistic choices are limited to one person or the other.
But in November, the stakes are high. Pugliese originally supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president, and she certainly doesn't want another four years of President Trump even now that Sanders has exited the race.
Voting in November will require, for many young people like Pugliese, separating what's personal from political. Nearly half of the electorate this fall will be made up of millennial and Gen Z voters, like Pugliese, who were drawn to candidates like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) because of their progressive platforms. They're now deciding for themselves whether they believe what Pugliese said is true: Can a voter cast their ballot for Biden and believe Reade at the same time?
"Our leaders shouldn’t be complicit in sexual violence and harassment."
Even before Reade’s story broke, Nicole Anyanwu, a student at University of California at Berkeley and campus senator, considered Biden to be dangerous. To Anyanwu, Biden is a white moderate whose policies wouldn't combat the systems that make being a Black woman in America so difficult, and that makes him a liability. A Biden presidency would be better than a second “destructive Trump presidency,” she tells Mic, but voting for a candidate whom she believes to be an assailant — that's something she's struggling with.
“People are saying that this is a moral choice, a decision to choose Biden [over Trump]. I don't see any morality in this, considering both of them are harassers and assaulters of women,” Anyanwu says. “Our leaders shouldn’t be complicit in sexual violence and harassment.”
A win for Biden would likely mean an uncertain future for the most progressive policies, given his slow or incremental conversions on the Hyde Amendment and climate action. For voters like Anyanwu, it would also represent the ways that race and gender allow for the perpetuation of mistreatment and abuse. “It just goes to show,” Anyanwu says, “that being a white man in America can get you a lot of things that being a woman, and a marginalized woman, can’t.”
Sanders was also Anyanwu’s first-choice candidate. He “had solid morals,” she says. But she doesn't feel the same way about Biden, no matter how much he appears to be willing to incorporate elements of his left-wing competitors' platforms; in recent weeks, he's entertained some debt forgiveness as well as lowering the Medicare enrollment age from 65 to 60.
The only time Black folks get credit for their cultural significance is during an election year, Anyanwu says, when politicians “exploit us for votes.” But despite the history of policies that disproportionately negatively impact and discriminate against them, Black women consistently turn out to vote Democratic and have long been putting aside their personal beliefs in order to put Democrats in office.
"[Biden] goes against a lot of what I'm fighting for."
Reade's account of what happened to her in 1993 is just further proof for Carrie Ramirez that Biden is not the candidate who can reset America's values at the federal level nor on the global stage. Ramirez is an 18-year-old organizer with Youth vs. Apocalypse, a youth-led contingent of 350BayArea, a grassroots climate advocacy organization. Ramirez tells Mic that she doesn’t know if she’ll be voting for Biden in November; she's waiting to see what will happen over the next few months. “I’m still at this crossroads. [Biden] goes against a lot of what I'm fighting for,” she says.
Ramirez voted for the first time in California’s primary on Super Tuesday, casting her ballot for Sanders. At the time, when it looked like Sanders had a chance of securing the Democratic nomination, Ramirez felt that his candidacy would mark a departure not just from the Trump administration, but from a reliance on racist systems of white supremacy that Ramirez says were elevated in reaction to the country's first Black president, Barack Obama.
Biden, who served as Obama's vice president, hasn't called out racist systems specifically the way Sanders did — which, for Ramirez, demonstrates that Democrats deserve just as much blame for “[perpetuating] systems of injustice” at the federal level as do Republicans. In her mind, the fact that Biden has been allowed to remain silent on Reade's story reflects that.
One of Ramirez’s related concerns is that Biden's pledges to, if he wins the White House, choose a woman vice president and nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court are merely ways for him to communicate his progressive bona fides to voters while burying Reade’s claim. Ramirez wants more than a promise to include women; she wants to see the policy come along too. “I would like to see an administration that advocates for Black and brown lives, that advocates for poor people,” she says, and “an administration that advocates for health care for all.”
Democrats appear to believe a woman when she accuses a man they don't care for, like Trump, but they tend to disbelieve a woman who accuses a man they support.
Emma Wennberg, a student at University of Pennsylvania, says she'll still vote for Biden in November, but she's still struggling with how to make sense of this political moment. "As a survivor myself, I'm inclined to believe Reade," Wennberg says, but she notes that it's entirely possible for "two people to remember the same event differently."
Reade's story has only served to affirm her perspective on Biden, though, whom she already thought was creepy given “the ways that he touches women.” If anything, Wennberg says, it’s the Democrats' reaction to Biden that indicates an underlying political problem: “It’s more upsetting,” she says, to see Democrats argue “that Tara Reade is coming forward for political motivations,” Wennberg says. “[That’s] exactly how [Christine Blasey] Ford was categorized.”
She's talking about the 2018 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, during which psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford testified that Kavanaugh assaulted her at a house party when they were both teenagers. Throughout his confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh forcefully and angrily denied Ford's allegation. Predictably, Ford's words were politicized: Democrats said that Kavanaugh's alleged behavior demonstrated poor character, while Republicans decried Ford as an attention-seeking liar. “I think that people really need to recognize what it takes for survivors to come forward with things like this. We should be inclined to believe them,” Wennberg says.
By drawing on Ford's testimony, Wennberg hints at what many people find troubling about the reaction to Reade's assertion: that is, that Democrats appear to believe a woman when she accuses a man they don't care for, like Trump, but they tend to disbelieve a woman who accuses a man they support. Take the case of former Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, whom a radio show host said kissed and touched her without her consent; a photo of the incident in question circulated online. When New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called for Franken's resignation, she was criticized for breaking party rank and risking a Senate seat.
There’s a long history of this, Wennberg says, and it's “such a slap in the face to millions of people across this country, [and] to people who have experienced sexual violence.”
As it stands, Biden is currently about 776 delegates shy of securing the Democratic nomination for president at this summer’s convention. With no other competitors still in the race, Biden is the party's de facto nominee. But that doesn’t mean young people will automatically cast their ballots for him.
Whether Biden and his team are truly grappling with this reality remains to be seen. As of the time of writing, the candidate himself has still not spoken directly on Reade's allegation, and has instead relied on spokespeople to deny the claim for him. “[Biden] needs to address these claims himself,” Wennberg says; not doing so is an “insult” to Reade.
One thing is certain, though: Biden will be on the ticket in November, despite the fact many young people feel quite lukewarmly about him. As Wennberg says, “Biden was one of my last choices.”