A miracle, Marianne Williamson wrote in her first and best-known book, 1992’s A Return to Love, is “just a shift in perception.” It is a “parting of the mists” and a “shift from fear to love.” Oprah Winfrey, who helped launch the career of the 66-year-old spiritual leader, social activist, and now-candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, once proclaimed she had experienced “157 miracles” because of the lessons imparted in Williamson’s teachings. In a quote from A Return to Love that is often misattributed to Nelson Mandela, Williamson returns again to the power that can come from changing one’s thinking: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” she wrote. “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
Williamson tends to talk about political transformation in the same way she writes about personal transformation: the material and the divine coming together to set things as they should be. “Whether you are an individual or a nation, you can’t truly transform just by fixing things on the outside. Fixing something is different than transforming something,” Williamson told Jezebel recently, her eyes staring with the unblinking intensity of an owl’s. “If all you do is change on the level of policy, then as we are well aware with this president, the next president can come in and undo whatever you did. There has to be a transformation in our hearts. We have to bring to light what the deeper issues are.”
Reading her books, like A Course in Weight Loss (which recommends putting your face “atop a picture of a beautiful body” and then displaying those photos “in various places around your home”) or 2012’s prosperity gospel-adjacent The Law of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money, and Miracles, can make it hard to take Williamson seriously. But a lot of what Williamson says is compelling, even to me, someone who is constitutionally allergic to talk of “vibrations” and “energy” and “divine love.” Two years into a Trump presidency that has been defined by hateful rhetoric in the service of hateful policy and the front-facing resurgence of white nationalism, Williamson says that fear has taken over our politics. What we need in response is a total transformation, both of ourselves and our society. While she is an admirer of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and can often sound like them (she believes that we’re “experiencing a corporate takeover of the American government,” as one example), it’s not enough to just pass policy fixes, she said. She’s running to bring love back to politics, an idea she first expressed in A Return to Love: “To address the world’s problems on any other level is a temporary palliative—a fix but not a healing, a treatment of the symptom but not a cure.”
Trump, she continued, was an “opportunistic infection.” “None of this could have happened if our immune system had been working properly,” she said. Her goal in running for president? For every American to be a “functioning immune cell” for democracy. It’s a metaphor—the American body politic as an actual body—that she loves invoking; at one campaign event, she impersonated a malignant cell, as if it were a spoiled toddler, her arms waving wildly.
Williamson has yet to receive a CNN presidential candidate town hall and barely makes a blip in polls, but she is campaigning full-time in Iowa and in other early voting states and has moved to Des Moines to live there during her run. She is waiting, it seems, for the shift in perception. A political parting of the mists that will help voters see her as a serious candidate with a serious message, one that she believes can, as she put it in her upcoming book A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution, revive the spirit of the American people.
“I’m not here trying to just elevate the conversation,” Williamson said of her greater mission, her faux fur-trimmed black coat draped around her shoulders. “We need to do more than elevate a conversation, we need to elevate America.”
The day before I sat down with Williamson, I had seen her speak to a small crowd at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering in Downtown Brooklyn. It wasn’t a campaign event per se—the speaking engagement had been set months in advance, and was billed as a career development workshop (it was called “Women Rising Up in the Workplace and Society: Words of Empowerment from Marianne Williamson”)—but it had the feel of a rally meant to energize her supporters. After I walked in, someone handed me an oversized campaign button featuring a watercolor portrait of Williamson. The crowd was a mix of confused college students who told me they had been ordered to attend by their professors and diehard fans like Kim Kirkley, who said that her copy of A Return to Love “is something that I’ll never give away.” Still, she wasn’t completely sold on Williamson’s run, she said: “I want someone who can win.”
Williamson was born in 1952 in Houston, Texas to a father she described as “a cross between William Kunstler and Zorba the Greek” and a stay-at-home mom. “I’m my father’s daughter,” she told me fondly.
Following a brief stint at Pomona College as a theater and philosophy major, she entered what in retrospect seems like a wandering phase in search of her life’s purpose—living in a commune’s geodesic dome in New Mexico after dropping out of school to “grow vegetables;” working as a cabaret singer and a temp in New York City. “I felt once that I sort of slept for a decade,” she told an interviewer in 1993.
