Moment editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein and Washington Bureau Chief of The Christian Science Monitor Linda Feldmann interviewed Marianne Williamson, 2020 presidential candidate and the bestselling author of spiritual growth books, to discuss her diagnosis of America’s political ills and her prescription for a health country. Williamson is the only Jewish woman running for president.
Are you Jewish?
I come from a Jewish family. Everybody asks if you were born Jewish. I am a Jew! My father was a Jew; my mother was a Jew!
What types of Jewish wisdom guide you?
Tikkun olam, certainly. But also I am so moved by the line: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you permitted to abandon it. Love mercy, do justice, walk humbly.” And then there is a line I think after that that says something to the extent that if you do those things, you will be happy. I believe that to be true. Those, to me, are the guides for right living. And I do believe that right living and happy living are the same thing. Also: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. As a Jew, I feel that very strongly. I think anyone, any group of people with a historical memory of oppression, has a particularly fierce commitment and deep responsibility to, as my father would say, not let the bastards get you down. Not acquiesce.
What is wise political leadership?
Thomas Jefferson was very thoughtful and very deep. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Gandhi and Martin Luther King were very thoughtful and very deep. It’s only recently that politicians have been known for being superficial and silly. I like to think of modern politics as the aberration. Gandhi said politics should be sacred. And clearly he didn’t mean that it’s to be religious, that it should be about doctrine, that it should be about dogma. He meant, to me, that it’s meant to come from that deep part of ourselves that we dwell within, in deep serious conversation. In church, in synagogue, in mosque, in spiritual support group, in AA meeting, in therapy, in the deepest conversations with our children, with our lovers, with our friends. That’s the level of conversation out of which wisdom emerges. Modern politics is not a conduit for deep thinking.
What is at the core of the political malaise today?
I understand that wisdom emerges from a familiarity with the great ideas. If you don’t have a familiarity with the great ideas, you have a hard time applying them to modern contemporary circumstances. You have to you have to learn the scales on the piano before you can play a concerto. Now, if you look at the narrative of our history, we bend toward the stand for democracy. So we have been both. That’s the dichotomy. So we are both the country that is founded on the most illuminated, the most enlightened principles that have ever formed the founding of a nation. And from the beginning, we have been at times the most violent perpetrators and transgressors against those principles. So that’s where it starts. So we had slavery, but then we had abolition. We had the suppression of women, but then we had two waves of feminism and women’s suffragette movement. We had institutionalized white supremacy, but then we had the civil rights movement. We had the denial of rights of gay people, then we had the marriage equality movement. And that’s my message. This isn’t new. Corporatism isn’t new, it’s just the newest iteration of this stuff. None of this is new. Other generations dealt with it, and it’s our time to us to rise to the occasion and deal with it.
But that very sort of base and basic message, “Elect me and this is what I’ll do for you,” that’s what got Donald Trump elected.
Was that why Trump was elected?
I see Donald Trump as an opportunistic infection. And he could not have gotten hold of us had we not had a societally weakened immune system. The only way to beat big lies is with big truth. He will eat a half-truth teller alive in this election. The Democrats have been telling half-truths for decades, ever since they, too, started playing footsie under the table with the same corporate forces that are the problem.
So many people are motivated by anger today. Is anger a good political motivator?
I liken using anger as motivation for political activism to white sugar. It gives you a high, it gives you adrenaline. “I’m angry! I’m going to get Trump!” But you will crash. Political change is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. Those forces will be so back in 2022 and they’ll be back in 2024. We have to do more than save us from the cliff. We have to get out of the vicinity of the cliff. And that’s a deeper, larger, less sexy job that we’re going to need real nutrition for. Sugar will make it easier on any given day, but we need healthy food because this is going to take a while.
You have never served in government. Should we be concerned about that?
I have worked in palaces and I’ve worked in prisons. And it’s made me clear: Everybody’s smart. But the rich are no smarter. Everybody cares about America, and politicians don’t care any more than anybody else does, and they don’t have any better ideas than anybody else does. It’s all just the way the status quo protects itself that they manufacture this illusion. I challenge the idea that only those whose careers have been entrenched within the limitations of the mindset that drove us into this ditch are the only ones we should possibly consider qualified to lead us out of it.
Some of our malaise comes from social media. What do we do about the role of social media?
Terrible things can happen from social media, but beautiful things can happen on social media as well. The problem is not social media. The problem is the consciousness of the human race and the consciousness of our culture.
Social media is as big as the printing press. It changes not only the way we receive information, it’s changing our brain synapses. This is bigger. We’re in the middle of it. This is the Wild West. We haven’t even begun to know how to dwell within this, which is why prayer and meditation matter, because ultimately we’re going to have to go into the vertical to have the wisdom. I want to detour for a moment, where FDR said the primary responsibility of the presidency is not the administrative function. That’s secondary, he said. The primary function is moral leadership.
How do you think we should move forward as a country?
