In November 2016, Hillary Clinton concluded her presidential campaign with the words, “Love Trumps Hate.” The phrase, developed and designed by the Clinton campaign’s social media team, quickly went viral. It was on bumper stickers, t-shirts, Twitter, Facebook — everywhere you looked, if you lived in an area with a lot of Democratic voters, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was promoting the message that “Love Trumps Hate” and, by inference, a vote for Hillary Clinton was a vote for love. What’s more, faced with the existential threat of a Trump presidency, displaying the words “Love Trumps Hate” served as a shorthand affirmation of decency: “I do not hate my neighbors, I believe in civil rights, civil society and democracy as we have come to know it.”
In April 2019, three months after announcing her candidacy for president in the 2020 election, Marianne Williamson published A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution. Where the Clinton campaign had deployed love as a messaging strategy, Williamson proposed love as the animating principle for her policies.
A political neophyte, Williamson was widely dismissed and her philosophy of a politics rooted in love was derided. Kooky, quirky, out-there, woo-woo, soft, unrealistic, inexperienced, naïve — the mainstream was quick to consign Williamson to the margins and her politics as un-serious. But what could be more serious than actually proposing to enact a politics of love? What could be more radical than asking the question: “If love actually does trump hate, then what does that ask of us as human beings?”
Now Williamson is running again, and while I have a hard time imagining a scenario where I actually vote for Marianne Williamson for President in 2024, I think it is a mistake to dismiss her — or more importantly, her message — as derisively as White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did by making jokes about a crystal ball and auras.
A politician might be able to point to an accomplishment that made a quantifiable improvement in a constituent’s life, but they can rarely claim to have saved someone’s life, provided spiritual guidance to someone lost or in crisis, or given someone the will, resources and faith to go on living in the face of despair. Marianne Williamson can.
Many people, more than will admit it publicly, have at some point in their lives, turned to a self-help book for, well, help. Sometimes the self-help program works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does — particularly when it is based in spirituality and wellness — the connection between author and reader is deep, personal and enduring. Since the publication of her bestselling book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles in 1992, Williamson has been making that connection with millions of people — people who could vote.
When the book first came out, I was living in Seattle, working at an “alternative” book wholesaler that was home to an astonishingly diverse inventory of titles representing a wide range of spiritual practices, cultures, backgrounds and lifestyles.
Pallets and pallets of Williamson’s book came into the warehouse and left just as quickly. There hadn’t been anything like it since Robert Bly’s Iron John launched the so-called Men’s Movement. In that optimistic post-Cold-War cultural moment Marianne Williamson’s accessible, appealing book on how to change your life — and the world — through love spoke to people, especially affluent Baby Boomers in midlife asking themselves, “How do we do good now that we’ve done well?”
But the message didn’t only appeal to the affluent, liberal, do-gooder crowd — it spoke to everyone, as did Williamson’s personal story of hitting rock bottom — depression, drug and alcohol abuse — and then being redeemed through love, faith and A Course in Miracles. Who hasn’t been there? Maybe not everyone, but enough people from all walks of life to make the book widely appealing.
Working at the book wholesaler I met book buyers and customers of all backgrounds from all over the country. I started to get an inkling that there wasn’t as much distance between a Midwestern frosted-blonde Christian recovering child of alcoholics wearing an angel pin and a smudge wand-waving Wiccan “woman who runs with the wolves” from the Bay Area as one might at first imagine. Marianne Williamson’s book was one of the few titles that appealed to both of them.
And the book is eminently quotable, so much so that one of the quotes was, and continues to be, misattributed to Nelson Mandela. Between the optimistic tenor of the post-Cold War early 90’s and the book’s affirming accessibility, A Return to Love became a genuine cultural phenomenon — and Marianne Williamson a massive celebrity.
At the time, Williamson’s brand of spirituality was mostly dismissed by “serious” people. Writing in Commentary, conservative critic John Podhoretz labeled A Return to Love “Religiosity Lite”, even as he grudgingly admitted that Williamson’s teachings could “save a great deal of heartache for someone who has never run into anything like them.”
But if, in 1992, despite being a best-seller, Williamson was seen as a marginal figure, thirty years later her so-called “religiosity lite” is widespread, even if not everyone knows they’ve been influenced by her thinking. Williamson’s ecumenical, nonspecific spiritual teachings, based as they are in a hodgepodge of belief systems from the world’s Great Religions, provide a wide enough tent to include pretty much anyone.
What’s more, many New Age beliefs and once-esoteric practices that emerged in the 1960’s have become the mainstream — mindfulness meditation, corporate yoga, juicing — even becoming lifestyle brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. The wellness industry has grown into a $1.5 trillion market comprising a sizable demographic of people across the political spectrum.
