Making fun of Marianne Williamson is the easiest thing in the world. All you need to do is mention crystals, auras, and essential oils. President Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, asked about Williamson’s recently-announced presidential candidacy, mumbled about crystal balls and auras. There wasn’t really a joke. She got a laugh from her audience anyway. Anyone can do it.
Some jokes about Marianne Williamson are funny. (She has “chaotic recurring Frasier character energy.”) But they’re also frequently unfair and dismissive, even sexist. Williamson has never promoted crystal healing, and Williamson’s daughter has been quoted saying it’s almost laughable how far the “crystals lady” or “wellness weirdo” image of Williamson departs from the real woman.
Certainly, Marianne Williamson’s 2024 platform is dead serious. The first item on her policy list, “Empowered Labor,” begins with her family’s remarkable ties to the American labor movement: her grandfather worked on the Rock Island Railroad and took her father to hear Eugene Debs speak when he was a child. Then her father was part of the United Auto Workers’ 1937 campaign to organize Ford auto plants. Williamson lists a very clear and detailed 25-point labor plan that includes ensuring universal paid time off, criminally prosecuting executives who target labor organizers, establishing a National Worker Resource Center to help workers organize, requiring worker representation on corporate boards, banning intrusive employer surveillance of workers, ending noncompete clauses, preventing employers from wrongly classifying full-time workers as independent contractors, stepping up NLRB enforcement measures, ending right to work laws, and much more.
On many different issues, the Williamson agenda is similarly detailed. Her health plan includes Medicare for All, but also a bevy of measures designed to bring medical care to underserved rural areas, take on the price gouging of Big Pharma, and make us all healthier through keeping us from being poisoned by terrible food. I look through the Williamson plan and I see a clear, inspiring vision for the kind of country I want to live in. Yeah, there’s some stuff that betrays her background as a Wellness person (never seen universal access to yoga advocated in a presidential agenda before), but frankly, wellness is good.
Marianne Williamson is often dismissed in part because she has a background in self-help and spirituality coaching. But I think this actually might be part of her strength. The fact is, millions upon millions of people turn to public figures like Williamson to help them through difficult times. Williamson made a name through appearances on Oprah, and her whole public life has been about offering hope and counseling to people who are lost or unwell or confused. DC insiders saw Donald Trump as “unqualified” because he had a background as a reality show host, but didn’t realize that his “self-made businessman” image resonated with a huge part of the electorate. Likewise, plenty of people in the same elite circles scoff at self-help and spirituality, and I think they underestimate how much someone like Williamson is capable of inspiring people.
Just watch a bit of Williamson’s recent campaign kickoff speech. You can see her decades of experience as a preacher coming through. She’s a damn good speaker. She can move an audience. She makes you want to get out of your seat and cheer. She can fill the soul.
In fact, my friend Pete Davis has a theory of presidential elections, that we underestimate how much the most “religious” candidate tends to win. He does not mean the candidate who talks the most about having Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. He means the candidate who is most capable of touching people’s souls. Compare Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, or Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, or Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, or Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, and you may see what he means. The inspiring candidates just tend to beat the uninspiring ones, with policies secondary.
Certainly, there have been occasions when I don’t think Marianne Williamson has done herself any favors when it comes to shedding her image as “the crystals lady.” She hasn’t talked about crystals, but she’s been very, uh, California from time to time. Watching her tell James Cameron how Avatar is like the Israel-Palestine conflict is cringeworthy. (Someone said she sounded like Tina Fey impersonating Kamala Harris, and they’re not wrong.) Williamson blew her first big moment at the 2020 debates by saying that her first act as president would be to call the prime minister of New Zealand and say “you go, girl.” (Williamson has admitted this was not the optimal response.) If Marianne Williamson wants to be taken seriously, and she does, then she needs to make some adjustments..
I’m not saying she needs to shed all of the things that make her Marianne Williamson. I actually think her book A Politics of Love is excellent—it pushes the Bernie Sanders agenda, but makes an explicitly moral and emotional case for it, explaining why we shouldn’t scoff at words like love and compassion and instead should make them foundational to our politics. I like Williamson in part because she is willing to be “cringeworthy,” because she is unashamed in saying she’s for peace and wellness.
But she needs to foreground her serious side if her 2024 candidacy is to go anywhere, because the biggest problem she has is that people treat her as a joke. That’s not an insurmountable problem—nobody took Bernie very seriously when he first announced in 2016, and they didn’t take Trump seriously either. But she has a hell of a lot of work to do if she’s going to be a competitive candidate. Joe Biden’s clearly not going to want to debate her, and most Democratic elites have lined up completely behind Biden. Bernie Sanders gave some encouraging public comments about Williamson’s candidacy, but others (like Elizabeth Warren) have said that Biden is going to be the nominee and that’s that.
