By Christianna Silva
Young people don’t think Joe Biden is funny.
On March 29, Lucy Flores, a former candidate for lieutenant governor in Nevada, accused him of inappropriately invading her space at a rally in 2014. Other women came forward with similar uncomfortable experiences of the former Vice President crossing boundaries. Just a few days later, Biden issued a sort of non-apology in a video on Twitter, blaming changing societal attitudes without ever explicitly apologizing to any of his numerous accusers. Then, on Friday, April 5, he took his non-apology to the next level when he told a crowd of union members that he “had permission” to hug Lonnie Stephenson, the President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, when he joined him on stage.
Having permission to hug someone is good practice. But encouraging a crowd to laugh at the idea of obtaining such permission is exactly the kind of attitude that could lose Biden voters if he does decide to run for president in 2020. Before Flores’s accusations, Biden was the frontrunner for young voters, according to multiple polls. After Flores’s accusations, polls show that Biden stayed the favorite for every age group except 18-to-34-year-olds, who currently favor Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Selena Barrientos, a 24-year-old from New York, told MTV News that her opinion of Biden changed when Flores came forward with her story. Barrientos loved Biden’s famed relationship with former President Barack Obama (remember the pointing?) but explained that the #MeToo movement founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 has “put people at a standard” for conduct that extends beyond sexual assault. (In her essay, Flores clearly noted the distinction of her discomfort, which she says was not illegal but made her feel “uneasy and gross.”)
“I think we have to bring everyone up to that standard, regardless of parties or political agenda,” Barrientos added. “It may hurt [Biden], but I think it’s for the better.”
According to an NPR-Ipsos poll from October 2018, young voters are less likely than older generations to say that they would ever consider voting for a political candidate accused of sexual assault, and that same poll showed that young people are more confident about what counts as sexual misconduct than older generations. They also tend to be less likely than older generations to say they believe that #MeToo has gone too far.
What Biden is currently in hot water for is less along the lines of sexual assault is more accurately described as inappropriate behavior. It’s that distinction that seems to be dividing older pundits and political surrogates alike; the actress Alyssa Milano defended Biden on Twitter, saying, “Just as we must believe women that decide to come forward, we cannot assume all women’s experiences are the same.” She was promptly called out for her comments, including by activists who are frustrated with her response.
It was only after the most recent of at least seven accusations from women who say he made them uncomfortable that Biden decided to release a statement on Twitter, promising to “be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it.” He did not apologize to any of his accusers — including Flores; or The Hill’s Amie Marnes, who said Biden groped her waist in 2013, or the female biker to whom he nuzzled up at a 2012 campaign stop in Ohio — in his video.
In his video, Biden went on to focus on how “societal norms are changing,” but the young people MTV News spoke with pointed out that a lot of the ways he invaded space – kissing women on the back of the head and sniffing their hair – were always pretty inappropriate.
“When has it ever been OK to sniff someone’s hair? When was that culturally normal?” Allison Sardinas, a 28-year-old Floridian told MTV News.
“[The video] just wasn’t enough,” Kelsey Denny, the President of the College Democrats at Pennsylvania State University, told MTV News. “It wasn’t sufficient for me. And I hope that it’s not sufficient for a lot of Democrats.”
That’s not the only aspect of Biden’s political life that shows he might not be the best politician to stand up for the accused: He refused to allow other women to speak at Anita Hill’s 1991 Senate hearings, when a group of white, male Congress members instead attacked her character and discredited her accusation against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. (Four women who had travelled to Washington D.C. for the hearing in support of Hill could have corroborated her accounts but were never called to the stand.) He recently released a non-apology about the hearing, saying he wishes there was something he could have done; notably, he was one of the only people who could have done anything.
While many young voters primarily remember Biden as President Obama’s BFF and second-in-command, the politician’s track record is also far from the progressive positioning young Democrats are so likely to flock to. Biden was the main Senate author of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, which encouraged states to incarcerate more people, according to MSNBC; he voted for the Iraq war; and in 2008, he said he believes life begins at conception, per ABC News. And in 2007, according to CNN, he called then-Senator Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American [politician] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
“Probably my biggest thing about Biden running before all this happened was, he’s simply disconnected,” Denny noted. “He doesn’t understand what the young people are asking for right now.” She pointed to other candidates, like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, as two voices that seem more attuned to what young voters actually want, and are offering tangible policy proposals in contrast to the question looming over Biden: whether he is running at all.
And it was finally when Biden joked about having permission to hug someone on stage on Friday, April 5, that many young people just couldn’t stand supporting him any longer.
“It’s insincere, and it’s not necessary,” Sardinas added, pointing first to the “non-apology apology,” and later his jokes as “the icing on the top of the cake.”
“Joe Biden needs to learn about consent immediately and you need to realize that any unwarranted touch, no matter the level or the severity of it, is invading someone’s personal space,” Denny said. “And then you also need to realize that if a woman feels uncomfortable, that is valid.”