Marianne Williamson is not a serious candidate for president. The spiritualist and self-help icon is polling around 0 percent, and her message—a crunchy mix of New Age pronouncements and denunciations of Donald Trump—don't seem likely to appeal to anyone without one foot in the astral plane. While some observers have compared her outsider campaign to Trump's successful effort, the reality TV host had strong polling performances out of the gate starting in 2015 and gave Republican voters a version of what they had been hearing on Fox News for years. Williamson, on the other hand, seems utterly outside politics.
That's why candidates should pay attention to what she's doing.
Tuesday night's Democratic debate was marked by a lot of conflict between progressive candidates who back expansive programs like Medicare for All—chiefly Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—and moderates who derided these plans as too expensive or not politically viable. Though the format (and aggressive moderators) made this argument sometimes difficult to untangle, there are serious questions, both political and practical, about the best way to get to a point where all Americans have health insurance.
But there's also a serious question about whether this kind of argument is even worthwhile right now. In one of the debate's most notable moments, Williamson talked about how Trump had "gutted the Clean Water Act," a move poised to disproportionately harm communities of color like Flint, Michigan. She went on: "If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days."
Many Democratic voters want to hear details about policy and what their candidates would do in the White House. But they also want a counter to Trumpism, which to left-leaning people can feel like a weight pressing down from the sky. When Williamson says, "We need more than a political-insider game and wonkiness and intellectual argument. Those things will not defeat Donald Trump. We need some radical truth-telling," she is speaking to the idea that a political campaign is much more than a collection of policies. It's a way to inspire people, to break through apathy and cynicism.
That's not to say the other Democratic candidates are uninspiring. And the critique of Democrats as soulless wonks is hardly original. But what Williamson showed was that this line of thinking powerfully connects with voters. She was clearly able to break through in a way that, for example, John Hickenlooper was not—she was the most searched-for candidate on Google after the debate. It's almost certainly because she's unafraid of embracing big, abstract ideas and using vivid language like "dark psychic force" that many mainstream politicians might be afraid of.
That’s not to say we should just blindly embrace Williamson. She has a history of saying vile things about fat people and spreading dangerous myths about antidepressants and vaccines. She's also been called out for supposedly once telling AIDS patients to skip their meds, a charge she denies. If she were a viable candidate as Trump was in 2016, Democrats would need to band together to combat her anti-science views.
But while voters probably won't ever warm to Williamson enough to make her a credible candidate, her ability to get Democrats to stand up and listen, to wake up a little bit after three years of Trump, shouldn't be dismissed. Looking and sounding "presidential" in the old sense doesn't work anymore—just ask the dozen white male elected officials in the polling basement with Williamson, or just ask Trump. Everyone understands her when she says there's a "dark psychic force" unleashed upon the country, and everyone knows that mere wonkiness won't fix it. If you won't engage in psychic warfare, get off the stage.
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