The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Marianne Williamson had a big night in the Democratic debate. Here are 7 things to know about her.

Author Marianne Williamson often makes headlines for saying things like "dark psychic forces," but her stances on reparations are gaining traction. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Marianne Williamson got just under nine minutes of speaking time at Tuesday’s second Democratic presidential debate, held in Detroit — roughly half the airtime claimed by rivals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

But not unlike her appearance at June’s Miami debate, the self-help guru and onetime spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey used her limited time on the microphone to maximum effect, attracting attention for meaningful answers on race and Democratic ideology. She was the top-searched candidate of the night, according to Google Trends, besting Sanders and Warren.

Williamson drew cheers when she wondered aloud why some of her rivals “seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people.” And she invoked language unusual for a political candidate when, referring to the legacy of slavery and racism, she vibrated her hands in the air and warned of “an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface, an emotional turbulence that only reparations will heal.”

8 big moments from Night 1 of the second Democratic debate

Here are seven facts about the Democratic primary’s most untraditional candidate:

Author and democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson spoke to supporters after the second presidential debate on July 30 in Detroit. (Video: The Washington Post)

Who is she?

Once described as the “high priestess of pop religion,” Williamson, 67, rose to fame in the 1980s when she began writing and delivering spiritual lectures in Los Angeles and New York. Her 1992 self-help book “A Return to Love” attracted the attention of Winfrey, who said she had never been more personally moved by a book and invited Williamson on her show. She has since published more than a dozen self-help books, including seven New York Times bestsellers.

Is her campaign for real?

Williamson has one of the smallest campaign footprints in the race, with less than a dozen staffers, many of whom are new to political campaigns. Since formally entering the 2020 race in January, she has raised just over $3 million, far less than many of her rivals. But she is hoping her celebrity will boost her campaign. She has 2.7 million Twitter followers — more than rivals such as Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg — and regularly attracts thousands of devoted fans to her spiritual workshops in California. Williamson has spent most of her campaign in early states such as Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, appearing before small audiences already familiar with her spiritual teachings. While she regularly polls at 1 percent or less, Williamson is so committed to the race that she moved to Des Moines last spring.

Marianne Williamson gets adoring crowds and sells millions of books. Can she make a mark on the presidential field?

Why is she running?

Williamson isn’t a political novice. She ran for and lost a Los Angeles-area congressional seat in 2014, winning endorsements from boldface names such as Kim Kardashian, Deepak Chopra, Katy Perry and Alanis Morissette, who wrote a campaign song for the spiritual guru. In 2016, Williamson was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders, campaigning on his behalf in Iowa. Three years later, Williamson argues what America needs in the era of Donald Trump isn’t a traditional politician, but someone who can help lead the country beyond unprecedented anger and division. And who better than her, she says, pointing to her long experience as a spiritual counselor. “Just tweaking things on the outside will not be enough to repair this country,” Williamson says in her stump speech. “It’s not enough to water the leaves. We have to water the roots of our democracy.”

Williamson talked a lot about race. Is this a major focus for her campaign?

This spring, Williamson became the first Democratic contender to endorse the idea of reparations, arguing much of the nation’s spiritual wounds can be traced to slavery. She has proposed paying out $100 billion over 10 years to descendants of slaves, with the funds distributed by a commission of black leaders across various fields. She’s less clear on how that fund would be paid for. She has also been vocal about racial disparity in society. On Tuesday, she drew applause when asked about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., suggesting what had happened there was “just the tip of the iceberg.” She said communities of color all over the country were often overlooked and neglected. “I lived in Grosse Pointe,” Williamson said, referring to a wealthy suburb of Detroit. “What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight, if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”

Winners and losers from Night 1 of the second Democratic debate

Williamson has espoused controversial views on vaccines. What has she said?

During a campaign event in June in New Hampshire, Williamson called vaccines “Orwellian” and that, to her, mandated vaccinations are “no different than the abortion debate.” “The U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child,” she said, according to NBC. Williamson later clarified her remarks, insisting that while she remains skeptical of “Big Pharma,” she did not mean to “question the validity of lifesaving vaccines.”

What are Williamson's celebrity connections?

Williamson may be a long shot to win the Democratic nomination, but she’s already etched her name in pop culture history. Williamson famously officiated Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth and final wedding at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. She used to be roommates with actress Laura Dern and is close friends with actress Frances Fisher, who traveled with Williamson to the Detroit debate. Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler has credited Williamson for helping him get sober. In addition to Winfrey, she has offered spiritual counseling to a litany of boldface names, including Cher, Brooke Shields, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton, who hosted her at Camp David in 1994.

Marianne Williamson’s fans made her the ‘orb queen’ of the 2020 campaign

Will Williamson appear in future Democratic debates?

To make the next debate stage in September, candidates must meet the combined threshold of a 2 percent showing in four polls and 130,000 unique donors, with at least 400 donors in 20 states. Williamson is working to meet the donor requirement — hitting up her followers on social media to contribute at least $1 to keep her campaign going. But in spite of the attention she has gotten at the debates, Williamson has barely cracked 1 percent in most polls, though she still has until Aug. 28 to turn things around. She has not said whether she will quit the race if she fails to qualify for the debates or if she would consider a third-party bid.

Read more:

In contentious Democratic debate, deep divisions on health care separate liberals and moderates

Who talked the most during the first night of the second Democratic debate

Fact-checking the second Democratic debate (night 1)

Read the transcript from the first night of the second Democratic debate