The Biden Double Bind: Can We Make a ‘Lesser Evil’ Less … Evil?

by Sarah Stuteville 

I do not want to write about Joe Biden and the sexual assault charge against him. This will not feel good, and I know many of you will resent my forging ahead anyway. There is no sleight of hand that will change our small range of bad choices in November. So why throw a floodlight on them?  

But as someone who wrote passionately about the Kavanaugh hearings last year (and who, by unfortunate nature, leans into uncomfortable spaces) I cannot look away and I argue, neither should you. Because while political perfection cannot save us here, an ability to hold complex tension might. There are no shortcuts and the road we have to walk is long and dangerous. As a counselor in training, my courses often refer to a moment like this as a “growth edge,” a place of deep discomfort and vibrating possibility. A place where profound discoveries are possible, but the urge to retreat, or react in fear, can be overwhelming. 

As the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, wrote via twitter this week, “My stance has never wavered: survivors have a right to speak their truth and to be given the space to heal…The inconvenient truth,” Burke added, “is that this story is impacting us differently because it hits at the heart of one of the most important elections of our lifetime. And I hate to disappoint you but I don’t really have easy answers.”

Before I jump into this gasoline-soaked garbage pile with my lit stick of dynamite, I want to get this out of the way. For me, Biden has been close to the bottom of the heap since this Democratic primary season began (approximately 1,000 years ago). I voted for Elizabeth Warren. When she dropped out, I backed Bernie.

I wanted more change, more vitality, more vision than I felt Biden could offer. But, BUT, I will vote for Biden no matter what. And I won’t just vote for Biden because Trump is a demonic manifestation of our blood-soaked country’s haunted id. I will vote for him because as a white woman, I have to. We are backed up against a wall of spikes with a mob of existential threats running at us full speed. If you are poor, POC, LGBTQ, a woman, an immigrant, or a member of any vulnerable or minority population, that mob tramples you first. My white privilege will buy me some time, but just some. Withholding my vote from Joe Biden is a moral luxury I cannot afford, and an indulgence taxed on the backs of people far more vulnerable than I am.

As my friend (and former Emerald columnist) Reagan Jackson was quick to remind me when we were talking Biden over text that 95% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton [in 2016], “not because we love us some Hillary but because we didn’t want to see what is currently happening in our country happen…We’re gonna be hella pissed if you white women can’t get it together and vote for Biden this time.” It’s not an inspiring message. Just true, and desperately urgent.

White supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism wield perfectionism and moral purity as a weapon. The less power you have the harder you have to prove that you deserve compassion, empathy and basic human rights (see Black men whose deaths are justified by minor legal infractions, immigrants who must be wealthy to prove their contribution to this country, women who must be virginal for forced sex to be called “rape”). 

We already knew Joe Biden didn’t have to be perfect to be in power — no rich, white, cis-gender man has to be perfect, he already is by default. The rest of us are trained to find a way to reconcile all of this inequity and make a defensible choice in the indefensibly imperfect world of American politics. And if we can’t do that, we are trained to turn on each other.

But there is no way to twist this choice into even a mockery of “perfect.” We need to vote for Joe Biden, and it is likely Joe Biden is a sexual assaulter. Tara Reade, who was an aide to Biden in the 1990s, says he pushed her against a wall, kissed her, penetrated her with his fingers and when she finally fought him off, laughed at her and told her she was “nothing” to him. To try and ignore the painful tension between our disgust with this assault and our need for Trump to leave office is beneath us — even in this terrifying time.

So what do we do? At first I thought I might be clever enough to find the answer. I imagined we would demand an apology. This was a fantasy I indulged during the Kavanaugh hearings as well. I have lived long enough as a woman to know that, likely, most men in power have abused their positions at the expense of women (no matter their politics). Hell, I’ve lived long enough as a woman to know that most men have done that.

I believe the ubiquity of this abuse is proof of the shitty gender script we’ve all been handed. And I like to imagine that one of these men might recognize their actions as the result of a misogynistic culture and just admit they feel bad that they hurt someone. In my delusions, this apology sounds something like, “Damn. I did do that. It’s messed up and I’m so sorry. I know I can’t ever make it right, but I promise I’ll use this experience to fight against rape culture going forward.”

I’m kind of joking, but not entirely. Consider a world where Biden uses this campaign crisis as an opportunity to profoundly change the discourse around sexual assault in this country, maybe using Barack Obama’s 2008 “Race Speech” as inspiration. It could be a national calling in (instead of calling out) and it could change everything. I would be legitimately excited to vote for that guy.

But in reality, we can’t demand an apology from Biden without jeopardizing his (gag) “electability.” And it’s probably a bad strategy for him to offer one. Indignant denial got Kavanaugh confirmed, and it’s likely the best approach for Biden to weather this accusation as well.

But here’s what we can do. We can still call out sexual assault whenever it happens, including this one, and use this high-profile case as an opportunity to talk about the prevelence of violence against women in this country. We can vote for a deeply flawed person, acknowledging that sometimes the “right thing to do” doesn’t make us heroes, but just makes us human. And we can still believe women, and not further victimize those brave enough to come forward — even when the timing is politically inconvenient.

Most importantly we can see this as a “growing edge” for progressives, especially white progressives who might feel entitled to political alignment and need to be reminded that other communities have long been taken for granted — and forced to choose the lesser evil — by electoral politics.

I hate the racism, sexism, classism, corruption and greed that wrapped us in this ugly double bind of an election. I hate how many of us have been assaulted (or lived under the constant threat of assault) and the fear that rules us all. I hate that there is no clear way to be good to ourselves, and to each other right now. I hate that we don’t have the luxury of hopeful politics at a national level — but instead have to fight tooth and nail to simply do damage control.

We deserve better than this and maybe someday we’ll have it. For now, let’s save those hopes and high expectations for ourselves and our communities — not the cynical world of presidential elections. Because we don’t have to settle for “less evil” or demand “perfect” with each other, but instead we can support that tough work of living “in tension” with ourselves. 

Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and non-profit media consultant currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling at Seattle University. She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year.  Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a non-profit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.

Feature image: Gage Skidmore