The most memorable moment of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate came not from any of the front-runners or the cadre of interchangeable white men vying to take them down. Instead Marianne Williamson, former spiritual adviser to America’s spiritual adviser Oprah, stole the show with the endlessly meme-able phrase “dark psychic force” and a cogent, stirring justification for paying reparations to descendants of chattel slavery. In a race where candidates have floated perplexing policies intended to rectify racial inequality, like loan forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients who manage to operate a business for three years in a disadvantaged community, Williamson’s assertation that $500 billion should be allocated to black Americans not as “financial assistance” but as a “debt owed” was just as fresh as her casual assertation that only she would be able to beat President Donald Trump by “harness[ing] love for political purposes.”
To her skeptics, she’s either a hapless distraction emerging out of a patchouli-scented ether or an anti-science, crystal-wielding corollary of Trump. To her fans and supporters, she’s the only one who can heal the deep political and psychic rifts in the country. What’s unclear is how many there are of the latter, because it’s impossible to tell how much of her online support is real.
Williamson occupies a space in the political meme landscape where people who are ironic about their support for her speak the same language as full-throated, unironic supporters—even some of her stans admit they don’t know exactly when their satire morphed into earnestness. For instance, the name for Williamson’s supporters, Orb Gang, pokes fun at her frequent use of woo-woo language, and fan pages mix tongue-in-cheek references to astral projection with calls for donations. For her part, Williamson has embraced her status as meme queen, stating that she’d know how she did at Tuesday’s debate after she saw the memes.
To try and separate the facetious from the fervent, I spoke to four Marianne Williamson supporters about why they think she’d make a good president. The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nathan Perry, 19, student at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green
I first heard about Marianne in late 2018, when she announced an exploratory committee for president. At first her stance on reparations is what made her stand out to me. I wasn’t really sure about it but I’ve really come around to it as I’ve learned more! Most recently it’s been her talk about love in the form of politics. I like that she says most politicians, Democrats and Republicans, like to govern by using fear and hatred, and the only way to replace that is with a politics of love. I like what she had to say in the first debate when she said something along the lines of JFK didn’t win the presidency by stating plans and being mathematical and strategic with every move. JFK inspired people by saying of course we can go to the moon! Marianne wants to inspire people to think of politics on a more human level.
When it comes to these claims about her being anti-science or anti-vax, I believe it’s rooted in people only looking into the surface of her comments. The reason people claim she’s anti-vax or anti-science when she talks about antidepressants is because she is skeptical of Big Pharma and their influence on our politics. [Editor’s note: Williamson has called mandatory vaccinations “draconian” and “Orwellian” and has expressed skepticism about clinical depression in the past.] Big Pharma has definitely contributed to the opioid crisis this country has. Big Pharma also produces antidepressants, which is where her skepticism comes in. If the same people who produce opioids are the same people who produce antidepressants, maybe we should look into how and what they are producing a little bit more closely. That being said, I completely support vaccines, science, and antidepressants. I am vaccinated and I have a very close family member on antidepressants, so I know the miracles they can cause.
Kiara Marable, 19, student at Temple University, Philadelphia
I was originally a Warren fan, but I watched Marianne in the first debate and she changed my mind. She is a candidate that actively challenges Big Pharma, fossil fuel industries, the FDA, Child Protective Services, and other corrupt systems that exist in America that most candidates overlook. She also inspires every American to work on their personal individual mind, body, and spiritual well-being. I like both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and obviously support them. But as Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I believe Warren and Sanders are already too involved in these corrupt systems. They have been for years. Williamson appeals to me for the same reason that Trump appealed to the right. She’s an outsider; someone who isn’t already involved.
I think the claims that she’s anti-science are spun propaganda to make her look bad. Both the Democratic and Republican establishments seem afraid of her strong skepticism of Big Pharma and corruptive health care. Our health care system treats patients as a list of symptoms to fix with short term solutions like pills, surgery, etc. What we need in America is a health care system that looks at individuals holistically.
Writer behind the Marianne Williamson Updates Twitter account (who asked to remain anonymous), 22, freelance journalist, Sydney, Australia
I’m Australian, but like the rest of the world I feel kind of invested in U.S. politics simply because it dictates so much of the world’s order. For example, Australia has followed the U.S. into every invasion since World War II, and the U.S.’s climate policy affects all of us. I had seen Marianne’s name on lists of candidates for a while, but only became properly familiar during the first Democratic debate. The other candidates are all talking about policy, but Williamson takes it so much further when she talks about love. As far as I know she’s the only one to do that. Her approach intends to overhaul everything and realign the role of the presidency to be based off love. Rather than addressing problems with good policy, she says she will get to the root causes of these problems. Rather than simply being less of a war hawk, she will shift the entire focus to peacemaking. Rather than simply supporting schools, she will mandate a child’s right to the best education possible.
It seems like people are interpreting her holistic language and understanding of health as being kooky or anti-science. When Williamson talks about poisoning our environment with chemicals that are harmful to human health, she’s not talking about some kind of chemtrail conspiracy. She’s talking about Flint. She’s talking about Standing Rock. She’s talking about the smog over Los Angeles. None of this is anti-science. It’s simply holistic.
[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]
Benjamin Decker, 31, meditation teacher, Los Angeles*
I was introduced to Marianne Williamson’s work when she was running for Congress as an independent in Los Angeles. A friend of mine was aware of the work that I had done campaigning for Barack Obama and recommended that I go see her speak. Growing up I was a Republican, until just a few years ago when I found myself more interested in Democratic candidates ideologically. Initially, she was really impressive to me because I felt like she was speaking more deeply and more honestly to my generation. I’m a millennial, I was born in ’87.
What I appreciated the most about what she was saying was the notion of getting money out of politics. Something that I had already been aware of and had seen but never heard a politician speak about was the influence of for-profit companies—for-profit prisons, pharmaceutical profiteering, profits being made off food policies and that kind of thing. I felt like she articulated it, understood it and she was running for Congress in one of the wealthiest districts in the United States, District 33 of Los Angeles. This is Malibu, Beverly Hills. She was saying these things to billionaires. I found her to be incredibly bold, incredibly courageous.
Being a gay man myself, I have always been very aware of the experience, on the level that I could experience, of oppression and of prejudice. I’ve always had a lot of friends who were different races, my parents even adopted my brother who is black, and I’ve always felt passionate in my heart about racial reconciliation. When I found her spiritual work, I appreciated that even in her earliest books she was talking about the need for racial reconciliation. In this crowded field right now, I see her being the only one really speaking to what I look at as the new mind, the mind of the 21st century, the mind of the people that see the bigger picture. Of course I have an enormous amount of respect for Bernie Sanders. I hosted fundraisers for him in the 2016 run. I hosted fundraisers for Tim Ryan. I hosted a rally for Tulsi Gabbard. I love these people. I think that what Marianne Williamson is offering the Democratic Party is the opportunity to really evolve and take things to the next level.
People who say she’s anti-science have no clue what she’s talking about. She is so up to date on scientific studies. She’s all about the cutting edge. She’s one of the most advanced modern thinkers I’ve ever met.
Correction, Aug. 2, 2019: An earlier version of this article misspelled Benjamin Decker’s last name.