Now, Americans are very good with a to-do list. Americans characterologically like to be told, “Okay, just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” This moment in history isn’t amenable to that. You can look at the Japanese army, you could look at D-Day, you could look at the Nazis, they were operable tumors. They could be and they were brilliantly surgically removed. The problems today are more like cancers that have already metastasized and in some ways they’re wrapped around healthy organs. This is an example: How do you get at the problem without cutting into free speech? This is what I mean about how politics needs to be sacred. We have to be thinking adults. We have to be really deep thinkers right now. This is what traditional politics, political establishment, doesn’t do.
What do you say to a Trump supporter who feels that they’re empowered by Trump’s politics?
I don’t have time. I’m running for president. They’re going to vote for Trump. The point is, they alone will not reelect him. He did not win just because of them. He won also because of all of us who did not vote, and all the people who voted for Jill Stein. That’s just math. All I can say to them is, God bless you. They have the right to feel that way. This is a free society. They don’t owe it to me, or to you, to agree with us. That’s not the bigger problem we have. If all we’re going to do is have a nominee that makes people go to the polls just because “anyone but Trump,” we won’t beat him.
So, you’re elected president. And what do you say the next day? How do you translate your language of the soul and your language of wisdom to Mitch McConnell, to Nancy Pelosi? What do you say the next day?
Give me an example.
My father was an immigration lawyer and my brother is immigration lawyer. I grew up around people who were raising their hand, becoming citizens. So I knew as a child that the average immigrant—not just the average immigrant, really, every immigrant—knows more, and had to learn more about American civics history and governance than the average American does. My own grandparents came to Ellis Island. My understanding on a visceral level is that they bring as much of a gift to us as we give to them.
A nation that has its heart on right—talk about having your head on right, having your heart right—that’s where the crisis is. That’s a crisis that people are under so much despair. Given the violence, given the hunger, given the horror, that they are willing to set out walking across a desert. Now, you can’t go forward unless you’re willing to clean up the past.
I don’t think Americans should kid ourselves about the role of American foreign policy over the last few decades in Latin America and elsewhere. A pillar of my whole national security issue is that we should see large groups of desperate people as a national security risk. Desperate people are more vulnerable to ideological capture by genuinely psychotic forces.
That’s one piece of the puzzle. But what of the people who are here, whether they’ve overstayed their visas or come across the border. We haven’t had comprehensive immigration reform since 1986. And we need to. That’s Democrats as well as the Republicans.
How do you broker that?
First of all, most Americans don’t realize Ronald Reagan gave amnesty to 8 million people. And before 1973, an undocumented person, all they do was go register. We need to create a path to citizenship. It is the only answer. Give these DACA kids their citizenship, make a path. If somebody has lived a righteous life, if they are contributors to the society—which the vast majority of these people are—the only answer is a path to citizenship. And there is a moral argument here, and the moral argument is: Unless you’re descended from African slaves or descended from Native Americans who were here for thousands of years before the white settlers came, who do you think you are? What gives you some God given right? To me, it’s a moral argument, so my answer is path to citizenship.
You’ve said previously that the core issue, the first issue you would take on as president, is money in politics.
Absolutely. The undue influence of money on our political system is the cancer underlying all these other cancers. The first thing I would do is submit to Congress legislation to establish public funding for federal campaigns. If Mitch McConnell is still the head of the Senate at that time, then I’m not expecting that to go anywhere. But politics is not always about what you can achieve at the moment. You still have the bully pulpit, because remember, if I were to win, it would mean by definition that the people have spoken and said, “Yeah, we want that.”
People get that this government does more to advocate for short term profit maximization for huge corporations than for us, the people of the world and the planet. There are enough of us who get that now, to win this election.
What has your candidacy brought to the public discourse around this presidential campaign?
Radical truth-telling. I think radical truth-telling always has an ameliorative effect. It affects the ethers.
As a woman, is there something unique that you bring to the political mix of power?
I think it’s not just that I’m a woman. I’m a Texan, I’m a Jew and I’m 66 years old.
We have a silent emergency. We have millions of American children going to classrooms where they do not even have the adequate school supplies with which to teach a child to read. We have elementary school children on suicide watch. We have 41 million hungry Americans. Somewhere around 13 million American children go to school hungry every day. We have children living in what’s called America’s domestic war zones, where psychologists say the PTSD of a returning Veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq is no more severe than the PTSD of these children. These children should be rescued, no differently than if they were the victims of a natural disaster. And what is the political establishment doing, except normalizing their despair? So I want a massive realignment of investment in the direction of children ten years old and younger. I want a U.S. Department of Children and Youth. We need wraparound services, we need trauma informed education, we need maternal health and infant health. We have kids who are traumatized before pre-K. We need wraparound services, we need conflict resolution, we need as much peacebuilding domestically as international, which is why I want a U.S. Department of Peace. So all of these things—I don’t think that it is so much how I would exercise power differently than a man, but what I want to use power for, that is different.