When bestselling self-help author Marianne Williamson sought the Democratic nomination for president four years ago, she was treated as something of a novelty.
Most people remember her bid for the zingers that marked her participation in the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami. In that appearance, when many Americans learned of her existence, Williamson promised to “harness love” to defeat then-President Donald Trump, and to make a congratulatory call to the prime minister of New Zealand her first order of business in the White House.
But Williamson is striking a very different tone in her second presidential run, which she launched in Washington on March 4.
Perhaps aware that her first, short-lived bid inspired more chuckles than declarations of support, Williamson is maintaining a laser-like focus on economic inequality. Think more Bernie Sanders than the Dalai Lama, albeit with a quasi-Mid-Atlantic accent that is more likely to conjure the golden age of Hollywood than the stickball courts of South Brooklyn.
“We need to make an economic U-turn in this country,” Williamson told HuffPost in a phone interview last week. “The level of wealth and opportunity inequality is unsustainable.”
“The Republican Party, the way it is today, represents a kind of nosedive for our democracy. But I think the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party represents a managed decline,” Williamson said. “And I say that because it’s not enough to just help people survive in an economically unjust system. We need to end an economically unjust system.”
To call Williamson’s encore presidential run a long shot would be an understatement. Her first bid, conducted in the more accommodating conditions of an open primary field, ended in January 2020 before any votes were cast, and after months of dismal polling and fundraising that kept her off the debate stage.
Now, she is the first and only candidate to challenge Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden has not officially stated his plans to seek a second term, but he is widely expected to kick off his reelection campaign in the coming months.
The national Democratic Party is already closing ranks behind Biden. Ahead of Williamson’s campaign launch, the Democratic National Committee signaled to ABC News that it does not plan to sponsor any primary debates ahead of the 2024 election.
For some perspective on the difficult odds that Williamson would face if Biden runs again, it’s worth remembering that the last time a Democrat launched a serious primary challenge against a sitting Democratic president was when Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) ran against then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Neither Kennedy’s status as a surviving scion of a political family akin to royalty, nor his prominence as a torch-bearer for late 20th-century liberalism were enough to unseat the Democratic incumbent.
But that does not mean that Williamson’s campaign lacks a purpose. She speaks for a left-leaning segment of the electorate perpetually dissatisfied with Democratic leaders’ incremental policy vision and sees everything to gain — and nothing to lose — in keeping the progressive heat on Biden.
Williamson told HuffPost that she is disappointed in Biden’s failure to push back against the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling that the budget reconciliation process could not be used to raise the minimum wage; what she sees as the administration’s complacent response to the expiration of the expanded child tax credit; and the Biden administration’s continued approval of oil and gas drilling permits.
“Democratic voters want and deserve an opportunity to decide what agenda they think would be the best one to offer the American people as a choice in 2024.”
– Marianne Williamson
Williamson even dismisses the new law empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for the first time as “slow and incremental change, which still leaves corporations price-gouging the American people.” She wants Biden to take advantage of “march-in rights” that entitle him to require pharmaceutical companies to license the patents for brand-name prescription drugs developed with federal money to other drugmakers.
Williamson also points to a January poll that found that just 37% of Democrats think Biden should run for reelection.
“The issue is not whether I personally am disappointed with the current administration. The issue is whether the agenda of this administration will win the presidency,” Williamson said. “Democratic voters want and deserve an opportunity to decide what agenda they think would be the best one to offer the American people as a choice in 2024.”
Nathan Robinson, a left-wing author and editor-in-chief of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, made a similar case in defense of Williamson’s bid, arguing that Democratic primary voters deserve an alternative to Biden.
“Having one name on the ballot is the stuff of banana republics,” Robinson said. “If voters overwhelmingly say when they are polled that they would like someone else to be the nominee, and there are no choices on the ballot … that seems radically inconsistent with democracy to me.”
Of course, the greatest source of Democrats’ anxiety about Biden’s reelection is not his ideology or record, so much as his age. He is currently 80, and he would be 82 when he would be sworn in for a second term.
Williamson, a spry 70-year-old, is not much interested in that critique of Biden’s candidacy. She decried as “horrifying” Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s proposal to subject presidential candidates over age 75 to a cognitive fitness test.
As for any concerns people might have about her own age, Williamson said: “I feel I’m at the top of the game.”
‘Love Is Not A Hallmark Card’
Williamson’s policy platform, which is remarkably detailed for a candidate just beginning to hit the trail, combines a by-now-familiar list of progressive demands with some unique Williamsonian touches.
Williamson is running on enacting a single-payer health care system, paid family and parental leave, free child care, and tuition-free public college or vocational school, as well as banning the oil and gas extraction method known as fracking and speeding up clean-energy adoption targets.
She is also proposing the creation of a host of new federal agencies, including a Department of Climate Change, a Department of Technology, and a Department of Childhood and Youth. And Williamson wants to provide at least $1 trillion in reparations to Black Americans that would be distributed by a council of Black American leaders.
Williamson invokes the reparations that survivors of the Holocaust received from the German government to explain her belief that Black Americans deserve similar recompense.
“Reparations didn’t mean that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Reparations here won’t mean that slavery didn’t happen,” she said. “But it’s time to take the next fundamental step. It is part of the great unfinished work of the Democratic Party and of the United States.”
Addressing people who might be skeptical of her ability to accomplish reparations — or other far-reaching goals — Williamson articulated an oft-stated progressive belief that if elected Democrats fought as hard for their preferred policies as Republicans do, paradigm-shifting reforms would become more plausible.
“It breaks my heart to see how much more audacity the Republicans have sometimes than the Democrats,” she said. Republicans “don’t see the fact that it will be difficult as a reason to step back.”
