The first thing I notice over tea in Tribeca last week with the author and presidential candidate Marianne Williamson is that there’s nothing silly about her. Williamson speaks bluntly, laser-focused on the dangers that American-style capitalism poses to our planet, our lives, and our well-being.
During our interview, her answers are sometimes so concise and on point they seem to challenge my questions. As soon as we sit down, I ask her what experiences convinced her that our current spiritual crisis was a collective one, a social disease.
“I never thought it wasn’t,” she says, looking almost annoyed.
Williamson is serious. This must be said, because the Democratic Party’s gatekeepers are doing their best to marginalize and mock her. When asked if the president was annoyed that Williamson had announced her primary run, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre had a mean-girl moment: “I’m not tracking that. I mean, if I had a, what is it called? A little globe here, a crystal ball… if I could feel her aura.”
Liberal media outlets have dismissed Williamson as “quirky” and identified her as “Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual adviser.” Much has been made of the fact that she once lived in a geodesic dome. More inexplicably, centrist and progressive pundits have been dismissing her ideas. Slate denigrated Williamson’s speeches as “the ramblings of an inspirational speaker . . . devoid of meaning.”
Seeking is not my vibe, and I mistrust gurus. I was prepared to roll my eyes at least a little bit at Williamson. But a few minutes into conversation with this author of thirteen books, seven of them bestsellers, I realized the media portrayal of her was propagandistic nonsense. I had to wonder who the mainstream media has been describing: not the smart, well-spoken, righteously outraged woman sitting across from me.
Williamson, now seventy, was raised on left-wing values. Her father, a World War II veteran and an immigration lawyer, was a United Auto Workers organizer in the 1930s. When he was a child, she says his own father, a railroad worker, took him to hear Eugene Debs speak. While for decades she has been a writer and speaker on spiritual matters, Williamson has recently begun taking a more political approach to our collective malaise, as she did in the 2019 book A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution and in her 2020 Democratic primary campaign.
It’s a chilly spring day, but we sit outside because the cafe is closing. Williamson isn’t warmly dressed but graciously adapts to our situation, ordering a hot tea and sitting in the fading late afternoon sun. She explains her shift from spiritual teacher to political candidate by describing the distress she’s witnessed in recent decades. As someone people turn to when they’re in trouble — a clergyperson for the unchurched — she has seen up close how neoliberalism is “devastating people’s lives,” she says.
“I began to meet people in my [spiritual] work whose despair was not because the test results came back and it was cancer, which I was used to. Or their spouse left them, which I was used to. Or their child was on heroin, which I was used to. Their despair was irrefutably because of bad policy.”
“Hardworking people,” she stresses, “good people trying to do their best, living in a society where they didn’t have health care, unions were being squashed, benefits taken away. They didn’t know how they were going to send their kids to college.”
Williamson points out that in the 1970s, when she was in her twenties, the average American could still afford to buy a home and a car. They could afford a yearly vacation and college tuition for their kids. That’s no longer true.
Williamson acts out a little dialogue, with hand gestures and earnest voices, to explain her disaffection with the party establishment.
“So I’d go to my Democratic friends and say, ‘We have to do something.’ And they’d say,” — here she enacts a dramatically pseudo-empathetic tone — “‘Yeah, we really should.’ Five years later: ‘We haven’t done anything. But we really should.’ Ten years later: ‘Well, we did a little bit.’ Then I began to see the game.”
She pauses, looking at me intently. “And it’s a deadly game.”
That “something” Williamson advocates, in her written platform and in conversation, is essentially the Bernie Sanders 2016 and 2020 agenda. She favors socialized medicine, free college, an end to college loan debt, paid family leave, guaranteed sick pay, and a guaranteed livable wage. She supports the PRO Act along with even stronger labor protections.
All of this, Williamson points out, is mainstream policy in every other advanced democracy. “More and more [Americans] are waking up to that,” she emphasizes. “That’s why an inflection moment is possible.”
That moment would, however, never have been possible without Bernie Sanders and his last two presidential campaigns, Williamson emphasizes. Of Sanders, she says, “He will be remembered. When all of us are gone, they’ll still be talking about Bernie Sanders.”
In 2016, she observes, “two candidates spoke to people in a way that validated their rage. Two people said, ‘You are right to be so angry, the system is rigged against you.’ One of them meant it.” While both Trump and Sanders spoke to ordinary people’s anger, she says, only Sanders came from “a place of care and concern and had a plan to ameliorate that pain.”
