Self-help guru Marianne Williamson was the breakout star of CNN’s first Democratic debate — at least if internet chatter and pundits are to be believed.
Williamson was the most-searched person on Google after the debate in 49 out of 50 states. CNN analyst and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm praised her “really compelling and authentic” answer on reparations, saying, “Honestly, I think she brought it.” GOP pollster Frank Luntz tweeted that “she’s cutting through the clutter tonight.” A Washington Post article claimed she had “a big night,” writing that she “used her limited time on the microphone to maximum effect, attracting attention for meaningful answers on race and Democratic ideology.” Even current Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) singled out her “surprisingly eloquent answers” to some of the debate questions during his post-debate MSNBC appearance.
This all needs to stop.
Marianne Williamson is not a serious candidate for the presidency: She’s a self-help celebrity who openly disdained policy debate onstage Tuesday night. Worse than that, she looms as a menace to public health — someone who has attacked antidepressants and vaccination in a manner that “can literally kill people,” as my colleague German Lopez (who covers public health) put it. She has no business being on the debate stage; the more famous she gets, the more harm she can do.
The fact that a lot of media figures aren’t recognizing this — that they’re either celebrating her flashes of insight on issues like reparations for slavery or enjoying her kookiness — shows that they haven’t fully internalized the lessons of Donald Trump’s rise to power. Williamson is vanishingly unlikely to win, or even come close, but the amount of press attention she’s getting is troubling. Even if public interest in her mandates some level of coverage, at least it could be more muted and skeptical than what we’re seeing.
“As far as I can tell, Williamson has zero experience or expertise that would prepare her to effectively do the job for which she’s auditioning, and that’s terrifying to me,” Seth Cotlar, a historian of the US at Willamette University, tells me. “It’s fun to cover politics as a circus, because it often is a circus, but the stakes of what happens in DC are incredibly serious and have real consequences for people’s lives.”
The media has tremendous power to shape public discourse, to take fringe ideas and broadcast them to a much larger audience. The failure to recognize the responsibility that comes with this power helped Trump win the GOP nomination, and now it’s helping popularize someone who can do real harm.
The case against Williamson
By background, Marianne Williamson is a celebrity self-help guru and religious figure. She became prominent in the 1980s and has since written seven New York Times best-sellers on self-help. She has been referred to as Oprah’s “spiritual adviser”; Kim Kardashian said Williamson was “very inspiring” during the latter’s failed 2014 congressional campaign.
None of this, as far as I can tell, has translated into the substantive policy knowledge necessary to hold any major public office, let alone the presidency. Here’s the full text of one of her answers on health care from last night; it’s extremely vague and hard to parse, but managed to at times banal and at other times deeply weird (“chemical policies?”):
Everything that we’re talking about here tonight is what’s wrong with American politics, and the Democratic Party needs to understand that we should be the party that talks not just about symptoms but also about causes. When we’re talking about health care, we need to talk about more than just the health care plan. We need to realize we have a sickness care, rather than a health care system. We need to be the party talking about why so many of our chemical policies and our food policies and our agricultural policies and our environmental policies and even our economic policies are leading to people getting sick to begin with.
Similarly, here’s her answer to a question from the first debate about what she’d say to Trump if given the chance. Her pitch is that having policy ideas is bad and a waste of time, and only someone like her who can “harness love for political purposes” can beat him:
I’m sorry we haven’t talked more tonight about how we’re going to beat Donald Trump. I have an idea about Donald Trump: Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.
So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me, please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes, and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.
If Williamson were just an unqualified candidate arguing for the Democratic Party to prioritize her peculiar brand of psychology over policy, it would be merely embarrassing for the party to have her onstage. What makes her rise in profile potentially dangerous is the substance of what she says about her core issues of health and psychology, things that don’t come up on the debate stage but are key parts of her public persona.
At a June campaign stop in New Hampshire, Williamson argued against mandatory vaccination, calling it “Orwellian” and “draconian.” “To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate,” she said. “The US government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.” She apologized for these comments in a subsequent statement, claiming she personally supports vaccination, but she has a long history of promoting skepticism on the subject (something Trump has done as well).
Anti-vaccine sentiment is easy to spread through social media and difficult to rebut once it takes hold. The more Williamson’s views get attention, the more validation she gets, and the more likely it is that she’ll contribute to the problem — convincing individual parents that it’s okay not to vaccinate their children, which weakens herd immunity and makes outbreaks like the recent measles emergence in New York more likely.
Moreover, as the Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell notes, Williamson has spread misinformation about illness more broadly. In her book A Return to Love, Williamson wrote that “sickness is an illusion and does not exist,” and that “cancer and AIDS and other physical illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream.” She advised her followers that “seeing sickness as our own love that needs to be reclaimed is a more positive approach to healing than is seeing the sickness as something hideous that we must get rid of.”
Elsewhere in the book, she insists that she’s not saying people shouldn’t take medication. But the upshot of these passages seems to be that people with cancer or AIDS can will themselves back to health. Williamson’s denial “that I ever told people who got sick that negative thinking caused it” is hard to square with the quotes from her book, part of a habit of obfuscating and downplaying her worst statements when called on them during the campaign.
But the rhetoric that bothers me the most — on a visceral, personal level — is Williamson’s repeated attacks on antidepressants.
