Beyond the Politics of Despair: an Interview With Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson.

As Americans live through varying degrees of angst during this final month before the mid-term elections, who should burst onto the scene but the unconventional political and spiritual activist Marianne Williamson offering words of love, hope, and defiance.

Williamson, you may recall, ran as a progressive Democrat for the 2020 Presidency. Drawing huge crowds during the primary season and selling millions of her books, she declared then that she had the best credentials to guide America through an “era of anger, anxiety and political chaos.” She called for a social revolution, a renovation of a “sociopathic economic system focused on short-term profit maximization.” She eventually dropped out of that 2020 race, having failed to meet certain fundraising targets and enduring media slights, and endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders.

This time, she explains in a recent interview with me (more below), she is “traveling around and picking up energy where I can, trying to discern not only where I think the country should be going but how I might serve it best.” She’s about to embark on a conversational speaking tour in New Hampshire, not as a candidate but as a motivational speaker. One of her stops will be in New Hampshire October 20th at the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN) where she will likely engage in a favorite theme: getting more women involved in “transformational politics”, overcoming the “mean, toxic and corrupt” aspects of politics so prevalent today and dwelling instead on building a beloved community akin to the words of Martin Luther King: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

Few would doubt that she is a woman of conviction, and as a prolific author with a sizable following, she wields some considerable influence. The Washington Post noted back in April 2019 that she had written “more than a dozen self-help books, including seven New York Times bestsellers; she is a longtime spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey, and her followers show up by the thousands to her motivational workshops in Los Angeles.

How She Connects

I recall being both startled and intrigued while watching her performance during a July 2019 primary debate televised on CNN. (Observed Hollywood Reporter, she was more googled than any other candidate in 49 out of 50 states.). While one New York Times pundit sneered at her “amusing presence,” another Times columnist wrote that “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.”

Who would have believed that once Biden beat Trump, the former president would be on everyone’s lips this time around? Williamson certainly minced no words about him in 2019, accusing him of hanging out with white supremacists while harnessing a “dark, psychic force of collectivized hatred. “ Using hate as a political weapon,” she argued, was both “powerful and contagious,” thus requiring more than an intellectual analysis or rational argument. “You can’t scold people into voting,” she said on the Bill Maher show, “Voters feel that they are not being offered an alternative. They think the system is deeply rigged…That’s why we have to create a much more truthful conversation about how corrupt it is, creating a sense among people that it’s worth it to try one more time, that this time it will be needed.” Remarked another panelist on the show, radio/tv host Buck Sexton, “Your ability to speak positively is what separated you from other Democrats on that [debate] stage, including a lot of conservatives. Someone with a vision instead of ‘everything is terrible.’”

In short, seemingly unconstrained by party discipline, Marianne Williamson has a knack for telling things how they are and offering a way out that goes beyond traditional Democratic and Republican party politics. What drives her is her unabashed support of progressive values, while combining them with a deep-seated spirituality.

Overcoming powerlessness and a “sea of despair”

We began our interview by my confessing to being stunned that some of my friends and associates didn’t know what to do about confronting the highly polarized nature of American society, with Trumpers calling for civil war and Democrats warning of the spread of fascism.

CD: Some of my friends complain that “we have no power.” How do you deal with that power issue?

MW: It’s understandable why people feel that way because the system has us all boxed up. We have been checkmated…Our progressive values, our democratic values, and democracy itself has been checkmated. The new breed of Republicans did the checkmating, but the Democratic Party allowed it to happen.

CD: Can you elaborate?

MW: President Roosevelt said that we have not had to worry about a fascist or communist takeover in this country as long as democracy delivered on its promises. But for the last 40 years democracy has not delivered on its promises. Its promises have been dwindling steadily. If the average American had decent health care, free college as they do in every other advanced democracy, and access to resources offering genuine material opportunity — things like paid family leave and assisted child care — as they do in other advanced democracies, I don’t believe there would be this massive sea of despair that saturates so much of our society.

