Joe Biden is building a campaign of reminiscences. The former vice-president and current Democratic presidential frontrunner is pitching voters the idea that the past was better than the present, and that Biden, at 76, represents the past.
“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he represents as an aberrant moment in time,” he said in his campaign announcement video. “With Trump gone, you’re going to see things change,” he said last week, referring to the Republican party. “Because these folks know better.”
It is a perception of America that casts our current crisis as a result of the pathological personality of the president, and not as the systemic failure of many institutions to protect the people and enact their will. In this vision, Donald Trump is the problem, not the culture or the political system that created him. Things were better before Trump, Biden seems to believe, and they will go back to normal after he’s gone.
Like Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again”, Biden’s rhetoric appeals to a vision of the past based more in fantasy than reality. If anything, Biden is appealing to an imaginary bygone American era that many Americans don’t recognize. He sees prosperity where others see falling wages and unlivable healthcare and housing costs. He sees dignified political stability where others see their systematic exclusion from the halls of power. He sees chummy, Kumbaya-singing bipartisan cooperation with Republicans where many see the highly uncivil efforts of the right wing to strip minorities of their livelihoods and rights and to enshrine discrimination into law.
As the frontrunner, Biden’s pitch to voters has not been about new ideas or new routes to power, but about a return to the past. But many – most – have reason to think that the past was not much better than the present, that the rosy vision of a bygone America where dignity, civility and bipartisanship reigned exists not in history or in fact, but in Biden’s imagination. His evocation of the past does not make these Americans nostalgic, or wistful, or patriotic. It makes them uneasy.
One of Biden’s favorite fictions about the past is that there was an era when gender relations were less contentious, and when it was appropriate to treat women and girls with patronizing dismissiveness. He is fond of touching women in strange, inappropriate and overly intimate if not outright sexual ways that betray an obliviousness to their discomfort at best and an entitlement to their bodies at worst.
When his strange behavior was brought into the public conversation by an essay by the Nevada politician Lucy Flores in New York magazine, Biden feigned contrition. But he has since made women’s discomfort a punchline, making a series of awkward jokes at the expense of the #MeToo movement, women who complain about sexual harassment and the very notion of consent. “I want the press to know, she pulled me close,” he said at an event in Berlin, New Hampshire. “I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie,” he said of the woman who introduced him at his campaign launch event, before putting an arm around a young boy’s shoulder and saying: “By the way, he gave me permission to touch him.”
The most generous way to read these remarks might be to say that they indicate that Biden imagines that in the past, sexism and male supremacy were universally understood to be benevolent, that everyone was with this sort of thing; that back then, sexual harassment didn’t happen, or it happened, but somehow didn’t hurt anyone.
Ironically, Biden’s delusional nostalgia for the past seems to resonate most strongly with the voters who were there: those older than 45. Though it is still early in the race, polls show Biden significantly ahead, especially among older voters and those who identify themselves as moderates or conservatives. Meanwhile, Biden falls somewhat behind among the young, who are more likely to describe themselves as very liberal. In a June CNN poll, he came in second among voters under 45, behind the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who had a plurality with 26% of support.
Still, if Biden’s appeal is stronger with older voters, this might not hurt him much. Older Americans are a highly reliable voting bloc, and they tend to lean more conservative than their children and grandchildren. Voters over 45 accounted for a full 60% of Democratic primary voters in 2016; voters aged 18-29 were only 17% of voters in that same contest.
In the most recent polls, Biden’s support is slipping, though he still holds a considerable lead. But this decline in his support does not seem to be the result of his behavior toward women; if anything, the older, right-leaning voters of his base find his handsiness endearing and his jokes at the expense of harassment victims funny. In the days after Flores published her essay, as similar accounts of invasive, inappropriate and patronizing behavior by Biden were brought forward by a number of other women, his approval ratings didn’t budge. When he jokes to his crowds that he “got consent” to give a supporter a hug, he gets big laughs.
One reason that Biden has been able to hold on to his support is that the older, more conservative Democrats who support him are also those least sympathetic to the #MeToo movement. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last year found that moderate and conservative Democrats are more likely than liberal Democrats to be concerned about women making false allegations and about men being fired prematurely. Older Americans overall fear that renewed attention to sexual harassment will negatively affect men in the workplace.
These Democrats are still significantly more progressive on gender issues than their Republican counterparts, who are dramatically less favorable toward the rights of sexual harassment and assault victims. But these demographics where Biden dominates are also set apart from the rest of the country – which, according to Pew, is generally more concerned about men getting away with sexual harassment than men being unfairly fired.
Compared with the rest of the country, Biden’s base is older, more hostile to #MeToo and less likely to think that his inappropriate jokes are a problem. But they’re also more likely to vote. Biden might make the reasonable calculation that he can continue to mock and minimize sexual harassment victims with cruel little jokes. His supporters are still laughing.