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Joe Biden, Tara Reade and the Farce of Liberal Feminism

Tara Reade’s credible sexual assault accusation against Joe Biden has been ignored by the media and by the DNC. Liberal feminists have rushed to Biden’s rescue without hesitation. What does this tell us about feminism, the Democratic Party, and the “lesser evil” strategy?

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On March 25, Tara Reade said on Katie Halper’s podcast that she was sexually assaulted by presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden when she worked as his aide in 1993.

It’s been a long road for Reade to get a hearing in the national media. Earlier, in January, she had gone to TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, the non-profit that emerged from the #MeToo movement, which refused to take the case, saying its nonprofit status didn’t allow it to confront a current political candidate (by which logic any politician would be exempted from the fund’s scrutiny).

Even after Reade spoke with Halper, there were weeks of media silence and even attempts to cover for Biden — like this absurd New York Times’ tweet, later deleted. 

The Democratic National Committee refuses to take Reade seriously and won’t investigate her allegation, much less believe it “I trust Joe Biden,” says DNC Chairman Tom Perez.

Finally, Biden went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on May 1 to deny the allegations, while at the same time paying lip service to the #MeToo movement. But still refuses to provide access to his Senate papers archived at the University of Delaware, where documents related to Reade could be housed. 

The MSNBC interview was a softball for the accused rapist. And right before Biden came on, host Mika Brzezinski read a long list of names and sexual assault accusations against Donald Trump. The message was clear: Biden has only one accuser, so Trump is worse.

It’s true: Trump is a misogynist pig. He’s been accused of sexual assault 25 times (and that’s only counting women who have come forward), and admitted his guilt with “grab them by the pussy” on the “Access Hollywood” tape. But that does not — and should not — exonerate Biden. 

Biden’s Terrible History of Sexual Harassment and Assault

Biden makes a big deal of the Reade claim being 30 years old, but there is much evidence of wrongdoing. On videotape, there’s Reade’s mother calling Larry King Live to discuss the allegations at the time Reade says the assault occurred. At least four people have stated Reade told them about the assault contemporaneously. A court document indicates Reade told her ex-husband about being sexually harassed by Biden. And he refuses to allow access to the evidence the University of Delaware archives may hold.

Countless videos attest to what everyone has always known: Biden often has improper physical interactions with women and children. Eight people have come forward and accused him of touching them inappropriately. 

Then there’s Biden’s role as chair of the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Confronted with Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against Thomas, the committee — led by Biden — chose not to investigate the allegations but instead put her on trial. Biden refused to let Hill’s corroborating witnesses testify. Although Biden voted against Thomas, he was a key player in allowing Thomas to make his way onto the Supreme Court. Ever since, Clarence Thomas has been a sure vote against women’s rights. 

Add sexual assault to Biden’s terrible record: pro-segregation, pro-war, writer of the Crime Bill and its mass incarceration … the list goes on.

Rich and Powerful Men Get Away With Everything

This could be bad for Biden’s electoral chances. After all, he has tried to paint himself as an advocate for women, with his promise to choose a woman as his vice presidential running mate is a gesture to the “I’m with her” crowd. But the Reade accusation calls into question Biden’s image as the wholesome “anti-Trump” standing up for decency and American values. 

The right wing is having a field day. They point to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and say the “believe women” slogan is hypocritical. Liberals, they argue, just mean “believe women when it’s politically convenient.” That might be true of liberals, but it doesn’t exonerate the rapists in their ranks. They claim there were attempts to keep Republicans out of public office based on blind belief, not investigations — which is just not true. With Trump, Kavanaugh, and Thomas, there was at least a partial investigation, and evidence was brought forth. The bottom line is that sexual assault does not seem to bar anyone from holding office. Rich and powerful men hire the best lawyers, the best speech writers, and rebrand themselves — rarely suffering anything more than a temporary setback, if any at all — as the consequences for their assaults. The courts are their friends. The capitalist media is dedicated to making politicians who not only sexually assault women, but manage and execute the biggest imperialist war machine the world has ever seen more “relatable” and “likeable.”