The Left long ago ceded the ground of faith to the Right, leaving a vacuum to be filled by vociferous, reactionary and repressive religionists. But there are many liberal, progressive people of faith, both affiliated and unaffiliated, whose political principles are grounded in their religious or spiritual convictions for whom Williamson’s message might resonate.
If Williamson can energize and activate her constituency among the New Age, spirituality, recovery, wellness and self-help demographics, she might bring all kinds of people into the system who currently feel disenfranchised, dismissive or just plain disgusted with politics.
And this is where Williamson could be as radically disruptive to the Left as Trump has been to the Right. If she is able to inspire her audience to personalize the politics of love in the same way that Trump helped his followers to personalize the politics of grievance and hate, Williamson could assemble a sizable coalition that the political mainstream would be hard-pressed to ignore.
And if, like Trump in 2016, she can similarly convince her audience that their active participation will actually make a difference, then Williamson could attract just enough people with different, but related, interests on the Leftward end of the spectrum to put together a progressive populist coalition.
One of the reasons that Trump won the election in 2016 was because there were enough people with different but related interests who saw Trump as an imperfect instrument to bring about the radical change they wanted. He wasn’t going to deliver unfettered, unregulated corporate capitalism or bring about a White Christian Nationalist Ethno-state, but he was clearly ready to fuck shit up, create chaos and nudge the Overton Window — the range of political ideas the public is willing to consider and accept — wide open. He created a climate where the previously unimaginable not only became possible, it became real.
Another key element of Trump’s success in transforming the Republican Party and activating the Far Right — and his remarkable ability to survive every scandal, gaffe or challenge — is his ability to simultaneously inhabit political and mythic spaces. Trump’s followers — and their affiliated acolytes inhabiting a kaleidoscopically interlocking multiverse of social, ideological and cultural micro-communities — feel themselves to be part of not just a movement, but a Crusade. For these voters, concerns about ideological purity — or even political consistency — are subservient to an overarching sense of the individual being a part of a struggle between Good and Evil. Trumpism — even without Trump — gives meaning to people’s lives, makes them feel that they are devoted to something greater than themselves, something historic, epic, mythical, important.
Williamson is probably the only candidate who might be able to perform a similarly compelling semiotic legerdemain, speaking at once to the political and the mythic, as she did in a recent interview when asked if she “still sees ‘love’ as a key component of her vision for improving the country.”
The reporter seemed disappointed when Williamson stayed on message about policy, answering “What is more loving than to feed a hungry child? Love is what love does […] Love is not a Hallmark card. Love is that you feed the hungry child.”
But the phrase “Love is what love does” — concise, accessible, quotable, persuasive — answers the reporter’s question with the requisite sound bite while also acting as a signifier to those familiar with Williamson’s teachings and milieu. She’s not abandoning her spiritual grounding or faith, just placing it in context.
Williamson is wise to pivot to policy, to make a play for being taken seriously by the mainstream this time around. And the policies described on her website are not by any means fringe or kooky; they are well within the scope of a Progressive agenda. At the same time, Williamson was not wrong in 2019 when she called out the “dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that [Trump] is bringing up in this country.”
The Democratic Party is understandably resistant to framing policy issues as a Manichean contest of Good vs. Evil. Unfortunately, that’s how the MAGA world sees it, and rationality, reason, policy and common sense don’t hold up well against zealotry. The forces that Trump unleashed will not magically get put back in the bottle through elections or policy. Even if the Republican Party returns to some semblance of sanity, even if the Democrats are able to make some headway in shoring up our civic life and democratic institutions, even if we, as a society, succeed in restoring the frayed and fragile fabric of our weary democracy, far right extremism — and its associated violence — isn’t going away. It is going to get worse. We are experiencing societal upheaval rooted in an existential mythos of national and cultural identity that extends far beyond politics.
Violent social unrest, ethnic hatred and civil war will look different in the United States than it has in other countries, but it will be no less real for being diffuse, disaggregated and disordered. The civil war may, in fact, have already begun, if you look at all of the power station attacks, mass shootings, kidnapping attempts, more mass shootings, and insurrections we’ve experienced over the past few years as discrete parts of an asymmetrical, decentralized but unified campaign.
Turning back the tide of rising authoritarian White Christian Nationalism — or at least shortening the period of darkness before civility is restored — will require, to some extent, acknowledging — if not accepting — the terms of the conflict as proposed by the aggressors.
But no one in the Democratic mainstream seems to be willing to call it what it is or offer much of an alternative vision. Democrats persist in thinking that there is a way back to “normal”, back to the Before Times. Biden is a centrist at his core and the current “Top 10 Democratic Candidates for 2024” are mostly the same. With few exceptions they’re ideologically and structurally constrained by what they imagine to be possible. And this deficit of imagination is an opportunity for a figure like Williamson, whose stock-in-trade is empowering people to believe in their own power to imagine a life beyond what they’ve ever imagined before.
