vision 2020

Why You Can’t Ignore Marianne Williamson

Not quite so marginal anymore. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

During and after Tuesday night’s Democratic candidates’ debate in Detroit, it was difficult to dismiss or ignore the previously dismissed and ignored Marianne Williamson. She inspired a vast outpouring of Google searches and Twitter commentary. Objective handicappers of the debate thought she stood out (viz., my colleague Eric Levitz, who rated her as having the third-best performance of the night, behind only the perennial stars Sanders and Warren). Some focused on her bold (if not likely to be popular), outspoken position on reparations. Others touted her very different tone from standard-brand pols:

Watch five minutes of either of the first two presidential debates that Williamson has participated in and she stands out like a sore thumb. While the other nine candidates onstage are vying to interrupt one another at every turn and deliver their scripted talking points, Williamson is speaking in global — and beyond — terms. And all of it done in her totally recognizable and totally unplaceable accent.

The candidate’s unmistakably unusual character is part of what has led more than one commentator to refer to her as a Democratic or left-wing version of you-know-who, as Alex Pareene explained last month after Williamson’s first debate appearance:

[A] Democratic Trump would be a proper outsider, with a great deal of TV experience giving her both name recognition and some degree of respect among the “base” despite the “establishment” not taking her seriously. She may have been initially a fairly apolitical figure, but she is canny enough to understand that entering politics means not promising to be above the fray but acting determined to defeat the villain occupying the White House. She could dabble in fringe views — she may even have a history of dubious tweets the elites send around to scoff at — but her pre-politics status as a mass pop-cultural figure has the odd benefit of inoculating her against the political media’s attempts to define her as outside the mainstream.

And with the positive recognition has come some very negative attention and even alarm, viz., this reaction from the L.A. Times’ Brian Boyle, which cites the Trump analogy as a warning:

Bemoaning “wonkiness” — i.e., intellect and proven political savvy — while speaking in vague buzzwords like “dark psychic force” and “collectivized hatred” is not too far off from the Trump 2016 playbook. And matching the GOP’s anti-intellectualism movement is far from what the Democratic Party, and America, need in 2020.

She also called out her peers as part of the corruption problem, thus inherently offering her outside celebrity status as proof she is beholden to no one. Sound familiar? 

Noah Berlatsky flat-out denies there is anything progressive about the best-selling author and close friend of Dennis Kucinich:

[Her] supposedly empowering rhetoric masks a mean-spirited individualism. Williamson, like conservative thinkers, often blames material problems on personal failures. Her ideology may sound airy and inoffensive, but it is ultimately one of neoliberal victim shaming. And it would lead to harmful policies if she were, by some miracle, to be elected to public office.

Williamson is often accused of being anti-scientific and of sympathizing with anti-vaxxers (accusations she hotly denies while semi-apologizing for things she’s said that might suggest otherwise). But the idea that she’s somehow a “neoliberal” or a “reactionary” does not survive any serious reading of her campaign platform, as I noted a while back:

Pick an issue, and odds are Williamson is going to out-Bernie Bernie and out-Warren Warren …

Williamson goes well beyond the Green New Deal in addressing climate change …

She isn’t just for criminal-justice reform: She’s for an official national policy of encouraging the maximum feasible release of prisoners and a shift from punishment to rehabilitation …

Like Andrew Yang, she’s for a universal basic income. Like Bernie Sanders, she’s for free college, and like Elizabeth Warren, she’s for full college debt relief. Like Cory Booker, she’s for baby bonds. Like several other candidates, she’s for universal pre-K. She’s even equaled Pete Buttigieg’s commitment to a robust national service program.

And that’s all aside from her radical position on reparations and her Kucinich-style call for a complete reorientation of the Pentagon away from preparations for war and toward conflict resolution.

What struck a chord in Detroit, I suspect, was Williamson’s insistence that beating Trump will take something more fundamental than the sum total of policy positions beamed into the consciousness of the white working-class voters of Michigan (where, as it happens, she lives). Yes, her language of spirituality (and her very pro-religious background and philosophy) is off-putting or even menacing to an awful lot of secular progressives. But to many people in this God-haunted, heterodox country of ours, her appeals to matters of the heart and soul are likely more relatable than Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” or Warren’s or Buttigieg’s talk of “systemic change.”

Yes, of course, actually ejecting Trump from office will be a matter of material nuts and bolts, of voter-registration drives and polling and targeted messaging and raising the money to pay for it all. But the Trump Era certainly feels like a spiritual malady — or, to use Williamson’s term from last night that spooked some critics, “a dark psychic force” — to voters (and past nonvoters) who are so inclined to think and feel this way, and Democrats really need the capacity to speak to that constituency, which is certainly much larger than the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America.

So concede Williamson her moment, and perhaps try to learn from it that Humankind Cannot Live on Policy Papers Alone. And if her words offend you, try at least to hear the music.

Why You Can’t Ignore Marianne Williamson