Marianne Williamson has kept barnstorming for months across America — to audiences large and small, from churches and colleges to spiritual centers and soup kitchens — in a demanding schedule of appearances in her second tenacious, against-the-odds run for the presidency.
The bestselling spiritual author and one-time advisor to Oprah Winfrey didn’t make it to the 2020 primaries in a wide-open Democratic field. Now she is running against a sitting president from her own party, and the Democratic establishment has closed ranks behind Joe Biden.
Even some of her most devoted followers doubt she can be elected. So why is Williamson even running? She says it’s the faith she has in herself and the American people.
“The most important things you do in life, not because there’s guaranteed success on some external level, but because you feel in your heart it’s the right thing to do,” Williamson, 71, said during an interview in New York City.
She admits it has been grueling at times — not just the punishing campaign schedule, but more so the emotional bruising from a barrage of unflattering characterizations.
For her, it’s “the ultimate challenge to have tough skin, but a soft and open heart,” she said. But Williamson worries that negative perceptions detract from her policy positions, which include financial reparations for Black Americans and creation of a Department of Peace.
“What are the words they use? Wacky, kooky, crystal lady,” she said, listing the names she’s called. “People will take one line out of a book, completely out of context. That has certainly been done to me. Plus, you know, they lie.”
Born in Houston to a Jewish family, Judaism remains her core belief, and she also embraces universal spiritual themes, like loving one another. Williamson came into the spotlight with her popular 1992 book, “A Return to Love.” Oprah, highlighting it on her own site, wrote: “I have never been more moved by a book.”
Williamson, the author of more than a dozen titles and well-known for supporting LGBTQ people, retains a legion of dedicated fans. Millions buy her books, attend her lectures and engage with her on TikTok.
“She is extremely sincere in her beliefs, wise in many ways even,” said Issac Bailey, a communications professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has written about Williamson’s faith and politics. “But she also has a streak that takes her beyond the pale.”
He pointed to her wariness and sharp criticism of government vaccine mandates that came up during her last campaign. She later said she supports vaccines.
“I’m a socially middle of the road Jew who goes to the doctor,” she said. “I’m not a crystal lady. I understand how important science is.”
Williamson entered politics with an unsuccessful independent congressional campaign in California in 2014, then broke onto the national stage two years later as a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential bid.
In 2020, she entered the race herself. She acknowledges making what she calls “cringeworthy” comments back then, like how she would harness love to defeat former President Donald Trump.
“Once they could be contextualized in a way that made me appear silly, there was almost no getting past the mockery,” she said.
People may embrace quasi-spiritual language in their private lives, but if it’s from political candidates, it typically doesn’t play well on the campaign trail, said Galen Watts, a sociology and legal studies professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
But this is not new territory for Williamson. For years, she has been under fire from intellectuals who call her theology too shallow, from politicians who mock her ideas, and more recently from some former campaign staff who say she’s irascible and is only trying to sell more books. She concedes that she probably swore more than she should have in her last campaign, but scoffs at the book-selling gibe.
“The way to sell books is by going on a book tour, not a presidential campaign,” she said. “The way to sell books in my field is to never mention politics.”
Some have questioned her political inexperience. But she dismisses that: “I reject the notion that only those whose careers have been ensconced in the car that drove us into this ditch are the only people we should consider qualified to drive us out of the ditch.”
She announced her candidacy in February, and now is arguably the best-known Democrat still challenging Biden for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination. But recent polls show her running more than 60 percentage points behind.
She is well-liked by many young people, including Jose Serna, a 21-year-old at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Serna hopes she stays in the race “because she is illuminating the ideas that young people care about” including Medicare for all, equitable wages and affordable housing.
“While I do believe that it is unlikely that Marianne will win the nomination, it is not because of her policies,” he said, citing a common complaint by Williamson and her backers about a lack of media attention.
Marie Griffith, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis, says there’s a practical reason why Williamson stands no chance of winning.
“She has no connection that I know of to Democratic machine politics — meaning the people who raise all the money and make or break the political careers of those identifying as Democrats,” Griffith said.
Williamson talks at times in religious and spiritual terms to describe America as a nation in need of confession and atonement. She worries about vast economic inequality and wants to declare a climate emergency.
One of her signature policy proposals would have the government pay Black citizens reparations for centuries of enslavement and discrimination. She advocated for this in her 1997 book “The Healing of America.” Today, she proposes creating a council of Black academic, cultural and political leaders to disperse at least $1 trillion to Black Americans over two decades.
Author and rabbi Jay Michaelson lauded Williamson for raising the issue before other political candidates, and for her work during the AIDS crisis, but in 2019 he wrote a scathing critique of her bid for president. He called her “selfish, deluded and dumb by denigrating science” and said she gives spiritually a bad name.
Michaelson, in a recent interview, said he agreed with Williamson “that our spiritual commitments and our religious commitments should impact our political lives.” But he says she will remain a fringe candidate because some of her policy positions are too radical for many.
“To say, ‘We need a politics of love’ without explaining what that is,” he said. “Or that we need a new paradigm, or that we need some kind of revolution — that doesn’t play on Main Street.”
Williamson denies denigrating science and disputes broader criticisms of her campaign.
“This idea that I am unserious — my campaign is the one talking about one in four Americans living with medical debt. My campaign is the one talking about the fact that the majority of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.
“My campaign is the most serious campaign.”
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