After Thursday night’s debate, New York Magazine’s Max Read tweeted that “an accidental but powerful coalition of oprah viewers, spiritual-but-not-religious christians, people who think juice cures cancer, and ironic gay twitter users are going to propel marianne williamson into office and there’s nothing we can do about it. this base is a utopian mirror of the trump coalition of fox news viewers, religious-but-not-spiritual Christians, people who think the united states has been under naval law since 1913, and ironic NEET 4channers.”
The scenario he’s spinning out isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. We may never have seen anyone exactly like Williamson on a national debate stage, but she’s channeling a real, and underserved, constituency in American politics.
Williamson, a friend of Oprah who is often described as a New Age spiritual teacher, is the latest in a long line of weird, offbeat presidential candidates who stand in for underrepresented parts of the electorate. She only spoke for five minutes during the debate, but she managed to advocate for reparations; implicitly compare herself to John F. Kennedy; rail on her opponents for focusing too much on policy plans; bring “chemical policies” into the health-care debate; advocate for a spiritual, love-based strategy to beat President Trump; promise to call the prime minister of New Zealand on her first day in office; and beat the other candidates in debate-night Google search interest (although Kamala D. Harris was the top “trending topic” on all of Google).
Williamson has made a career out of spiritual teaching and writing, but it’s not easy to pin down exactly what she believes. Like many New Age teachers and self-help authors, she seems to be mystical and left-ish, focused on love and prayer but not into hashing out doctrine or dogma. Williamson has veered into dangerous anti-vaccine, or at least vaccine-skeptical, rhetoric in the recent past. But for the most part her spiritual approach feels like a familiar syncretistic Hollywood-style positivity.
And there’s a real audience for that approach.
According to Pew’s new religious typology report, 29 percent of Americans count as “nonreligious.” But about 40 percent of those nonreligious voters, or 12 percent of the overall population, are dubbed “religious resisters.” These people are skeptical of organized religion, didn’t believe in hell or God as described in the Bible, mostly said that they were spiritual and uniformly believed that there is “spiritual energy” in objects such as crystals and mountains. Pew also categorized 15 percent of U.S. adults as “spiritually awake.” This group believes in heaven and hell, and most identify as Christians. But most don’t attend religious services weekly, don’t take the Bible literally and agree with the religious resistors about the spiritual energy of everyday objects. And 11 percent were labeled “diversely devout,” meaning that they believe in and practice traditional Christianity while also holding some New Age beliefs.
Many Democratic voters fall into these Williamson-adjacent groupings. Religious resisters, the spiritually awake and the diversely devout add up to 38 percent of the overall population, and each group at least leans Democratic. A whopping 78 percent of religious resisters are Democratic or lean that way, while 59 percent of the spiritually awake and 49 percent of the diversely devout favor the blue team. Religion hasn’t always been the most powerful force on the left. Democrats tend to come from a wide variety of religious traditions, and no one group has been able to gain as much power on the left as white evangelicals have on the right. If Williamson starts winning those voters, she could build a real political following.
I highly doubt that she’s going to win the nomination. And she may not even get a mini-boomlet of support. As of now RealClearPolitics is publicly tracking the poll numbers of 20 Democratic candidates, and Williamson isn’t one of them. But rather than being a complete aberration, Williamson is part of an oddball tradition that includes Andrew Yang, Ron Paul, Ben Carson, Dennis Kucinich and other outliers. They all gained notoriety because they chucked convention and managed to channel something real that other candidates were ignoring.
The comparisons aren’t perfect: White evangelicals were a known quantity in politics before Carson tried to appeal to them and both Paul and Kucinich had a history in electoral politics. But people on the funky fringes often give us clues about where politics is going. So you definitely shouldn’t bet on Williamson to win the nomination. But you should keep an eye on what she, and the growing spiritual-but-not-religious bloc, are thinking.