Marianne Williamson is running for Congress. If you aren't one of her half a million social media followers or don't frequent the New Age bookstores and "wellness centers" in which her books are runaway bestsellers, you might have missed the news. Far beyond Los Angeles' 33rd district in which Williamson makes her bid, however, such places are abuzz with the possibilities embodied by her "politics of love." A friend of Oprah and widely known as the high priestess of spiritual self-help, Williamson is running as an Independent against 38-year incumbent Henry Waxman. In a state defined by its electoral volatility and enduring counterculture, this might initially appear to be little more than wacky California politics as (un)usual.
Not quite. Williamson's milieu of self-help gurus, yogis, and spiritual seekers has long been defined to many by its resistance to formal political involvement. For some, this orientation is philosophically consistent with renouncing worldly concerns in order to attain transcendence incongruous with worrying about campaign coffers or quibbling over policy particulars. Listen to any yoga instructor's encouragement to metaphorically "close your eyes and go inside" to achieve the practice's full experience and you begin to get the idea. Critics from Tom Wolfe to Barbara Ehrenreich have quite acidly commented that this focus on introspection can amount to a navel-gazing solipsism that precludes a sense of civic responsibility for grander social problems.
Interestingly, it was perhaps the most politically engaged generation in modern history that helped create the culture that has elevated Marianne Williamson to celebrity. The New Age movement took hold in the early 1970s among youth who had come of age in the social movements of the 1960s, but who became disenchanted with its (often unfulfilled) political projects. Further alienated by events such as Watergate and the protracted Vietnam War, activists who began the 1960s passionately advocating for legislative and judicial justice were by the 1970s were advising to "turn on, tune in and drop out," disillusioned by the apparently inherent corruption of formal politics.
This is not to deride the contributions of the so-called "'Me' Generation." If this cultural moment is ultimately responsible for excesses such as hundred-dollar yoga pants and enshrinement of self-esteem as a core educational goal akin to math and reading, it also gave rise to the organic food movement, the popularization of yoga, and the ideas that wellness and mindfulness are worthy pursuits. Positive or negative -- and symbols such as the White House vegetable garden and annual kids' yoga class notwithstanding -- this dimension of our culture has not enjoyed a serious presence in the halls of government even as it has gained tremendous power beyond them. This disconnect is so acutely felt that some dismiss Williamson's run as laughable -- Time actually headlined its piece announcing Williamson's candidacy "Not a Joke."
It is too early to see if Williamson will be able to parlay her massive following into electoral victory, but such condescension is misplaced. Indeed, her candidacy suggests a potential new direction in American politics. First, Williamson has long differentiated herself from her fellow travelers in advocating formal political activism around issues such as gay marriage, the establishment of a federal Department of Peace, and the need to raise voter turnout among women. Second, her references to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and sweeping celebration of "heart-filled politics" are so totally at odds with the wonkish tenor of debates over healthcare and foreign policy that define most political discourse, that it is equally likely this dissonance will define her as refreshing and visionary rather than vague and hippy-dippy.
It's a cliché by now that American politics is more polarized than ever. But Williamson is unique in sincerely drawing on ideas from both sides of the aisle. Her official platform is predictably liberal, given her district's politics and personal history as a Democrat: climate change, humanitarianism, demilitarization, and corporate regulation.
But if Williamson has a shot, it is not be due to a platform she admits barely differs from that of her opponent. Instead, it will be thanks to her ability to mobilize her massive following of "seekers" to the polls. Significantly, the teachings that have propelled her to celebrity are not nearly so reflexively liberal. Williamson is foremost a spiritualist, and has made her career interpreting for mass consumption the dense 1975 text A Course in Miracles, a volume directly "scribed from Jesus" in "the language of traditional Christianity," according to its acolytes. Williamson embraces an ecumenical mysticism, but her writings emphasize how "Christ is born into the world through each of us," echoing language associated with the Christian Right. Perhaps because such language would jar her liberal constituents, Williamson has on her Facebook page distinguished between spiritual and campaign-related appearances.
This tactic is understandable. However, the power of Williamson's candidacy resides precisely in her ability to cross these lines. For her predictably progressive talking points and the radical origins of the New Age movement, today's self-help culture of which Williamson is iconic is so widespread precisely due to its far broader appeal. For example: at the core of Williamson's teachings on "inner wisdom" is a fierce individualism and emphasis on personal responsibility characteristic of a traditional conservatism; she herself sounds as if she is courting the usually Republican "values voter" in lamenting how Americans have "lost our ethical center."
This ideological fluidity suggests Williamson's promise as a candidate, but more importantly the potential for the larger movement she represents to shift the tenor of American politics. Michael Pollan, another distinctly 21st-century celebrity, has commented as much about food advocates, who embody a curious cooperation between anti-industry progressives and family-values conservatives who share in a celebration of farming and home-cooked meals. Such camaraderie doesn't come from weak calls for cooperation commonplace among our lawmakers, but from new movements that substantively realign political and cultural affinities.
The next few months will tell whether Williamson can fulfill her promise to begin to "create anew" American politics, or whether this foray marks the limits of her brand of magical thinking.
Follow Natalia Mehlman Petrzela on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nataliapetrzela