I’ve long believed that anyone who qualifies for the ballot should have the right to run for president, or any other office. I stood firm on this even after the 2000 election, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader helped tip the presidency to George W. Bush. For better or worse, that’s democracy.
But Lord, my conviction is being sorely tested this year. I’ve already had it up to here with the legions of Democrats on debate stages and off, some running just to raise their profiles, or sell books.
Could there be such a thing as too much democracy?
I find myself pondering that heretofore unthinkable question, especially when it comes to Marianne Williamson, the self-help author who made splashes in the first two debates with her forceful pleas for environmental justice and reparations for slavery, and appeals for a moral and spiritual response to the “collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country,” as she put it Tuesday night.
She dismissed the policies her opponents were debating — “this wonkiness,” “this insider political game” — as unequal to the challenge presented by the cruelty of President Trump and his enablers.
It’s a provocative but also a meaningless distinction. Compassionate, well-thought-out policies and a strong moral message aren’t mutually exclusive. Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, among others, have woven the two together explicitly, and well.
Anyway, Williamson’s New Age-y framing has turned her into something of a phenom, spawning a plethora of kind-of-ironic-kind-of-not memes celebrating her as a crystal-loving hippie — light relief for bored (or shallow?) voters in the circus that is now our political system.
But making Williamson into the kooky mascot of the Democratic field gives her way too little credit — and too much.
Too little, because, though you wouldn’t know it from her debate performances, she actually has positions on a bunch of issues, mostly mirroring those of her more progressive opponents. Plus, her supporters are not just the woo-woo types. She has some smart, politically involved voters in her fold, too, such as Jean Varriale, a financial services consultant from Westwood.
“She’s very inspiring and compassionate,” said Varriale, who came to know about Williamson from her best-selling books. “She talks about the divide between economic classes in this country and many other things that resonate with me. . . . She’s tapping into our moral core.”
Varriale was with Hillary Clinton “all the way” in 2016. If Trump wasn’t president, “we might not be having this conversation,” she said. But, though she’ll fully support whoever wins the nomination, she’s convinced only Williamson can inspire enough voters to beat Trump.
“What draws me to Marianne is that she is a truth teller and a brilliant visionary,” said Kathleen McDonald of Clinton, who leads the 40 or so Williamson volunteers in Massachusetts and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “She leads with her soul and focuses on the root causes of our problems rather than just the symptoms.”
But there’s plenty about Williamson that is neither inspiring nor the stuff of light relief. She has said and written some pretty destructive things about depression, for example, arguing that it’s overdiagnosed and overmedicated, thanks to Big Pharma. It is no defense of Big Pharma to say Williamson’s rhetoric over the years has added to the stigma of mental illness.
Even more worrying, she has also given cover to anti-vaxxers, those who push the dangerous and scientifically invalid notion that life-saving vaccinations cause autism. She has labeled skepticism about vaccine safety “healthy,” and as recently as June called mandatory vaccination “Orwellian.” She apologized and attempted to clarify both positions recently, arguing that she is pro-vaccine and pro-science, but her record is long and suggests otherwise.
It’s a very good bet Williamson won’t win the nomination. But her growing prominence in the Democratic field gives her the biggest platform she’s ever had. And as we now know all too well, an entertaining fringe candidate can sometimes catch on.
Meanwhile, Republicans and conservative trolls are reportedly working to help Williamson qualify for future debates, hoping she’ll turn off voters who might go for a Democrat next year.
Ugh, democracy. You’re great, but sometimes you’re a bit much.