Much like the fans I met at the Brooklyn rally, Williamson was herself transformed by a book. In 1977, she stumbled upon A Course in Miracles—a series of New Age-inflected, nominally Christian self-help books written by the psychologist Helen Schucman who proclaimed that Jesus himself dictated the words to her. What followed turned her into the spiritual guide and activist we know today. She went home to Houston and began giving lectures in the metaphysical bookstore she helped run. In 1983, she moved to a bigger stage, Los Angeles, where people soon began flocking to hear her speak and buying her motivational cassette tapes. In 1987, she founded the Los Angeles Center for Living, an organization that provided services for people with AIDS; that led to an offshoot two years later, Project Angel Food, that delivered meals to AIDS patients as well as a Center for Living in New York City. (This work was not without its detractors as well as drama, from employees who accused her of abusiveness to donors and high-level staff who were displeased with how she ran her charities. “Marianne is a tyrant. She’s cruel—unnecessarily—and very controlling. It doesn’t mean that her works aren’t great. They are. But her own ego is going to destroy her,” an anonymous “former associate” told People in 1992.)
The ’90s were the height of Williamson’s fame—the decade when she officiated Elizabeth Taylor’s last wedding; when Cher would show up to her lectures; when she was invited to the White House to meet with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton; when her books, several of which wound up New York Times bestsellers, would land her on CNN, and profiles were written of her in glossy magazines. Her presence extended far and wide—in 1996, at one of her seminars in Seattle, a contrite Egil Krogh, the Nixon administration official who was sent to prison for his role in Watergate, issued his first-ever public apology, saying, “Those of us involved have a responsibility to help America heal.”
Unlike a lot of her cohort who preach an individualistic wellness and self-help gospel devoid of politics, Williamson has never shied away from connecting the two. (Williamson’s approach was proto-Goop-adjacent, but decidedly not Goop.) Her 1997 book The Healing of America called for turning “spiritual conviction into a political force.” Williamson, a long-time peace activist—“My generation, we read Ram Dass in the morning, we read Alan Watts in the morning, and we went to an antiwar protest in the afternoon,” she told me—also founded the Peace Alliance in 2004, where she worked with Dennis Kucinich to create a plan for a federal Department of Peace.
It’s quite a leap, however, to go from someone who has a keen interest in politics, even one with a large following, to a presidential candidate, though what the recent past has shown us is that the realm of what’s possible and what can be imagined has not only expanded but collapsed into one another. While the public response to Williamson’s presidential campaign, in so much as there is one, is often surprise, this isn’t the first time she’s run for office: in 2014, Williamson ran for Congress in California’s tony 33rd Congressional District as an independent. “I believe that a wave of independent candidates, all committed to a huge course-correction, is necessary to turn our ship around,” Williamson told HuffPost at the time. “I feel my campaign, and most importantly my win, can help inspire such a movement.”
During that 2014 campaign, an assortment of Hollywood types, from Kim Kardashian to Laura Dern (Williamson’s former roommate) to Nicole Richie to Amber Valetta had turned out to support her quixotic run. Richie was so moved that she recorded a campaign video; Alanis Morisette one-upped Richie and wrote a song for the candidate. Dennis Kucinich campaigned for her, saying, “I don’t think there’s anybody who has the ability to motivate and inspire people in this election like Marianne.” Spending almost $2 million, Williamson came in fourth place. She attributed the loss to relative inexperience: “I vastly underestimated the significance that I knew nothing of political campaigns,” she told me, adding that she believed it was enough to merely understand the issues.
This time around, it’s unclear if Marianne will be able to even make it to the already crowded Democratic debate stage, let alone win. Still, Andrew Yang, another longshot presidential candidate whose platform largely centers around a push for a Universal Basic Income, recently announced that he had reached the donation threshold—65,000 unique donors in at least 20 states—the DNC had set as the trigger to be invited to the debates. Williamson, who has campaigned with Yang, is hoping to join him, and as of March 15, was 39 percent of the way there (the deadline is mid-May). In response to a request posted on her volunteer portal for supporters to encourage people to donate, one woman wrote, “We must continue. The equinox will enliven everything this week.”
A polished public speaker who has spent decades preaching before rapt audiences, Marianne bounded up to the stage in Brooklyn dressed in a slightly wrinkled gray suit with pointed shoulders, her hair perfectly highlighted, and immediately launched into what I can only describe as a vertigo-inducing word salad, jumping from one idea to the next with no transition, seamlessly blending the metaphysical and the political. On our economic system: “We have a sociopathic economic system.” On feminism and femininity: “Women are not porcelain dolls; “We’ve suppressed the feminine in ourselves in the name of feminism;” and “There’s an inner geisha that’s a beautiful aspect of being feminine.” (At one point I scribbled in my notes, “I am so confused.”) She quoted Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and New Age thinkers. “The only hope for the survival of the human race is if in this century, we learn to love each other,” she said to applause. It was a heartwarming, if vague, sentiment, which can characterize a lot of the appeal of Williamson’s campaign.