Williamson has repeatedly cast doubt on the idea that clinical depression is real, calling the idea “such a scam” in an interview with actor Russell Brand and labeled antidepressants harmful, a cause of suicide rather than a cure for it. Here’s a sampling of this rhetoric compiled by podcast host Courtney Enlow:
These are some of the things Marianne Williamson has tweeted about mental health and antidepressants. She is hideously dangerous. pic.twitter.com/kCwiw3ujxt— Courtney Enlow (@courtenlow) July 31, 2019
Williamson has apologized for the “scam” comment and tried to walk back some of the more heated tweets. She also argued that her issue is not with using antidepressants per se, which she claims to at times support, but rather with their overprescription of them.
But her rhetoric has for some time gone way beyond such reasonable concerns in a way that makes her walkbacks ring hollow. She has argued that antidepressants are often actively harmful, suggested that they caused Robin Williams and Kate Spade to kill themselves (there’s no evidence for either claim), and has insinuated that Big Pharma is pushing antidepressants on Americans who don’t need them.
Now, there is serious debate among mental health experts on just how effective antidepressants are and whether they’re overprescribed. And Williamson is correct to say that people sometimes get diagnosed with depression when they’re actually just sad, and that antidepressants aren’t a cure-all for sicknesses of the soul. But her rhetoric has at times crossed the line into more pernicious territory, casting doubt on the value of taking such drugs altogether.
There’s clear evidence that antidepressants can help at least some patients; a 2018 meta-analysis in The Lancet that surveyed 522 separate trials conducted on a total of 116,477 individuals confirmed that “all antidepressants were more effective than placebo.“ The trouble for patients with clinical depression is a lot of them don’t want to get help: Mental illness is still stigmatized by a lot of people.
I know this is real because I’ve lived it. Starting around 2014, I started to suffer from clinical depression. Depression makes even the smallest effort, like calling a psychiatrist’s office, feel like climbing Mt. Everest. Nothing seems like it will work; everything seems destined to fail.
I’m better now — not cured, but better. Medication helped me improve, and it helps me regulate to this day. But when I was really in the ditch, anything that fed what my depression was telling me — nothing you can do will make you better — would have erected another barrier to getting help. I didn’t encounter Williamson-type arguments during my worst time, but it’s easy for me to see how this kind of rhetoric could serve as depression’s agent, worming into a depressed person’s brain in a way that might cause them to avoid something that could literally save their life.
This isn’t just my anecdotal experience but the view of actual mental health professionals. “Mental health experts say comments like [Williamson’s] can increase stigma and make people less likely to seek treatment, even if that is not the intention,” Maggie Astor writes in the New York Times.
Marianne Williamson isn’t funny or charmingly weird — at least, not after you think about her for a bit. The effect her rhetoric could have on vulnerable people is scary.
The media’s Williamson failure
Let’s be clear about something: There’s almost no chance that Williamson is going to win the Democratic nomination in the same way Trump won in 2016. She’s not nearly as famous as Trump was, not polling well enough, and can’t tap into base racial grievance the way Trump can.
But just because she won’t win doesn’t mean she can be treated as a funny sideshow.
When a presidential candidate gets massive media attention, there is always a surge of interest in what they think and believe. Their past writing gets read more, they get more chances to spread their ideas via America’s biggest megaphones, and they can even parlay their post-candidacy notoriety into more impressive and high-profile positions.
What this means, in Williamson’s case, is a greater opportunity to attract more followers and adherents to her worldview. It’s not that she’s bringing up her dodgy ideas about depression and vaccines in debates — at least not yet — but rather that all the people who are Googling her after watching the debate or reading a positive article about her performance are likely to encounter her old rhetoric for the first time. They’ll hear her past lines about how it’s okay not to get vaccinated, how “sickness is an illusion,” and how antidepressants are dangerous and pushed on you by Big Pharma.
The more people hear these things, the more likely people are to believe them. The media’s elevation of Williamson gives her a significantly greater set of opportunities to influence people’s views on health in a potentially harmful manner.
This is irresponsible. I get that she’s funny and kooky, and even sometimes says things that make sense (like the need to confront the emotional character of Trump’s racial appeals). She’s getting a lot of attention from the public, giving every media outlet — including Vox — an incentive to cover her. But none of that outweighs the potential damage she can do to real lives by giving parents license to skip vaccination or convincing a person with depression that they don’t need to take their meds. Elevating Williamson, especially through favorable coverage, subtly mainstreams these views.
Even more fundamentally, it suggests that a lot of the mainstream media hasn’t learned the lessons of 2016.
One of the key reasons that Trump was able to break from the GOP pack so decisively is that he absolutely dominated press coverage. His persona was undeniably entertaining, his substantive views equally offensive — both of which generated large TV audiences and clicks for news websites. One 2016 study found that Trump got nearly $2 billion in free media during the primary season alone, due to the inordinate press focus on him.
One of the media’s cardinal failures in 2016 was giving Trump, an ignorant and dangerous candidate, far more attention than he deserved — because he was entertaining and almost no one thought he could win. What happened afterward is a lesson in American journalism’s failure to appreciate the importance of its gatekeeping role in the country’s political system.
Williamson is a test of what, exactly, the mainstream media has learned from the Trump debacle — and it’s one that many are failing.