Marianne Williamson: Serious Social Democrat or Spiritual Populist?

Photo by AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

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Popular spiritual advisor and self help author Marianne Williamson announced her 2024 campaign for presidency in early March, becoming the first Democrat to officially challenge President Biden’s reelection. In light of Bernie Sanders’s decision to forgo another election bid, Williamson has become the Democratic party’s most left leaning presidential candidate. 

Polling at just 10 percent with a campaign full of social democratic policy, Williamson stands outside the DNC’s preferred moderate liberal candidates. Williamson’s campaign promises include universal health care, child care, an economic plan that pledges to regulate corporations, an extensive climate action plan, and the security of abortion rights. 

Although both Sanders and Willaimson have focused on the problem of price gouging in the pharmaceutical industry, Williamson’s universal healthcare system distinguishes itself from Sanders’s Medicare For All with its emphasis on preventative care. Her Whole Health Plan addresses exposure to unhealthy environmental factors such as unclean air, water, and food caused by toxins and pesticides. 

“The problem in America is not just that our current healthcare system fails to adequately treat sickness,” she writes. “The problem is our current economic system, based as it is on an inordinate focus on short-term profit, actually increases the probability of sickness.”

Her preventative framework even extends to providing refundable tax credits for gym memberships. Williamson has also proposed wellness programs centered around nutrition, exercise, and stress management. While Williamson’s idyllic system of preventative care sounds alluring, many find that her longtime involvement in the wellness industry and public statements pertaining to traditional medicine call her credibility into question.

In June of 2018, Williamson published a thread of tweets condemning the effectiveness of antidepressants before linking a conspiratorial article published by The Church of Scientology’s watchdog organization. 

She wrote, “medicalization of depression is a creation of the medical industry. For millennia depression was seen as a spiritual disease, and for many of us it still is,” before claiming that clinical depression is an “arbitrary diagnosis.” 

Williamson insists that her criticism of pharmaceutical mental health treatment does not extend to people with pathological depression and later argued “that a clergy member or a spiritual person is just as qualified an expert to talk about issues of deep sadness, even depression’ as a medical professional.” 

Williamson has also compared the vaccine argument to the abortion debate, calling mandatory vaccinations “Orwellian” and “draconian.” She has since apologized for her comments, reiterating that she is not anti-science and the source of her skepticism is Big Pharma.

Despite controversial medical knowledge, Williamson has an extensive history in the U.S.’s wellness industry. Before her first presidential bid in 2020, Williamson was widely known as Oprah’s spiritual advisor and author of 15 books pertaining to spirituality and self help. In 1989, Williamson founded her non-profit organization Project Angel Food to provide meals to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Williamson is widely recognized for her idealistic spiritual teachings. However, while the 2024 presidential candidate has never held official office, she does have a history of political involvement and grassroots movements. 

In 2004, Williamson co-founded The Peace Alliance, a non-profit organized around making peacebuilding “a national and international priority through policy and legislation.” The grassroots organization mobilizes support for “peacebuilding” policy in legislation primarily through lobbying. They have raised over $110,000,000 in funding for international peace priorities, and pressure from the organization helped establish “peacebuilding” as one of the Democrats’ top ten foreign policy priorities.

In 2014, Williamson ran as an independent for California’s 33rd Congressional District. After a progressive campaign run on free education, health care, gay rights, and renewable energy, Williamson came in fourth out of 18 candidates. Deciding to give up on local elections, Williamson ran again in 2020, but this time for president. She ran on her characteristic progressive policies as well as her longtime belief in the necessity of $200 to 500 billion in reparations for Black Americans. 

Although Williamson’s charismatic speeches garnered a passionate following, she did not poll well and did not have enough funding to stay in the race. She laid off her entire campaign staff because of financial concerns and renounced her candidacy in January to endorse Sanders. Although much of Williamson’s campaign had centered around language of social justice and love, surprising abuse allegations called her moral declarations into question.

Earlier this year, Politico interviewed 12 of Williamson’s 2020 campaign employees. The interviewees were kept anonymous so as to keep the non-disclosure agreements Williamson had them sign intact. Still, every allegation reported the presidential candidate’s habitual abuse and hostile work environment.  

“It was a foaming, spitting, uncontrollable rage,” claimed one former employee. “It was traumatic, and the experience, in the end, was terrifying.” 

Staffers reported incidents of Williamson throwing her phone at them, yelling so loudly, hotel staff came to check on them, and even one occasion where she had to seek medical attention for her hand after repeatedly hitting a car door in a fit of rage.

While acknowledging the hand injury and hotel noise complaints, Williamson denies the abusive nature of these allegations and claims they are “slanderous” and “categorically untrue.”  

However, Politico corroborated this behavior with Williamson’s former New Hampshire state director before obtaining her Iowa state director’s resignation email characterizing Williamson’s treatment of staff as “belittling, abusive, dehumanizing, and unacceptable.” 

Williamson maintains the Politico article as a smear campaign with “former staffers trying to score points with the political establishment.” 

In an interview with BBC, Williamson recognized her tendency to “be a bitch at the office at times” was occasionally undesirable but not out of the norm in politics.

“I’m not running for sainthood here,” she said. “I’m running for president.”

Although these allegations have potential political motivation, her alleged abusive behavior is eerily similar to reports from 30 years ago. In 1992, People Magazine profiled Williamson as a popular spiritual guru. Like Politico, People Magazine spoke with former employees of Williamson’s and wrote that the presidential candidate had “offstage displays of temper and unchecked ego as well as a cruelly abrasive management style.” One former associate even called her a “cruel”, “controlling” “tyrant” before admitting that her work was still great. 

For leftists unsatisfied with the moderate Democratic Party, Marianne Williamson’s empathetic, social democratic policies feel like a welcoming reminder of Bernie Sanders’s legacy. However, Sanders was a dedicated activist and organizer during the civil rights movement. He served in the House of Representatives for 16 years and is still serving in the Senate, all the while slowly bringing socialist ideals to the American consciousness. Sanders’s commitment to the American working class has not changed during his decades in office and his political motivations are clear. 

Marianne Williamson’s involvement in charity and the wellness industry has undoubtedly helped many people, but this does not lend clarity to her political motivations. The American public has not yet seen Williamson in any office. She is well informed and speaks intelligently about her left leaning policies, but unlike Sanders, there exists no solid precedent for her political intentions. In the age of celebrity presidents, charismatic populists likely exist on both sides of the political spectrum. 

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This article was edited by Sofia Benzi