There’s Something About Marianne
Although her style is slathered in the verbiage of self-help culture and New Age spirituality, Democratic presidential contender Marianne Williamson is telling some big truths, not only about problems with America’s current economic and foreign policy, but the reality of human nature and interrelations.
Williamson’s talk about “a dark psychic force” and the importance of seeing the good in each other should not just be dismissed as New Age frivolity. Even if some of what she says sounds like the tail end of a soliloquy from your strange aunt about how to use white magic to heal emotional trauma, there’s something truly magnetic about her refusal to quibble over policy details. What she seeks is, as she calls it, “a politics that is a whole-person integrated conversation that goes beyond the externalities,” “a politics that goes much deeper” and “speaks to the heart.”
“I’ve never felt like a politician understood reality the way Marianne does,” journalist Matthew Walther tweeted during one of the Democratic debates earlier this week. Micah Meadowcroft joked that perhaps 2024 will see a unity ticket with Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley and Williamson. Although Williamson’s past as a “spirituality guru” and “spiritual adviser” may sour some, she nonetheless does have some important things to say.
Williamson is the successful author of 13 books, including 1997’s Healing the Soul of America, which talks about taking principles of spiritual development and applying them to real life. She’s a woman of action, having also started a chain of support centers for people with HIV/AIDS, founded a free meal program called Project Angel Food, created a Peace Alliance group aimed at the non-violent resolution of national and international disputes, and been involved in a variety of organizations furthering the protection of women.
A native Texan of Jewish background, Williamson was an icon of the ’90s New Age movement and ended up in California where she started talking a lot about Jesus, healing, and spiritual development in a fairly earnest, not overly pretentious way—even if what she said wasn’t at all orthodox Christian. Unlike the Girl “Bawse” gurus of today or the Gary Vaynerchuks who motor on about self-development and meditation because it makes them mountains of money, Williamson didn’t feel the need to sprinkle slang and free-market individualism propaganda into her cassette-tape sermons. In other words, she’s a traditional New Ager from the Old School.
An unsuccessful run for Congress in 2014 didn’t dampen her spirits. She’s back with a vengeance, ready to help us feel the love and accomplish what she described in her Love America Tour this past winter as “a revolution in consciousness.” With a background in philosophy and theater, as well as vocal projection abilities from her time as a nightclub singer, Williamson is not one to underestimate. The United States is currently led by a reality TV star and actor, Canada by a former high school drama teacher, and Ukraine by a comedian and actor famous for playing the president on television as their actual president.
Williamson has now cleared 1 percent in three polls and gotten over 65,000 unique donor contributions from at least 200 people in 20 states to qualify for the first two debates. For the third debate in September, she will need to score at least 2 percent in four reputable polls and receive donations from at least 130,000 donors with a minimum of 400 in at least 20 states. The bar will be higher, but it’s not unthinkable that she will succeed, particularly given the rising media hype—both amusement and fascination—surrounding her campaign.
Memes have started popping up online ever since Williamson stepped out onto the debate stage: “girlfriend, you are so on,” followed by a quip from the second debate in Detroit: “we need to talk some big truth.”
More than the superficial online jokes, Williamson’s intensity and wackiness as she rails against the silliness of having “plans” to defeat President Trump and talks about her desire to revolutionize consciousness have endeared her to many, helping her raise enough to qualify for the debates and set off a mini-groundswell. She masterfully trolled the tiresome Samantha Bee after Bee suggested she come on her show and drop out. As Cockburn put it, “Hey Samantha Bee, why don’t you drop out of your show?”
Williamson has insisted that the only way to counter Trump “is to harness love, decency, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy, love for each other and love for our country, and love for our unborn great grandchildren.” One can assume that the socially liberal Williamson was not covertly announcing a pro-life position by using the term “unborn,” but nonetheless, Williamson’s words are a nice change from the blathering of stuffed suits like Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and the other phone book of candidates. While Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders stand out for (at least some of) their ideas, Williamson stands out—like Trump—for her ability to break the matrix: she can point to the scenery and set design and call out the whole illusion. While Trump often did so with jokes and stream-of-consciousness comments, Williamson tends to do so with half-cocked earnest speeches that have a charmingly crazy charisma.
Although many of Williamson’s policies will be anathema to many conservatives and libertarians, including her social liberalism, backing of the Green New Deal, support for gun control, endorsement of free college tuition, and advocacy of reparations for slavery, some national conservatives and populists may find they can back her on a higher minimum wage, health care for all, fighting corporate monopolies and defense industry corruption, a repositioning of the United States as a peacemaker in foreign policy (she’s spoken out against the horrific, U.S.-supported, Saudi-led war in Yemen), and improving the criminal justice system to protect the rights and dignity of citizens. Moreover, some of the New Age spirituality she spouts is actually profound and may ring true for traditional and religious conservatives, such as when she writes that “success means we go to sleep at night knowing that our talents and abilities were used in a way that served others,” and “whenever we feel lost, or insane, or afraid, all we have to do is ask for His help. The help might not come in the form we expected, or even thought we desired, but it will come, and we will recognize it by how we feel. In spite of everything, we will feel at peace.”
As Ross Douthat wrote in 2018, the Oprah school—which is mainly Christian but also interested in Eastern spirituality—has become a growing sector, even as Americans wander away from institutional religion. Williamson is this new persuasion’s perfect representative. Her slogan is “Turning Love Into a Political Force.” Not to mention that with the rising suicide rate, opioid crisis, moral black hole in politics, and constant posturing from the left and right, there’s a real opportunity for someone to come in and expose the whole establishment enterprise as a sham—even if that person is a modern-day political shaman who might well be sworn in on a deck of Tarot cards. As Williamson puts it, “the American revolution is an ongoing state of consciousness.”
Frankly, Williamson is a welcome addition if only because she demands that Democrats stop being so self-righteous and start looking at their own faults, rather than just pointing at Trump and shrieking. She asks that we pursue a politics that addresses root causes instead of howling about symptoms. She believes voters are ready for “deep conversations.” No matter how many of her positions and oddities you take issue with, you can’t help but admit that a lot of what she says is reasonable.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.