During the question and answer session, Angela Bayer-Persico, a preschool teacher in Westchester County, stood up. “You don’t hear this from anybody else who might be a candidate. You don’t hear this kind of real talk from anybody but except for you,” Bayer-Persico said. “I don’t know what your points are going to be, but I know that they’re going to be somewhere within what we’re hearing, what we know of you.”
“I know everything is going to fall into place with you. It will. It will,” Bayer-Persico continued.
“I wish you lived in Iowa!” Williamson quipped, before encouraging everyone to go to her website and donate.
Even if Williamson gets to the donation threshold set by the DNC, she is, to put it extremely mildly, a longshot candidate: a Monmouth poll released in early March showed Williamson polling at under one percent. But her campaign manager Maurice Daniel dismissed concerns over her low poll numbers.
“I would argue that whatever the polls say right now, at this early stage in the game, where people have been burned by the polls before, they’re distrustful of all these different messages coming out,” Daniel told me over the phone.
Daniel comes from a traditional background in politics—he was once the chief of staff for Congressperson Bobby Rush and a top aide to former Vice President Al Gore—but it’s clear that some of Williamson’s ethos has rubbed off. The comparisons some make of Williamson to Trump, due to their relative lack of political experience as well as their fame? “Like comparing darkness to light,” he said, adding that people “connected to a negative force” in 2016. (He is not the only DC insider who has signed on to Marianne 2020; former congressperson Paul Hodes is running her campaign in New Hampshire, joining her campaign in February.)
Daniel laughed—he laughed a lot throughout our interview—when I asked why he wanted to work for Williamson. “I was compelled by her voice. Not her actual voice, but what she was trying to convey,” Daniel said. “I get this question from my political friends all the time, but I don’t think people realize that people are waking up. Things are happening, the political sands upon which we stand are shifting as we speak. Sometimes when you’re in the midst of it you might not know, but it’s happening.”
To Daniel, Williamson is speaking the hard and necessary truths Americans need to hear. “She’s touching issues that most politicians just don’t talk about. They don’t talk about the root cause of our dysfunction as a country,” Daniel said. He laughed again. “They don’t talk about inward reflection.”
Daniel admires that Williamson, who has for years called slavery a sin that our country has yet to atone for, consistently brings up race and racism, the “third rail of American politics.” “I think she’s influenced the dialogue as related to race and reparations in particular, because nobody was talking about it until she started talking about it,” he said.
That’s not quite true, but it’s certainly the case that Williamson has spoken at length about the need for reparations for the descendants of enslaved black Americans, and that other candidates have also taken up the issue. While she has staked out positions on everything from climate change (she calls it “an existential emergency”) to immigration (she supports “a full path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who do not have serious criminal background issues”) to justice for Native Americans (“It is time for our generation to atone and make fundamental amends for the accumulated transgressions of U.S. policy,” she writes on her website) to reproductive rights (she is, as she states on her campaign site, “ONE HUNDRED PER CENT PRO-CHOICE”), Williamson is in some ways a single-issue candidate, or at the very least, a candidate whose position on one issue has dominated the conversation about her run.
In a recent appearance on the Breakfast Club, she told the co-hosts that she believes $200 to $500 billion is needed in reparations. “I think it’s for America,” she said, when host Charlemagne asked her why she was such a staunch supporter of the idea. It’s a line she had repeated when I asked her the same question, before launching into a history lesson ranging from the post-Civil War Black Code laws to the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings. Most Americans have yet to “emotionally inhale the enormity of two and a half centuries of slavery,” Williamson said.
“This is not about stoking racial conflict, this is about addressing racial conflict that’s happening underground,” she continued, her voice rising. “Once again, it’s a moral issue. You have to take a deep look at yourself. A nation has to look at itself. That’s the politics that I’m presenting to the American people.”
The Breakfast Club interview was among the biggest platforms Williamson had been given since first declaring her candidacy. While CNN recently offered similarly low-polling candidates like Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg a forum at SXSW, Williamson is still working at the margins of 2020 coverage. But she doesn’t seem worried. The caucuses and primaries are months away, and there is still time for that shift in perception.
“Some people have said to me, what’s your strategy? Even strategy is one of those relics of the linear thinking of the 20th century,” she said in Brooklyn. The audience began clapping. “I’ll tell you my strategy, the power that emerges from fierce authentic truth articulated among us!”
Producer: Lisa Fischer