UPDATE (July 31, 2019, 12:15 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout following Williamson's performance in the second Democratic debate on Tuesday, which garnered her another round of positive press.
Spirituality and self–help writer Marianne Williamson's presidential campaign was initially treated as a joke. But after her charismatic and idiosyncratic debate performance in June, followed by yet another positively received debate in July, has prompted some Democrats to express amused but legitimate interest. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano attended one of her fundraisers, and many polls show her ahead of more conventional political figures such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee or Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. The summer is a make-or-break situation for many candidates on the cusp, who are trying to gain momentum amid a crowded field.
With frontrunner Joe Biden taking criticism, the race remains wide open. But Democrats and leftists should think twice, or four times, before opening their hearts to Williamson.
With front-runner Joe Biden taking criticism, the race remains wide open. But Democrats and leftists should think twice, or four times, before opening their hearts to Williamson. The author has built her lucrative brand around feel-good messaging in books such as "A Return to Love" (1992) and "The Age of Miracles" (2007). "I have seen how love changes one life, but I have also seen how love changes groups of people," she declares in her most recent book "The Politics of Love." "As someone who experienced the time of the Vietnam War with the attendant violence of the 1960s, and then the AIDS epidemic, I know what it feels like when groups of people experience a collective trauma."
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But this 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's appeal to the left isn't hard to fathom. She uses loopy hippie rhetoric that feels like a refreshing change from default politician-speak and she embraces some parts of the progressive agenda. In the June debate, for example, Williamson declared that she would "harness love" to defeat President Donald Trump, while forcefully condemning the treatment of children at the southern border. In a post-debate interview, she endorsed reparations for slavery, a position that sets her apart from many of the candidates and impressed some commenters.
Similarly, when popular socialist podcast Chapo Trap House invited her on for a very friendly interview, she used the opportunity to criticize wealth inequality, talk about her father's childhood spent in poverty and highlight her opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. "I don't even know if my love for her is ironic or unironic," one anonymous commenter responded beneath the podcast's audio link, expressing the general positive vibe.
When you look closely at Williamson's beliefs, though, she starts to look less cuddly. Throughout her career, Williamson argues that transforming the world is less important than transforming the inner self. "When you change your thinking — and only when you change your thinking — do you make permanent changes in your life experience," she writes in "A Course in Weight Loss."
This inner focus is typical of New Age spirituality, according to James Dennis LoRusso, author of “Spirituality, Corporate Culture, and American Business: The Neoliberal Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capital.” Williamson and other self-help gurus channel a nostalgic concern that "the self-reliant individual that American culture places at the center of its norms is being lost," LoRusso told me.
This reactionary glorification of individuality was part of the 1960s counterculture, which embraced independence and nonconformity. But it was also central to the Reagan-era attack on regulations and the welfare state.
This reactionary glorification of individuality was part of the 1960s counterculture, which embraced independence and nonconformity. But it was also, LoRusso points out, central to the Reagan era attack on regulations and the welfare state. President Ronald Reagan and his conservative followers saw taxation and government interference as an attack on freedom, and a corruption of America's bold individual spirit.
Reagan's mix of vaunting individualism and aggressive deregulation is sometimes referred to as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is generally associated with the right. But LoRusso says, it It's also central to the, overlapping belief systems of New Age spirituality and wellness. Williamson is a good illustration of how a creeping hippie Reaganism can actually hurt progressive ideals. Because while Williamson may endorse some progressive policies, her writing has advanced ideas and attitudes which make those policies harder to achieve.
Williamson's distrust of material solutions to the material problem of illness has led her to offer dogwhistle support to the anti-vaxx movement, even as she's claimed she is not an anti-vaxxer. This past June for example she called mandatory vaccine policies "Orwellian." In addition, because she thinks that one's spiritual state determines one's material condition, Williamson frequently blames people who are ill for their own sickness. For example, she repeatedly told gay men with HIV that they could cure themselves by trusting in God and love. In "A Course in Weight Loss" she insisted that for men with AIDS, forgiving their enemies would function like chemotherapy for cancer patients.
Williamson has similarly dismissed clinical depression, arguing in her weight loss book that patients "drop antidepressants today as though they were candy." Rather than critiquing America's terrible treatment of the mentally ill, she suggests in "Healing the Soul of America" that those who take medicine for depression are harming the country. "The last thing Americans need right now is to be artificially convinced things are really okay when in fact they are not," she says. She's even criticized mothers who seek medication for postpartum depression.
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Williamson's most extensive exercise in victim-blaming can be found in her writing on weight loss. Though she claims that her approach to fat people is based in love, her 2010 book “A Course in Weight Loss” drips with stigmatizing anti-fat rhetoric, and paints non-thin people as spiritually deficient. "Fat cells will dissolve permanently when they are dissolved through the power of love," she says. In other words, people who are fat have failed to cultivate the correct mental attitude; fat she argues is "a repository of twisted, distorted thoughts and feelings." Rather than criticizing a society with narrow beauty standards, Williamson blames fat people for not wanting to be sexy and being afraid of close relationships and intimate connections. But of course, many fat people have sex and get married; they are seen as ugly because of cultural stigma, not because they are actually intentionally unlovable. Williamson is simply pushing cruel, easily disproved stereotypes.
Rather than critiquing America's terrible treatment of the mentally ill, she suggests in "Healing the Soul of America" that those who take medicine for depression are harming the country.
Fat activist and writer Claire Willett pointed out that this spiritual approach to weight loss does active material harm. "One of the things that makes life the most difficult for fat people walking around in the world is the perception that we're wearing our sins on the outside so they're available for public comment," Willett told me. "You can look at a fat person and say, ‘oh she must have no self-control, she must have no discipline.'"
In other words, Williamson's writing encourages people to see fat as a sign of failure, self-sabotage and weakness. Rather than seeing the problem as a society which stigmatizes certain people, she blames the problem on certain people who are spiritually twisted and broken.
Williamson's approach is not an accident or an aberration. It's the natural outgrowth of an individualistic, reactionary ideology which calls first for internal spiritual renewal rather than for systemic cultural and political change. There's a direct line from such thinking to blaming poor people for their poverty or insisting that welfare payments corrupt recipients. Neoliberalism, whether of the left or the right, ends up blaming marginalized people for their own oppression. And once you've blamed them for their own suffering, you shuffle off any obligation to change things to help them, or to make the world more just.
Reagan was good at spouting uplifting rhetoric too. But that didn't make him a progressive, and it doesn't make Williamson one. It's true that Williamson is very unlikely to win the presidency. But her campaign has raised her profile and will doubtless give her a new platform to push her ideas and her ideology. Williamson will benefit if people buy her books about spiritual improvement instead of advocating for material reforms. But no one else will.
CORRECTION (July 30, 2019, 5:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Steve Bullock's job. He is the current governor of Montana, not a former governor.