Presume every single one of my semi-urban middle-class, middle-aged female neighbors does yoga. Enter Marianne Williamson.
In addition to being a Democratic presidential contender, Williamson is some sort of a failed actress who was big in Los Angeles in the 1980s—not as an actress, but as a New Age guru. She is an author of several best-sellers on the topic of “metaphysics,” and she’s been on “Oprah” countless times. She officiated an Elizabeth Taylor wedding, remains popular with Hollywood celebrities, and is endorsed by former presidential contender Dennis Kucinich.
A charismatic cult leader, Williamson advises her followers to forego science-based Western medicine in favor of spiritual healing: “God is BIG, swine flu SMALL,” the metaphysician instructed her followers in April 2009. “See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God’s love on our immune systems. Truth protects.”
Whatever that “truth” might be, it apparently underlies mundane political realities: “Just beneath the surface, this isn’t politics it’s black magic. Entirely a psychic battle. Use your shield of Virtue and your sword of Truth.” Close your eyes, and follow Marianne’s lead. She’ll beam you up: “Your body is merely your space station from whence you beam your love to the universe. Don’t just relate to the station; relate to the beams.”
After the celebrity cult leader debuted at the presidential debates, Republicans began donating money to her campaign with the goal of keeping her show on the road. Yet, considering that Williamson herself drew parallels between herself and Trump’s rise, conservatives should be careful what they wish for.
Policy Is a Sideshow Here
Not bothering with details like policy positions (who cares? It’s all black magic anyway!), Williamson presented her candidacy as a big-picture alternative to Trump. She spoke of “metaphysics of love” to counter Trump’s “hate” and explained that Trump didn’t win with policy proposals; he won by saying “make America great again.” Her flakiness might be a turn off for the wonks who watch presidential debates that early in an election campaign, but did we not see the handmade “LOVE TRUMPS HATE” signs in our neighbors’ front yards?
In fact, when sitting members of Congress proclaim that “no human being is illegal,” I strongly suspect that they are fully compliant with “metaphysics of love.” The statement allows for no middle ground and eschews any attempt at logic.
Far from being a one-off weirdo, Williamson stands for a growing constituency of Americans: urban, somewhat educated, mostly female, youngish, a-religious and spiritually hungry. Ridicule is a normal gut reaction to the high priestess of New Age’s debut on the national political stage, but I think we might be forgetting, for instance, the goats on yoga mats at beer gardens for Yom Kippur. Or the fact that “psychic services” are a $2 billion industry, and that perfectly mainstream department stores now sell “wellness” products.
There is also a growing number of witches in this country today—a trend that reflects the decline of certain religious denominations in combination with spiritual yearning. Contemporary occult practices can be traced back to the 1960s counterculture, but they only picked up in the recent decade.
This kind of pseudo-religiosity often comes with political baggage. There is such a thing as #magicresistance, or wiccans casting “mass spells” on Trump online. Occultists, whose ranks include celebrities like Lana Del Rey, regularly stage ceremonies to hex Trump and various Trump-connected figures, such as the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Twenty years ago they’d have been laughed out of a pretentious night club for such antics, but it appears that contemporary twenty-something hipster urbanites participating in such ceremonies are, for the most part, serious about their paganism.
How the Young Became Enamored of Pseudoscience
If half of young adults think astrology is a real science, it’s probably because the education system has failed them. Maybe lay off the global warming saturation of K-12 curriculum. In humanities, too, it would be nice to return to the western canon because the literature contained in it is infinitely more meaningful that whatever can be divined from Tarot cards. These people are not trading the Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition for crystals, because they have no idea what the Judeo-Christian tradition is.
In the 1990s, Camille Paglia wrote about New Age mysticism. Given her fascination with the low-brow, Paglia was rather non-judgmental about the trend, condemning only the turn to self-help that she observed in occultism. Everyone who loves Paglia also hates her some of the time, and this is one of these times I find it difficult not to hate the firebrand cultural critic, since contemporary witchcraft practices are such shallow garbage.
Paglia noted that most practitioners of New Age are women and gay men, which I think remains true. There is a self-conscious feminist dimension to neo-paganism—the drive to get past both the patriarchal monotheistic religions and the cool logic of science, back to the goddess worship.
The kind of feminism Williamson offers might just have a future within the progressive movement. The metaphysician shared the debate stage with several women. These women have all risen, as instructed, through the ranks of established institutions. Yet their career path leaves many lefty women feeling conflicted.
These women are asked to “lean in” into their jobs so that one day a woman can become a president, inspiring our daughters… to lean in some more. Yet most occupations are kind of boring, and ordinary women are ill-advised to sacrifice family time on the altar of employment. They know it, too. On this level alone, the women aspiring for Democratic nomination are not very relatable.
Williamson stands out among these women: she is her own person, a cult leader. Most of her followers are female; many are young. There is a demographic of suburban swing voters that she may appeal to. She can perhaps peel away some nutty right-wingers (Alex Jones pushes the same wellness catalog as Gwyneth Paltrow). It might not be Williamson who hijacks the Democratic Party for the voodooists; it might be with someone like her who will show up in the near future. The demographics, a burgeoning millennial pagan movement, might just be the progressives’ destiny.
Of course, women are just as capable of reason as men, and not every middle-aged mom enrolls in yoga classes to experience universal consciousness. In fact, most do it under the impression that it will help reduce their weight. And, certainly, the country as a whole is not at all like Santa Cruz, California. Yet, I’m sure there are plenty of true believers in places like Austin, Texas, to whom a progressive heathen cult leader may appeal.
Left-leaning outlets, interestingly, published soft-glow features of Williamson. Allowing a charismatic cult leader into the debates must be very embarrassing for the party of science, so somebody in the major media has to run interference. On the other hand, the puff piece writers might be genuinely enamored of Williamson. Another Age of Aquarius might just be coming.
“Humanity needs a mental shower: we need to wash off all prejudices of the 20th Century and stand naked beneath the waters of eternal Truths,” Williamson once proclaimed. She’s sort of right about the 20th century. But, considering that the worst atrocities of the last century have been perpetrated by pagan regimes, I shudder to think of what folks who share Williamson’s views ultimately might be cooking up for us.