Beyond the wealth of these men and the privileges this buys, the Bidens, Trumps, and Thomases of the world benefit because they are all political personnel of the capitalist system. They are the public face of a system rooted in inherent and violent inequalities, of which working-class women are among the primary victims. It is a system in which its representatives, from Thomas Jefferson to Joe Biden, assault women while spouting lofty language about “liberty and justice for all.” Those lofty “ideals” are how they are depicted by the capitalist media and in the history books in the light of their lofty language — not in the context of the brutal system they build and maintain. 

Today, liberal feminist politicians are playing a central role in cleaning up the image of Joe Biden. 

The Complete Bankruptcy of Liberal Feminism

Nancy Fraser, a political scientist and longtime critic of liberal feminism, argues that Donald Trump’s election signified “the end of progressive neoliberalism” — what she calls the “alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights)” with “Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood” and that is characterized by Clinton, Obama, and others who took up the rhetoric of rights for the oppressed while increasing attacks on working-class people. 

In this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. However unwittingly, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.

Liberal feminism — what one might call #GirlBoss feminism — is an integral part of progressive neoliberalism, lending a female face to a system of hyper-exploitation and oppression, with working-class women among its primary victims. Liberal feminism imagines a world in which women “break the glass ceiling” and share in positions of power with men, while the vast majority of people struggle under the yoke of capitalist exploitation and oppression.This, Fraser writes, is one way feminism has been the “handmaiden of capitalism” throughout the neoliberal era, propping up the Democratic Party, which is willing to provide examples of “women’s empowerment” while at the same time promoting policies that are detrimental to the vast majority of women who are part of the working class.

However, the 2016 election signified a crisis of the political parties that represented the neoliberal era, giving way to a questioning of the establishment, a rise in left and right populism, an upsurge of young people who view socialism favorably light, and a growing xenophobic ultra-right. Cliton’s astounding loss was, to Fraser, a mark of “the end of progressive neoliberalism”: a crisis of the coalition between social movements and Wall Street. 

But the Democrats keep trying to resuscitate the formula, and liberal feminists are now playing a key role in supporting Joe Biden. 

The barrage of #MeToo’s leaders and “feminist” Democratic Party leaders coming to Biden’s side is staggering. In addition to TIME’S UP already mentioned, there’s actress and activist Alyssa Milano, who tweeted that she was maintaining her endorsement of Biden. Tarana Burkes, founder of the #MeToo movement. essentially said she was at a loss and posed the question of what it would look like for Biden to be “accountable and electable.” Rep. Ayanna Presley, a member of “the Squad,” and sexual assault survivor, wrote an open letter saying the same thing: “I reject the false choice that my party and our nominee can’t address the allegations at hand and defeat the occupant of the White House.”

There’s Stacey Abrams, who “believes Joe Biden.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the “proud advocate for women” who destroyed sexist Michael Bloomberg on the debate stage, says Biden’s denial is “credible” and “convincing.” “Feminist” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, famous for helping oust Al Franken after he was accused of assault, headlined a May 7 online “Women for Biden” event. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said it was “legitimate” to discuss Reade’s allegation, stopped short of suggesting anything further. She’s not only endorsed Biden, but is heading up his “Climate Task Force” and, as the Associated Press reports, “Ocasio-Cortez Among Top Dems Promoting Biden-Sanders Unity.” Bernie Sanders has been conspicuously silent. 

Today, we see a liberal feminism that long claimed to stand for diversifying the highest seats of power now campaigning for its nemesis: an old white man accused of sexual assault. Congressional “feminists” are falling in line behind a candidate credibly accused of rape because they, too, are invested in holding up a system of inherent inequality. They have no problem throwing Tara Reade under the same bus they throw working-class women who are left to “clean up the glass” from the ceiling after a few wealthy women break it on their way to the top. 