That despair in some people’s lives has turned into dysfunctions that are genuinely anti-democratic, such as an attraction to “strong man” leaders.

For others, it has turned into hopelessness, no hope that any fundamental change will happen through the political system. So the problem for the Democrats is not just Republicans who vote; the bigger problem is all the people who might stay home. While people may not think the Republicans offer them anything, too many don’t see ways that the Democrats offer them anything more. The Democratic Party needs to return to a time when the party stood for unequivocal support of the working people of the United States. All these incremental changes are simply not enough.

CD: That’s what I’m hearing. What about the counter argument that the Biden Administration tried with its proposed Build Back Better legislation but was blocked by Senators Manchin and Sinema?

MW: That’s true, but the Democratic Party always has a litany of excuses for why it hasn’t delivered for the people. That litany goes back decades. This is about more than just Joe Manchin. It goes back to the neoliberalism that burst onto the scene during the presidency of Ronald Reagan: corporate profits first, people and animals and planet second. It’s true that it was started full bore by a Republican president, but no Democratic president has stopped it. So here we are. For decades the Democrats didn’t deliver unequivocally on the promises of democracy, and that helped pave the way to Donald Trump.

The Democrats need to look in the mirror. In real life that’s called self-awareness, but in politics it’s called naysaying. That’s unfortunate, because until the Democrat Party is willing to become more self-aware, then it won’t regain its ascendancy much less save democracy.

CD: So what’s your solution?

MW: It’s time for us to look outside the box.

If we’re only thinking in terms of traditional responses and traditional politics, then this is a very depressing moment. But if we’re willing to look at politics from outside the box, with a “whole person” perspective, then we see this as a perilous moment but not as a hopeless one. We can have a higher sense of where hope comes from. Certainly the abolitionists had hopeless and desperate days, as did the suffragists and civil rights workers and union organizers and others. But they continued with conviction and perseverance that was ultimately stronger than the institutions that opposed them.

We need a commitment and dedication that goes beyond mechanistic politics. If you’re only looking at this moment in terms of traditional politics, then you have every reason to despair. But there is something new trying to emerge now. It isn’t a transactional politics, it’s relational. It has an emotional and psychological quality that mechanistic politics doesn’t have, because it’s built on relationships — our relationship to each other, to democracy, to our ancestors, to our children’s children, to animals, and to the earth itself.

It also involves a relationship to history. Americans need to toughen up now. We’re not the first generation that has had to push back against overreach by capital. In a way, this is nothing new. Neoliberalism is just the newest iteration of a mindset that puts the primacy of property rights over democratic and humanitarian values. It’s been there since our earliest beginnings, after all. We’ve pushed it back before and we can push it back again.

We need to identify the problems of the past, but we need to identify with the problem-solvers of the past. Dr. King said we must have a quantitative shift in our circumstances and a qualitative shift in our souls. Gandhi said self-purification must precede direct political action. Those are ideas of nonviolent political resistance, which are essentially spiritual principles. It’s also significant to note how many of the great social justice movements in our history emerged from spiritual and religious roots: abolition came out of the early evangelical churches in New Hampshire, many of the woman suffragette leaders were religious Quakers, and Dr. King of course was a Baptist preacher.

Much of that has been ignored, even derided by the some on the Left over the past few decades. There’s been an over-emphasis on material analysis — not that I disagree with the analysis — but I don’t think it tells the whole picture, either about our societal dysfunctions or about what it will take to heal them.

CD: Let me jump in on your provocative point there — the idea that a nonviolent approach is derided by the Left. How have they derided it?

MW: I am on the Left, by the way. Don’t get me wrong. I read Marx in college and I understand the value of a Marxist class analysis. But I believe it’s limited as well. As we enter into the 21st century we are exiting a strictly mechanistic paradigm and moving into a more whole person understanding. We’re recognizing the powers of consciousness as well as the powers of material conditions.

