The right seeks to win converts, an old political adage has it, and the left punishes heretics. Best-selling spiritual author Marianne Williamson scrambles this distinction in more ways than one. Williamson is something of an adept at conversion—having landed the imprimatur of name-brand lifestyle brokers such as Oprah Winfrey behind her justice-minded vision of ecumenical New Age faith. Last week, as Williamson set out to address a packed house at the downtown Washington franchise of Busboys and Poets, a chain of progressive minded bookstore-eateries in metro D.C., it wasn’t quite clear what sort of call to redemption was in the offing.
As the crowd waited for this “meet and greet fundraiser” to kick off, I fell into conversation with two women sporting T-shirts advertising Williamson’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Both were first-time political activists—professional life coaches who first came into contact with Williamson when they enrolled in a yearlong spiritual workshop she sponsored called “Miracle-Minded.” “She’s so courageous to be doing this,” one of them said. “She’s doing this from her heart.”
As Williamson begins her remarks, it’s clear that she is indeed speaking from the heart—but she’s not offering soft-focus homilies of personal growth and universal love, as our performatively jaded national political press is wont to assume. Instead, Williams relates a bracing recent visit to East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a catastrophic train derailment that spewed toxins into the air and poisoned area waterways. She describes an encounter with a local woman she calls Carly, who angrily confronts EPA and rail officials over their prolonged neglect of the conditions assailing East Palestine residents. Carly’s impassioned call for fair treatment and accountability came out of “a microcosm of what’s happening in this country,” Williamson says. She then recalls how she asked a group of locals what they’d want her to do for them if she were elected president—and here she pauses to invite guesses from the Washington audience what Carly’s suggestion had been. Someone calls out that she would have demanded that the CEO of the railroad be fired; another says she’d probably want the rail industry nationalized. No, Williamson says: Carly said she’d want a Williamson administration to “protect the Second Amendment.”
The exercise distilled Williamson’s takeaway message: “There’s an America out there that’s unseen by the policy-makers.” Another exercise drove home a similarly urgent moral: She asked the crowd how many of them knew of—or perhaps were—young people who have forsworn having kids because of the climate crisis and other maladies of global inequality. More than half of the audience raised their hands, prompting Williamson to announce, “This is not normal.”
No one, in other words, could plausibly suggest that this stump speech might be called “Miracle-Minded.” Indeed, Williamson kept hammering away at the incomprehension of the country’s political elites before a series of overlapping crises they are content to manage into administrative stasis. “How long before we yell from the bottom of our guts that it’s not so complicated—it’s just so corrupt?” she asked. She then related her discussions among the Democratic insider set over core issues of inequality: Initially, she’d prod this or that policy hand about doing something to remedy a stark injustice, and get the reply that, yes, something really should be done. Five years on, she’d note that the same problem was getting worse, and would again get waved away with vague talk of getting some legislative campaign moving. Then, 10 years on, the penny drops: “Oh, you sweet motherfuckers,” she laughed, “you’re not going to do anything.”
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Williamson moved to Washington after her 2020 presidential bid, she explains, because she “wanted to get the feel of the energy here.” It hasn’t been encouraging thus far: “I’d heard that D.C. is a bubble, but it’s more than that—it’s a walled city.” She went on to cite a piece that Barbara Ehrenreich published in the 1990s on the plight of the American left, landing on this diagnosis: “What devastated the left in this country is that we were all invited to the White House once.”
Ehrenreich, who died last year, was someone I was privileged to know and collaborate with. I caught myself wondering what she, an irascible scientist by training who published a book taking down the self-help industry, might think about getting name-checked by an Oprah-anointed apostle of New Age self-care. But then I remembered that Ehrenreich had also written a book about her own idiosyncratic spiritual experiences, and I could readily imagine her seconding Williamson’s lament about the Democratic establishment’s treatment of insurgent reform campaigns like hers: “We’re treated like unruly children who are trying to hijack the Democratic Party. Well, I’m sorry, I’ve read the history, and you’re the ones who’ve hijacked the Democratic Party.” Williamson did slip briefly into life-coaching mode—but again, in a self-knowing, engaging manner—as she described the efforts of Democratic leaders to induce reformers to play along in the name of party unity: “We’ve all had partners like that—a lover who comes back every two years, every four years, and says, ‘Come on, baby—give me one more chance.’”
She also engaged in more extended spiritual hermeneutics, closing her speech with a gloss on the David and Goliath story that culminated in the lesson that David had slain his foe in the one place he was vulnerable—right between the eyes, or as Williamson explained, “the third eye.” Goliath was defeated “because he had no soul,” she observed—but then brought the moral back into the present-day political scene. “Fascism is attacking our democracy from the outside,” she argued, and “neoliberalism is attacking it from the inside. Neither one of them has a soul.”
It’s the sort of insight that glib Beltway pundits would race to deride—but where’s the lie, exactly? While Williamson’s spiritual outlook might strike some secular ears as a kind of Left Coast frivolity, it’s not so different in substance from Hillary Clinton’s Methodism or Joe Biden’s Catholicism. What’s more, as Williamson also noted, prophecy-minded faith has long galvanized reform movements in America, from abolition and women’s suffrage to the civil rights revolution. Yes, Williamson said that “more than a political revolution, this has to be a revolution of consciousness,” and that we “need an uprising inside ourselves.” But that’s arguably more a difference in degree than in kind from William Jennings Bryan’s famed assertion that America’s producing classes were being crucified on a cross of gold—particularly given Williamson’s own focus on core matters of political economy such as student debt forgiveness, single-payer health care, and tax equity.
I’d hoped to catch up with the candidate after her speech to discuss some of this in more detail—to see how politics played into her energy, as it were. But as I came close to her, she was swept up and out the door by a group of handlers and followers. On my own way out, I chatted with Williamson’s campaign manager, Peter Daou, a former hard-core Hillary partisan who famously broke with party leadership to back Bernie Sanders in 2020. Another convert.