And so, it isn’t Fraser’s “end of progressive neoliberalism.” Rather, its zombie corpse trudges along, this time in the form of Joe Biden. Liberal feminism has lost much of it’s shiny exterior, as well as Obama’s soaring and moving (albeit hollow) rhetoric of social change. Biden isn’t “change we can believe in.” He’s the candidate who has “only one” person accusing him of rape. 

The Graveyard of Social Movements

The sick tragedy is that these liberal feminist leaders, who are speaking to the base of a movement that denounced Trump’s sexism and misogyny, is siphoning off the movement into the Democratic Party — whose establishment was already in a massive crisis. These liberal feminists are explicitly saying we should ignore Biden’s sexism and misogyny, the very issues people were protesting. The Democrat Party isn’t called the graveyard of social movements for nothing.  

After ultra-reactionary misogynist Donald Trump won the election, with the Democratic Party in shambles, millions of people — many of whom had never protested before — took to the streets in some of the biggest marches in U.S. history. Of course, there Women’s March in 2017 had many shortcomings, but it was part of a global feminist uprising, with the resurgence of massive International Women’s Day actions much further to the left. The #MeToo movement exploded after Trump’s inauguration, too, making explicit the prevalence of sexual assault — especially by Hollywood’s elite and other men in positions of power, such as bosses and managers. This movement led to walkouts at McDonald’s and Amazon against sexual assault in those companies. 

Fast forward to 2018: the Women’s March went from the streets and — as the 2017 slogan called for — took its “power to the polls.” The movement breathed new life into a reeling Democratic Party, electing a slew of young, dynamic women to Congress, including “the Squad.” These votes for a diverse and more female Congress were, to some degree, a rejection of Trump’s misogyny. They also put a new, progressive face on the Democratic Party, whose established leadership had been delegitimized by Clinton’s loss. 

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign also played a role in reviving the Democratic Party, registering millions of new voters and creating a political pole of attraction for those turning to the left and seeking social change. But in the end, all that energy from the feminist movement and the Sanders movement was funneled into the party’sestablishment wing, embodied by Biden. The nail in the coffin of this movement is political figureheads demanding feminists campaign for a man accused of sexual assault. It’s hard to think of a clearer selling out of feminism. 

Could it have been different? Perhaps, if rather than leaning into the Democratic Party strategy, the movement had deepened a strategy of strikes against sexual harassment. But it would have also been necessary to fight against the Democratic Party’s power of co-option by building a movement not only against sexual assault, but also against the entire system that is complicit in sexual assault, including against both the Democrats and Republicans. 

The Consequences of Lesser Evilism

Year after year, Democratic liberals tell us we are facing the most important election of our lifetimes, that the Republican candidate is a monster, and that not voting is the same as voting for that monster… and over and over, people hold their noses and comply. But this “lesser evilism” is a race to the bottom. It moves everything further and further to the right. 

With Biden, we really are at a new low. Nothing expresses more clearly the problem with “lesser evilism” than this election. Five Thirty Eight, comparing sexual assault allegations against Trump and Biden, describes the calculation voters are being asked to make: “Well, assuming everything is true for both of these guys, which would be worse? Okay, Biden is the lesser of two evils, so I’ll support him. It’s a weird, odd, dark political storyline that we are going into 2020 elections with two sexual assault stories around the nominees.” 

In an op-ed piece published in the New York Times, Linda Hirshman — author of the 2019 book Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment expresses what all too many people are thinking. Titled “I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway,” Hirshman insists she is taking a “moral stance” and writes, “Compared with the good Mr. Biden can do, the cost of dismissing Tara Reade — and, worse, weakening the voices of future survivors — is worth it.” 