Countering the “dark psychic force of […] collectivized hatred” unleashed by Trumpism will require a profound and radical shift in perspective. If Trump pried open the Overton Window to normalize authoritarianism and make overt racism and hate speech acceptable, what does that look like from the Left? Is it possible to articulate and normalize a vision of society that is radically, profoundly different than what is currently imaginable, offering a compelling counternarrative to the rising fascist authoritarian state?
A recent article in Mother Jones about white supremacist Nick Fuentes noted how he “seamlessly blend[s] the fears of a culture war with facts about economic precarity” in his rhetoric: “It’s the idea that our kids and this generation is never going to own anything. Debt slavery. Never owning a house, never owning a car, never paying off their school. Never making an income to support a family. Not being able to have a family […] The future is so bleak.”
Despite his odious beliefs and offensive rhetoric, he is not wrong. The economic precarity that Fuentes identifies is everyone’s problem, the feeling that the future is bleak is widely shared across the political spectrum. Fuentes and his ilk have offered what they believe is a solution: White Christian Nationalism. And, while the specifics of how White Christian Nationalism will address economic precarity are nonexistent, the rhetoric seems to appeal to an ever-increasing swath of the American population.
Marianne Williamson is not going to reach the angry young white men that form Fuentes’ avid and increasingly violent base. But she might reach their mothers. She might flip some White Women Who Voted for Trump. She might be able to use her ecumenical spiritual perspective to reclaim the mainstream faith space by making it acceptable for Progressives to be visibly, publicly, proudly faith-based, to enact a politics rooted in Love. And she might be able bring in millions of people from the wellness space who are currently apolitical or, more likely, disengaged.
Winning elections in today’s polarized political climate where cultural conflict is deadlocked and instantiated by gerrymandering and geography, requires extraordinary dexterity and imagination. If you can’t change geography or gerrymandering, and don’t want to use brute force, then it’s about finding the votes that no one else is seeing, it’s about changing the parameters for defining voters beyond conventional demographics and cultural positions — intersectionality is not just for the Left. Taking an intersectional approach to demography on the Right might reveal places where strategic intervention and re-framing of the issues could move the needle.
Transforming the electorate to counter gerrymandering means that someone will have to come up with an alternative approach to our society’s — and world’s — problems that is so unexpected that it makes everyone see things in a new way. Someone has to come up with a new way of seeing, of framing social problems, challenges and opportunities, that will destabilize all existing narratives and “shift the paradigm” in a way that rejects “Right” and “Left” as the only framework for political discourse.
In his book On Tyranny the historian Timothy Snyder describes the two opposed but equally erroneous misunderstandings of history currently at work: the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity.”
The politics of inevitability is “the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.” When communism in eastern Europe subsided and the Cold War was won, we had arrived at the end of history, the beginning of a new world of endless progress, peace and prosperity, we need no longer fear the looming darkness.
In the politics of eternity, Snyder writes, “the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures.” The idea that America must again be made great rests upon a mythicized, racialized, anti-historical understanding of the past. And it is not just America, politics of eternity animates national populists everywhere, hearkening back to the Italian Fascists, the Nazis, and other anti-democratic politics of the1930’s.
If we, as a society, are to avoid descending from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from democracy to fascism, then we need to both understand history and vastly expand our collective ability to imagine other possible futures.
And, lest we forget, there is precedent for movement-building around a politics grounded in love.
In 1958, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. published an essay titled “An Experiment in Love” in which he articulates six principles of non-violence. He writes:
“At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”
King is referring specifically to the Ancient Greek idea of agape, describing it as “understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative.”
King’s theological conception of love is more specific and grounded than a generalized “Religiosity Lite” notion of love, but the underlying principle of love as the only true counter to hate, the only force capable of profound individual and social transformation, remains the same.
If today’s Radical Right is, in some way, a reaction to the long tail of all the social, political and cultural changes wrought by the 1960’s, then it behooves us to look back at some of the ideas that animated that revolutionary moment, chief among them the radical, transformative power of Love. It behooves us to re-examine history and look beyond the sanitized, Hollywood version to re-encounter Dr. King’s radical politics that inspired a movement.
Marianne Williamson may be an imperfect, even implausible, candidate for president. She is, by some accounts, she was, and remains a horrible boss who demeans staff and doesn’t practice what she preaches. She lacks gravitas. She has no meaningful track record of activism that I could find. She is certainly no Dr. King. But her message should not be dismissed. Maybe, just maybe, by advocating for a politics of love, she has more to teach the mainstream Democrats than they are currently willing to admit.