America's curious political awakening to Marianne Williamson

The spiritual author isn't going to be president. But her candidacy, like self-help, does reveal a lot about us

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 7, 2019 3:30PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

America finally met Marianne Williamson in the second of two recent Democratic debates. She wasn’t a completely unknown factor before that Thursday; a few of Williamson’s books have topped the New York Times’ bestseller lists. She's a friend of Oprah Winfrey's and celebrities such as Jane Lynch and Kim Kardashian West have been in her corner. Hip hop artist and actor Common has even credited Williamson’s first bestseller “A Return to Love” as an influence in the writing of his memoir.

But until Williamson appeared at that podium tucked away at the audience’s farthest left, few people knew exactly what she stands for. After that debate . . . well, many of them still don’t, but they did and do find her to be hilarious. Her declaration that she would call New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern first, and that she would open the conversation by saying, “girlfriend, you’re so on” really stuck with folks.

Perhaps not as much as her closing statement directed at Donald Trump: "Mr. President, if you're listening, I want you to hear me please," she said. "You've harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I have a feeling you know what you're doing. I'm going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win."

Rest assured Trump was not listening. Millions of others were, though. Post-debate, Williamson became the most searched candidate on Google, which at least indicates a curiosity about her if not an openness to receiving her call for a moral and spiritual awakening in America.

The question is how, exactly, people were hearing her.

The likelihood of a Williamson presidency is low — let’s state that up front. I can think of few scenarios in which it would occur, one of them involving aliens with superior firepower landing and forcing a binary choice upon us between oblivion and a Williamson administration.

That said, her candidacy is worth watching if only to definitively answer, say, why Oprah will never run for president and Tony Robbins credibly could. It is our own mass version of a self-help teaching.

Williamson commands but a portion of the potency that Oprah’s brand has, of course, the latter representing the pinnacle absolute positivity. It’s much more powerful and lucrative than any political office. She has nothing to gain from taking on a job which, when done with any degree of competence, may be the most thankless on the planet and turns a person’s name into a magnet for criticism and blame years after their administration and their life ends.

One also should note from the media’s treatment of not only Williamson but Harris, Warren and other women running for office, the way woman’s past mistakes and socially unpopular choices carry a heavier penalty in the long run than a man’s. Harris called out Biden for his segregationist votes in the past, and his polling numbers took a hit, but he’s still the party’s frontrunner.

(In May Robbins was the subject of a deeply unflattering profile that included multiple allegations of abusive practices and sexual misconduct, and his multi-million dollar self-improvement corporation barely sustained a dent.)

At any rate, Twitter had a field day with Williamson during and after the debates — even yours truly, one of the millions who have found healing in her wisdom and engages in her share of woo-woo rituals and practices.

Following the debate Twitter also became a confessional for people who, like I did, turned to the self-help industry, including Williamson’s writings, and found a measure of comfort in that realm. Her messages about softening damaging, self-critical views of ourselves and prioritizing emotional wellness by aligning it with our physical wellness can be healthy.

A number of folks also testified to the damaging implications of element of New Age beliefs that failure is somehow a spiritual shortcoming — concretely, ideas like Williamson’s past insistence that depression, even post-partum depression, is “part of a normal range of human despair … As far as brain chemistry is concerned, meditation is known to affect/change it.”

And following the news of famous designer Kate Spade’s suicide came this tweet from Williamson:

“How many public personalities on antidepressants have to hang themselves before the FDA does something, Big Pharma cops to what it knows, and the average person stops falling for this? The tragedies keep compounding. The awakening should begin.”

Williamson has been sermonizing about an “awakening” for many years — a concept reminiscent of evangelical Christianity’s “Great Awakenings” that have shifted America’s cultural and political landscapes over its history. When she told MSNBC host Ari Melber that “biggest problem in America is that we have swerved from our moral center. And this has corrupted our government, it has hijacked our values system,” that language has the potential to grab a number of voters who ordinarily may not be inclined to vote Democratic.