When I was growing up, there was a powerful religious Left in this country. William Sloane Coffin and the Berrigan Brothers were pivotal to the anti-war movement in the 1960’s. Bobby Kennedy said we were in a battle for the soul of the nation. Dr. King, as I mentioned, was a Baptist preacher. There was a moral and spiritual dimension to left-wing politics then and we badly need that now. In its absence, an ersatz version has taken up the slack and to obviously devastating effects.

CD: Do you think the assassination of the Kennedy brothers had a major impact on American democracy…and life?

MW: I can tell you for sure that it did. Particularly for those of us who were young, the impact was catastrophic. People who were holding aloft the possibility of genuine spiritual and moral renewal in a political context — namely Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, who were literally shot and killed in front of our eyes. That was a loud unspoken message to all of us: “There will be no further protests. You can do whatever you want within the private sector — expand those markets, kids! — but you will leave the public sector to whomever wants to control it so bad they’re willing to kill in order to do it.” Especially after they killed the students at Kent State, no one needed to say out loud, “Or we might kill you too.”

Every generation has its own wisdom born of its own experiences. Every generation learns in its own way that a soulless economic system doesn’t care about them. Whether it’s the military industrial complex leading to criminally–started and spectacularly–failed wars, insurance companies denying us universal health care, or fossil fuel companies literally cutting off our chances of long-term survival, people are starting to see what the game is and how it’s played. During COVID, people certainly saw that the system didn’t care whether they lived or died as long as corporate profit-making continued at an all-time high. People do get it now; the only question is, in what way do we best move forward? Obviously, I think it will take internal as well as external changes.

CD: At this point, I’d like you to explain more about who you are. Who and what influenced you?

MW: I grew up in a Jewish family in Houston. My father was a Left wing immigration lawyer. He was kind of like a cross between William Kunstler and Zorba the Greek. He took us to Vietnam to show his kids the reality of the military industrial complex.

I was a typical child of the Sixties and then Seventies. It was a revolutionary time when I was growing up, but there weren’t any artificial divisions in the air. The changes were cultural, political, musical, sexual, spiritual, everything. Nobody was expected to “stay in their lane.” I think that gave us a more holistic sense of what it would take to change the world.

I was always a voracious reader. When I was in my Twenties, I was influenced by a book by a professor at Columbia University named Helen Schucman. It’s called A Course in Miracles, and it’s a guide to the psychological process of relinquishing fear and accepting love. The book completely changed my life and I started giving lectures about it a few years later. Then AIDS burst onto the scene, and I was deeply involved in that. I wrote my first book based on A Course in Miracles, A Return to Love, which came out in 1992. Oprah had me on her show and that introduced me to a national and international audience. In a very real way, she gave me my public career. I was always interested in spirituality and politics, and when I read about Gandhi and King, I realized how the two fit together.

* * *

This exchange, of course, just skims the surface as to the many influences on Marianne Williamson’s life, described in a lengthy Wikipedia entry and her own website.

Since this interview in late September, the situation in the US has become ever more dire, with the escalating war in Ukraine, President Biden’s warning of a possible nuclear Armageddon reminiscent of the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis, and OPEC +’s decision, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Russia, to decrease oil production, thus causing a renewed rise in gasoline prices. Since American voters are known to vote with their pocketbooks, this “October Surprise” comes at a particularly sensitive time, just when the Democrats were beginning to think that they would continue to control both houses of Congress, if even by a narrow margin.

Will readers find in Williamson’s message a path out of despair, one that rivals the creative energies of the 60s? The way things are going now, with deepening hateful rhetoric from the Right as November 8 approaches, I’m not making any predictions. But if Marianne succeeds in getting more people out of their funk and to the polls, then all I can say is, “You go girl!”

This interview first appeared on Charlotte Dennett’s Medium page.

Charlotte Dennett is an investigative journalist. Her most recent book, now out in paperback, is Follow the Pipelines: Uncovering the Mystery of a Lost Spy and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.