Williamson, who preaches a kind of nonsectarian, monotheistic spirituality in her books, identifies with the Jewish faith into which she was born. If elected, she would be both the first woman president and the first Jewish president.
“Just as Barack Obama broke through a glass ceiling regarding Black Americans, it would of course be my great joy to break through the glass ceiling as a woman and as a Jew,” she said.
Williamson does not yet have a fully fleshed-out foreign policy plan on her campaign website. Given Palestinian rights’ growing role as a core part of the U.S. progressive agenda, I asked about her views on U.S.-Israel policy.
Williamson laid out a framework for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is well to the left of Biden and the vast majority of Congress, but stops short of embracing calls for the replacement of Israel with a single, binational state. She supports a two-state solution, but believes that the United States should only provide aid to Israel for “defensive purposes.”
“This is not 100 years ago, when they got to sit around a table smoking cigars and decide who the candidate was going to be.”
– Marianne Williamson
Williamson did not provide a thorough answer when asked whether the current U.S. aid package to Israel is appropriately limited to defensive resources. Instead, she replied: “I am deeply concerned about the recent, far-right wing turn of the Israeli government.”
As for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which pressures governments, corporations, and people to sever commercial ties to Israel, Williamson said she supports the movement’s right to exist, but does not personally support a boycott of all Israeli products.
“The only areas in which I would consider in my own life, a boycott, would be of products manufactured in the occupied territory, in the settlements,” she said, referring to Palestinian lands that Israel has occupied since 1967 and the Jewish settlements that now populate those lands.
Amid all of the discussion of her intricate policy plans, I wondered whether any of the contemporary spiritual wisdom that made Williamson such a unique candidate in the 2020 election cycle was still part of her repertoire.
But when I asked Williamson whether she still sees “love” as a key component of her vision for improving the country, she brought it right back to policy.
“What is more loving than to feed a hungry child? Love is what love does,” she said, reiterating her disappointment in the expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit. “Love is not a Hallmark card. Love is that you feed the hungry child.”
So far, Williamson’s work to prevent her new campaign from becoming a punchline has met with mixed results.
The Biden administration’s only response to Williamson’s bid came from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. When asked about Williamson’s candidacy at her daily press briefing on March 6, Jean-Pierre cracked a joke about divining the future in a “crystal ball” and feeling Williamson’s “aura.”
Williamson, who has never promoted New Age crystals or aura reading, did not take the derisive remarks lightly. In a video posted to Twitter, she said the comments were an insult to any American who has “faith and takes faith seriously.”
Occasionally, Williamson’s frustration with the Democratic Party’s disinterest in would-be competitors to Biden has led her to say things that she was less eager to recapitulate.
In an interview with ABC News, Williamson accused the Democratic National Committee of “rigging the system” on Biden’s behalf with the party’s adoption of a new presidential primary schedule. The DNC voted in February to make South Carolina the first primary state, postponing the New Hampshire primary and eliminating Iowa from the early schedule entirely.
Biden indeed performed poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020, but many Democratic officials who advocated for the new schedule emphasized the importance of giving more racially diverse states a bigger voice in the nominating process. Georgia and Michigan are also new additions to the early primary schedule.
When I asked Williamson whether her criticism of the schedule might reflect a lack of confidence in her ability to compete with Black voters, she replied: “We’ll see about that.”
I pressed, though, on why she considers the schedule unfair.
“This is not 100 years ago, when they got to sit around a table smoking cigars and decide who the candidate was going to be,” Williamson said. “But I have said enough about this. People know how I feel.”
Progressive Help Not Forthcoming
Aside from Robinson, not many prominent leftists have commented on Williamson’s bid at all, let alone said something positive.
“I’m sure she’s going to run a strong campaign and raise very important issues,” he said.
Williamson is not likely to receive institutional progressive support any time soon. Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party —left-wing groups that frequently back primary challenges against more moderate Democrats — declined to speak about Williamson’s bid.
The reticence about Williamson’s run reflects a growing sophistication in national progressive groups, which are more determined than they sometimes have been in the past to stay out of elections where they do not believe a left-wing contender would be competitive.
It also speaks to the goodwill that Biden earned in progressive circles for consulting left-leaning groups throughout his presidency, and for pursuing ambitious legislation despite narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate during his first two years in office. He has drawn particular praise for trying to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for middle- and low-income earners, and shepherding passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests massive sums in a clean-energy transition and implements the Medicare prescription drug bargaining that Williamson sees as insufficient.
Those positive feelings may begin to wane, however, as Biden pivots to the center in the second half of his first term. In recent weeks, Biden has declined to veto a Republican-led bill overriding the District of Columbia City Council’s criminal-justice reforms, moved to restrict admission of asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, and signaled that he plans to approve a massive, new oil drilling project on federal lands in Alaska.
To that end, Robinson, who is still undecided on Williamson’s candidacy, advises her to be more explicit in her criticism of Biden.
“You’re not running against the system,” he said. “You’re running against Joe Biden.”
But Robinson is also excited about the possibility of a candidate like Williamson who has a following with apolitical “normies” of the kind that progressives might not normally reach.
It’s a potential strength that Williamson acknowledges, even as she seeks to forge a political brand independent of her status as a bestselling self-help guru.
Williamson’s fans “are voters,” she said. “Politics doesn’t get to delineate between the voters that they think are legitimate versus voters that they don’t think are legitimate.”
Still, I asked her whether Donald Trump’s presidency had taken some of the shine off of installing a political neophyte in the White House.
“The problem with President Trump was not his lack of political experience,” Williamson said. “The problem with President Trump is his character.”