Until, that is, they dig a little deeper and are confronted by Williamsons’ woo-woo leanings.

So for these reasons and others when I heard the love guru was setting her sights on a presidential run, I thought to myself, “This is going to get weird.” Because, as millions witnessed, Williamson has some concrete progressive beliefs wrapped up in deeply questionable ones. Her candidacy arrives at a time when yoga and meditation have been mainstreamed, and raw amethyst charms sell at the local Kohl’s.

Review that previously mentioned closing statement, for example. If one were to have first read her declared intent to harness love power for political purposes in a self-help forum or in the pages of O Magazine — places where her followers are most likely to be found — the reader would probably find them both inspirational and aspirational. Delivering those words on a stage alongside establishment-approved frontrunners for the Democrat party’s nomination, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, made Williamson come off as loopy.

In the live broadcast of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” that followed that night’s debate telecast “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon debuted her impression of Williamson’s signature voice: she sounds a bit like a 1930s film star not quite accustomed to delivering dialogue in those newfangled talkies.

“My plan is to gather all the sage in America and burn it,” McKinnon Williamsoned. “My plan is to harness the energy of babies to finally put a man on the moon! And I said to the president of New Zealand, I said, ‘Girlfriend, you’re so on,’ and I would say to Donald Trump, ‘Boyfriend, you chill.’ Thank you.”

Well into the weekend news outlets produced their own versions of “Here’s [random number] things you probably didn’t know about Marianne Williamson.” American voters are intrigued even if they don’t quite understand her.

After the laughter died back, a number of analysts noticed that Williamson’s stated positions aren’t all that kooky. In the debate she mentioned her stated support for reparations — part of her platform — and was the only candidate to verbalize that America’s contribution to conflicts in Central America are a root cause of the migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border. She did reference Kennedy’s intent to set a man on the moon, but in the context of her desire for America to adopt more ambitious goals than spending billions on the military instead of shoring up our own healthcare and education systems.

Williamson is pro-choice, and favors increasing taxes on the wealthy to benefit everyone else, free college, universal healthcare and legalizing marijuana. In the past she’s also spoken passionately about reforming our prison system to focus upon rehabilitation as opposed to perpetuating a cycle of incarceration and recidivism.

Here, however, is an example of where Williamson’s politics squish uncomfortably with people who have a discomfort with her version of syncretic spirituality. She’s an environmental advocate who supports some version of a Green New Deal but, she added in a tweet, “we also need to address the spiritual rift between humanity and nature. The earth is not ours to dominate, but to cherish.”

This doesn’t sound any wackier or woo-woo than any of John Muir’s quotes about the synchronicity between nature and the divine. Then again, the fact that it also originates from the woman who in April 2009 tweeted, “God is BIG, swine flu SMALL. See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God's love on our immune systems. Truth protects,” is enough to make people who aren’t familiar with Williamson recoil if not outright dismiss her, and confirm the more cringeworthy concerns about people who do.

Williamson remains a long-shot candidate. But she may not be booted back to her mystical land of crystals and white magic just yet. Watch her closely. If she refines her debate presence, her message is likely to gain some purchase within a surprising constituency, and I would not be surprised if some elements of her platform are subtly adopted by her mainstream rivals.

When she does return to her established forum, do not be surprised to find it has somehow expanded. Several credible reporters and analysts have opined that more Americans may be open to her message of focusing on shoring up infrastructures and social programs with a view toward future generations. They may be a bigger appeal than people think in her central focus, what she told Melber is the “conversation that the political status quo is not having: we have millions of American children that we’re not taking care of.”

Williamson won’t be our next president. Oprah, by her own declaration and one presumes wisdom, will never be. But do not be surprised if we are one day confronted with the possibility of a Robbins run in 2024 — and prepare your kids, because that Presidential Youth Fitness Program is really going to make them feel the burn.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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