This lesser evilism is not only “weakening the voices” of sexual assault survivors. It also weakens the voices of all the victims of the violence of the U.S. capitalist state — built and held up by both Democrats and Republicans, Trump and Biden alike. And it’s just not true that Joe Biden will necessarily be better for all women, especially if we consider women in a global and intersectional way. Was he better for the women rounded up by Obama’s deportation machine? What about all those behind bars because of the Crime Bill he wrote? And didn’t Biden support the Hyde Amendment — until it became a liability in his presidential campaign?

But what about the Supreme Court, many would say. We can’t afford letting Trump appoint any more justices. But didn’t Biden facilitate the confirmation of Clarence Thomas? 

Put simply, Biden has been central for decades in policies that maintain and expand the oppression of women.

Progressives and socialists refusing to vote for Joe Biden because he sexually assaults women is a step in the right direction. We can’t normalize choosing between two accused rapists. But it is just as important to take Biden’s violence against Tara Reade seriously as it is to take seriously his violence against Black, brown, and working class people in the United States and around the world. What about the countless sexual assaults and murders that have resulted from the policies of both Joe Biden and Donald Trump — war, incarceration, and deportation of people seeking asylum? We shouldn’t buy the shiny “progressive neoliberal” image the media wants to sell us. Biden, Trump, the Democrats, and the Republicans share responsibility for unspeakable horrors. 

Lesser evilism is a cynical maneuver. It sacrifices working-class people in the United States and around the world — especially women, Black and brown people — to a myth that never materializes. And lesser evilism cedes the struggle against sexual assault, for Medicare for All, for immigrants rights, against prisons, and so on to the electoral realm, while doing nothing to stop the rise of an increasingly far right. It diverts social movements into the Democratic Party, which pays them nothing more than lip service as it organizes their death. And it keeps socialists from building a genuine alternative to the twin parties of the ruling class. 

We Need an Alternative More than Ever

The particular crisis of the political establishment that began with Trump’s election in 2016 isn’t over. The progressive neoliberal cover for the Democrats’ anti-worker, sexist, racist policies has been ripped off and is showing it’s true face. With Biden as the Democratic presidential candidate, this has perhaps never been so clear. 

In the midst of the worst healthcare and economic crisis of our lifetimes, the brutal reality of the capitalist system is becoming clearer. The government completely botched any attempt to contain and control a deadly virus. As states begin to “reopen,” tens of thousands continue to die in the pandemic. The capitalists need us to work because they get rich off of our labor. Millions are unemployed, with women, Black, and Latinx workers hit hardest. While Black people are gunned down and vigilantes go unarrested for weeks, armed white people storm state capitol buildings. And two accused rapists are running for president. 

We need a real movement against sexual assault and sexual violence that won’t sell out for a few campaign promises — one willing to go on strike against sexual assault, as well as for the right to an abortion and against all the attacks against us. But, as the pandemic demonstrates, we need change on an even larger scale. 

Nothing about this system works for us. Trump and Biden aren’t concerned with the public good. They’re both running to represent the biggest and most heinous killing machine the world has ever seen: the U.S. capitalist class and its government. 

Increasingly, people can see through the fake shiny veneer to the rot inside. And increasingly, people are rejecting the repulsive and false binary choice lesser evilism presents. The DSA has reaffirmed its decision not to endorse Biden. The YDSA has called on Bernie Sanders to rescind his endorsement of Biden, although that tweet was later. Even the mainstream media has printed some stories calling on Biden to step down. But what would be the point of switching from Biden to, say, newfound Democratic Party darling Andrew Cuomo? More of the same. More evil.

The system that is killing us deserves to die. It’s past time to fight for a socialist future. To do so, we need to fight against and organize independently of the two disgusting parties of deportation, imperialism, hyperexploitation and, yes, sexual assault. Voting for Joe Biden as the “lesser evil” is a vote for evil. We need to organize, as workers, as feminists, as socialists, for a political alternative that represents our politics and for a future free of all exploitation and oppression.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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