January 11, 2020 13:21:27
It’s hard to even mention Marianne Williamson without making it weird.
Most US presidential candidates come with titles like “senator” or “governor”. Even ones like “entrepreneur” or “New York real estate mogul” still sound impressive.
So when reporters like me call Ms Williamson a “self-help author” or a “spiritual leader” or even a “new-age guru”, it comes off as mocking or dismissive — a way to imply that she didn’t belong with the pack.
And maybe she didn’t. In a message announcing the formal end of her campaign today, she wrote that she didn’t want to “get in the way of a progressive candidate winning”.
She wasn’t registering a single per cent in the polls and hadn’t qualified for a debate since July. She laid off her entire campaign staff earlier this month, citing a lack of funds in a desperate signal to donors.
But at the same time, it wasn’t like her campaign was a complete failure.
She qualified for two debates by raising more than $US6 million ($8.6 million) from over 65,000 Americans — something traditional politicians had failed to do — and outlasted democratic darlings like Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Bill DeBlasio.
If it sounds surprising, remember that the self-care industry is a $10 billion entity in the US.
Horoscope apps are wildly popular, suddenly on-level with vitamins and yoga and face masks.
More than three quarters of Americans say they’re “spiritual”.
America is having a bit of a moment, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in this country, the influence of a spiritual adviser and self-help guru is just as big and relevant as anything involved with the word “senator”.
Who is Marianne Williamson?
The 67-year-old had run for office once before, also unsuccessfully. In 2014, she finished fourth in a highly competitive race for a congressional seat in California.
But it’s hardly what she’s known for.
In her 38-year career before politics, she served as an adviser to Oprah Winfrey and officiated the last of Elizabeth Taylor’s eight weddings.
Seven of her 12 self-help books were New York Times best sellers, and even if you think you’d never be associated with a spiritual guru, you’d no doubt recognise a few quotes from them. Quotes like:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
But if you do know about Ms Williamson from her politics, it’s probably because of quotes like:
“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivised 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.”
On a campaign stage crowded with career politicians and prepared remarks, she spoke to voters who felt that the country was experiencing a crisis of conscience of such seismic proportions that politics was beside the point.
She offered little in the way of plans, advocating instead for love
Between all the self-help positioning, Ms Williamson became known for two key policies.
The first stemmed from her progressive comments on race during a July debate, when she advocated for cash reparations payments to descendants of slavery.
“It’s not $500 billion in financial assistance, it’s a $200 to $500 billion payment of a debt that is owed,” she said to great applause.
“People heal when there’s some deep truth telling.”
She also proposed a “department of peace”, which would have expanded the State Department’s peace-building agencies to reduce violence both domestically and abroad.
Support for Ms Williamson’s plans never translated into the sizable crowds that gathered in front of say, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or even Pete Buttigieg. But she had her supporters.
They were the ones who, as one writer put it, “understood her language of angels and demons and miracles”.
A 2017 survey from the American Psychological Associate found 63 per cent of Americans were significantly stressed about their country’s future.
Ms Williamson spoke to that population, telling them not just that there was a future in which they would feel better, but that there was an easy, self-care shortcut for getting there. That the solution to healing after four years of Donald Trump was in abstract concepts like love.
“Mr President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me, please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes, and only love can cast that out,” she once proclaimed from the debate stage.
“I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”
But with self-care came controversy
With a country so fervently in pursuit of feeling better, it should come as no surprise that healthcare is the top issue for Democratic voters.
It was also the top issue for Ms Williamson — and the one that got her into trouble.
She called mandatory vaccines “draconian and “Orwellian” right as the country was in the grips of a deadly measles outbreak.
She described clinical depression as a “scam”, and said without evidence that antidepressants led to suicides.
And she wasn’t able to defend herself from her own books, in which she made claims like “sickness is an illusion” and “healing doesn’t come from a pill, it comes from our belief”.
Ms Williamson’s campaign manager said that the debate around the candidate’s comments was a sign that the Washington establishment felt threatened.
Political pundits spun the comments into all-day stories, reporters lodged relentless questions and the internet turned Ms Williamson into an ugly meme machine.
But any good self-care consumer would’ve seen it coming. It wasn’t all that different from Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company, claiming you can cure infertility by inserting a jade egg in your vagina.
Much of the self-help world profits off belief over evidence because when it comes to getting what you want, science isn’t always an attractive answer. Buying a jade egg is no doubt easier than the hours and money involved in medical infertility treatments.
Much of US political campaigns operate on a similar parallel. Basing your vote on a politician’s persona or soundbites is no doubt easier than digging into the complicated inner workings of their policy plans.
Ms Williamson’s campaign was a case study in how far that principle could go.
At the end of the day, nothing about real healthcare policy will feel as life changing as believing in love or feeling spiritual.
After all, Goop is worth $US250 million ($362 million). The top Democratic fundraiser has only raised $US49.6 million ($71.8 million).
But Ms Williamson’s exit from the race doesn’t mean the self-care craze in America is over.
It just means that Americans think self-care should stay out of politics, at least for now.
January 11, 2020 13:18:57