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, went out of her way to invalidate that rage. Her approach, Williamson recalls, was to say, “Let’s continue the success of the last eight years. Millions of people said, ‘What success? I’m drowning,’ and were resentful that their pain was not seen. Or acknowledged.”
As we talk, a young man walks by and waves at Williamson. He says he recognizes her from Kyle Kulinski’s YouTube channel. “I watch him every night. I’m gonna tell him I saw you,” he exults. Williamson waves and looks delighted.
We’re sitting on a busy stretch of Broadway. As the Kulinski fan continues along, smiling and posting on his phone, Williamson muses on the enduring phenomenon of Kulinski.
“He has such an important role in the lives of so many young men,” she says. “I had no idea until I ran [for president].” Reflecting on the alarming ability of right-wing charlatans to speak to young white men’s anger, often on YouTube, we share a moment of gratitude for Kulinski.
Jacobin readers might not love everything about Marianne Williamson. Like many ambitious people who run for office, she has been accused of being an abusive boss. She has denied these reports. As well, Williamson told me she isn’t a socialist. She doesn’t like labels but insists that Nordic-style capitalism would be a huge improvement on our current situation.
Some Democrats have chided Williamson for challenging Joe Biden, asking, why not unify against the neo-fascist threat, whether Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis? But the vulnerabilities of centrists like Biden to far-right challenges are precisely what trouble Williamson.
“Franklin Roosevelt said we wouldn’t have to worry about a fascist takeover as long as democracy delivered on its blessings,” she says. “Democracy has not delivered on its blessings.”
“Large groups of desperate people should be considered a national security risk,” she adds. “They become a Petri dish out of which all manner of societal dysfunction is almost inevitable, more vulnerable to ideological capture by genuinely psychotic forces, such as fascism.”
Williamson does not think the centrist Democrats are prepared for 2024.
“They keep thinking that it’s going to be enough to just say, oh, but we’re not misogynist, we’re not racist, we’re not homophobic,” she explains. “They’re going to be throwing some very big lies our way in ’24. And the only way to override that, which means electorally to defeat that, is through big truths. And the neoliberal crowd doesn’t want to speak big truth . . . because they, too, conspire with the underlying corporate forces that make the return of people’s pain inevitable.”
“The only way to defeat the fascists is through a radical commitment to democracy and a radical commitment to the unequivocal support of the working people. Neoliberalism weakened our immune system,” Williamson says, using a metaphor she invokes often, “making us more vulnerable to the forces of fascism.”
She brings up the Willow Project by way of example. In approving a massive, decades-long oil drilling project by ConocoPhillips in Northern Alaska, which will add 9.2 million metric tons of carbon to the earth every year, Biden broke a campaign promise to end new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters. He may also have risked electoral defeat, Williamson suggests.
“The young people of America are not going to go to war in ’24 for the man who approved the Willow Project. And [establishment Democrats] think I’m not taking the fascist seriously,” she muses.
Again evoking the corporate Democrats, she asks, in a stern, mocking voice, “‘Does she not realize the fascists are at the door?’” She answers, in exasperation: “No, you are the ones who don’t realize fascism is at the door.”
“It’s not like it’s working, guys! That’s what kills me about the neoliberal establishment,” she continues with indignation. “They’re so self-congratulatory. What are they so freaking proud of? We are six inches from the cliff, in terms of the state of our democracy, the state of our environment, and the state of our economy. And they’re so proud. They have dinners and congratulate each other, and call anyone not playing their game unserious.”
The reception of Williamson reminds me of how journalist Matt Taibbi described the pundits’ attitude in the early 2000s toward Dennis Kucinich, who had many ideas in common with Williamson, including the creation of a Department of Peace. In 2003, Taibbi wrote, “Welcome to the Dennis Kucinich paradox. The congressman is not serious precisely because he is serious.”
We’ve reached a similar paradox: it is precisely because Williamson is so serious that they must insist so loudly that she is unserious.
“They’re not serious,” she insists of the respectable Democrats dismissing her campaign, “About 68,000 people dying every year of lack of health care. They’re not serious about one in four Americans living in medical debt. They’re not serious about people rationing their insulin. They’re not serious about twelve million children living in poverty. But anyone not playing their game is unserious.”