I don’t think we should assume Williamson is doomed, though. Frankly, I think she’s easy to underestimate. Because she didn’t get much time to speak in the debates last time, and had that unfortunate public fumble, a lot of people don’t realize she’s actually a formidable communicator. As Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times commented after one 2019 debate: “It feels insane to say this, but Williamson out-debated virtually everyone else on the stage. She gave a compelling answer on reparations and returned again and again to the most important issue for Democratic voters, beating Trump.” I don’t know why that should seem insane; Williamson has also proven she can make mincemeat of hostile interviewers—watch her school a conservative YouTube host who tries to challenge her about her support for reparations for slavery.
The tough thing is that the DNC is not going to let Williamson into a debate with Biden, so it’s going to be tough for her to get attention and traction and be seen as a legitimate candidate. I hope she has one hell of a team behind her who are strategizing ways she can make her case to the public.
Because, frankly, I want Marianne Williamson to do well. Joe Biden needs a progressive challenger. He’s a terrible president, unpopular with the voters. Democratic Party leaders have rallied around him, and are insisting that he has “exceeded expectations” (expectations were virtually zero, making the statement meaningless). But he needs a serious challenger. This is for several reasons. First, Biden is incompetent and conservative, and we need a president who is not willing to destroy the planet to save the oil companies. Second, Biden’s renomination is not supported by the majority of Democrats. I don’t have any confidence that he’ll be able to successfully defeat a Trump-DeSantis ticket. (My greatest fear is that Trump will beat DeSantis in the primary only to make him the vice presidential nominee after a bit of abject groveling from DeSantis.)
I happen to believe that voters deserve to have meaningful choices, rather than just rubber-stamping the incumbent. But with most Democrats making it clear they won’t challenge Biden, it looks like Williamson might be his only opponent. If that’s the case, I want her to be a serious contender, because if she runs only to be completely crushed, it will bolster Biden’s case that he has widespread popular support. So if she’s going to run, she’d better be in it to win it. She needs to understand that she has a responsibility not to be a fringe gadfly candidate, because progressives will actually be hurt and demoralized by a challenge to the president that flounders.
To that end, not that the campaign has asked me for advice, I’d recommend Williamson do a few things. First, if I were Williamson, I’d double down on my reading in policy and political history. Williamson’s big PR weakness—in part due to sexism, in part because she is trying to offer a substantive alternative to the policies of what she calls the “duopoly”—is that she’s thought of as a lightweight, so she needs to be a clear heavyweight, who will never be caught out on a question and knows all of the issues backwards and forwards. Judging by some answers (like vagueness on Israel-Palestine) I’m not sure she’s quite at the level she needs to be yet. She has the burden of proving she’s qualified and capable, so every time she speaks people need to be impressed by the depth of her understanding. I think Williamson is incredibly sharp and a quick study, so this shouldn’t be difficult for her, but people need to think when they hear her that she seems far more knowledgeable than Joe Biden.
Second, she needs to run against Joe Biden, not just against the system. I believe voters deserve to have a choice of candidates on the ballot, but there needs to be a clear and specific set of reasons why voters should pick Williamson in particular over Biden, and that will involve making a strong case against Biden. One thing I wish Bernie Sanders had done more was criticize his opponents clearly. Bernie was reluctant to expose the terrible records of Clinton and Biden, which meant he never showed voters why having them instead of him in power was such a bad idea.
Third, Williamson needs to be more Texas than California. Williamson is originally from Texas, and I think she needs to embrace her roots. The stories about her family’s background in the labor movement are inspiring. Joe Biden thrives on his manufactured image as working-class “Amtrak Joe.” Williamson needs to make sure she’s not seen as a rich hippie from California. I’m not saying she needs to start wearing cowboy boots, and adopting a fake drawl like George W. Bush did. But she needs to seem more like a normal, relatable person than Joe Biden does, and that won’t be easy, because Joe Biden has many decades of practice at seeming normal.
Next, Williamson needs to remember that it’s going to be difficult to inspire people to get behind an insurgent Democratic candidacy after Bernie Sanders was cheated out of two nominations. People are going to want to know why they should spend their effort on and place their hopes in a new progressive presidential campaign when they (correctly) perceive the process to be rigged by the DNC. Nobody wants to back a campaign that is destined to lose, so Williamson needs to be able to convince people it is worth getting excited about her.
Finally, Williamson needs to be grounded in movement activism. She needs to join picket lines and protests and show that for her, it’s about the cause and not just about her. She needs to show the kind of solidarity with progressive activists that will cause them to want to get behind her. Bernie is famously a mensch who shows up for striking workers. People need to be able to trust that Williamson is similarly committed.
Williamson needs to think with ruthless strategic precision about how to get the attention of voters. It won’t be easy. Much of the media will try to ignore her. But I don’t think we should write her off just yet. The incumbent is unpopular. That creates an opening. Williamson is a skilled speaker with a compelling agenda who can inspire listeners. She has a clear set of weaknesses to address. I hope she addresses them. I hope Williamson is serious about this campaign, because I want people to take it seriously. We need someone to effectively challenge the Democratic establishment and I hope she shows us that it was a mistake for people to underestimate her.