Photo Illustration: The Intercept/AP
Marianne mania is gripping TikTok.
April 14 2023, 12:02 p.m. (CommonDreams.org)
THE KIDS MAY or may not be alright, but one thing is clear: They are super into Marianne Williamson. If engagement on TikTok is any indication, a Democratic presidential primary held today among people under 50 would result in a landslide for the bestselling author now making her second bid for the nomination.
Williamson has only posted 65 videos on TikTok, yet has drawn more than 11 million views, according to a TikTok data counter. But there are also endless Marianne stan (Maristanne?) accounts — @marianne2024winner and @marianne4prez among them — that post her speeches and rack up massive numbers. A scroll through the popular account @realdemocrat20 turns up multiple Williamson videos, all generating eye-popping numbers for her treatises on universal health care, corruption, gun rights, or abortion, including nearly a million views for whatever this is.
A recent poll found Williamson hovering above 20 percent with voters under 30 — far higher than she reached in the crowded 2020 field — suggesting the buzz on TikTok is translating into real support or that real support is producing the buzz on TikTok. “I am obsessed with it,” said Jessica Burbank, a leftist political TikTok star who posts as @kaburbank, of the Marianne mania.
Some reasons for the support are obvious: Videos of her pledging to wipe out student debt and remove marijuana from Schedule I have predictably gone viral. But so have others that speak more holistically about the political system and the corruption that limits the ability of people to have their voices heard or their collective will translated into public policy. And the one that mentions student debt and weed also includes a pledge to beef up the National Labor Relations Board, cut all government contracts with union-busting companies, and otherwise do everything she can as president to boost organized labor.
The notion that Williamson, in her second run at the prize, can seize the Democratic nomination remains far-fetched, as she’d probably be the longest shot in American history to claim a major-party nomination, after maybe John W. Davis’s surprise win at a deadlocked Democratic convention in 1924. The same poll had Joe Biden up 73 percent to 10 over Williamson — though her support rises to 14 percent in battleground states. Still, there’s much to be learned about our current politics by taking seriously the phenomenon of her surging youth support.
WILLIAMSON REALIZED SOMETHING unusual was going on when friends began reaching out to say their kids were becoming her fans on the platform. “All these people would text me and say, ‘My 17-year-old loves you,’ ‘My 20 or 22-year-old wants to know if she can have your email,’” she said. “I don’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Hello, TikTok star.’ But obviously, I’m grateful that there is a platform, that there is a venue, where I’m seen and the message is received.”
The popularity of Williamson on TikTok and among young people generally means that the White House’s strategy toward her so far — explicit mockery — may come with some risks. Asked about Williamson in March, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fumbled a canned effort at ridicule. “I mean, if I had a — what is it called? A little globe here,” Jean-Pierre said, laughing, “a crystal ball, then I could tell you. A magic eight ball or whatever. If I could feel her aura.” If Williamson does end up overperforming among young voters who see her as a credible outsider critic of the system, Democrats will have a hard time winning them back over if they’ve done nothing but mock her.
Williamson is often dismissed as a flighty, self-help mystic, and it grates on her. Her books have sold millions of copies and spent months atop the New York Times bestsellers list, but she senses that many of her critics are not among those readers. “A lot of people talk about my work who clearly have not read it, or they will take one sentence out of context.” she said. “When it comes to the idea of crystals and auras and all of that, I’ve written 16 books, and nowhere do you read anything about crystals or auras. Although in some of my books, you do read about the corporatocracy, racial inequity, criminal injustice, etc.”
What makes Williamson unique in politics is her explicit linkage of spiritual inspiration and personal uplift with left-wing sensibilities around community and a collective struggle against corruption and greed. Williamson largely champions the agenda established by fellow 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, but Sanders never spoke directly to the spiritual rot wrought by neoliberalism the way Williamson does. New Age is not quite his thing.
Yet the self-help, up-by-their-bootstraps mentality runs deep in American mythology. Even the term “New Age” undersells how old the phenomenon is, the way a mixture of striving and inchoate spiritual yearning has coursed through American culture back to its colonial days. It has most often been channeled politically by the right as an elevation of rugged individualism wielded against any form of collective action or as a valve to release pressure on the government to do something. Don’t like your working conditions? Don’t bond together with fellow laborers into a union; just go West, young man. Williamson inverts that right-wing critique and argues that it is our atomization, particularly in such anxious and precarious times, that drains both our power and our spirit in the service of the powerful. Her pairing of those two strains is neatly captured in the title and subtitle of her 2019 book, “A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution,” which is itself a nod to her mega-bestseller, the 1992 book “A Return To Love.”
Williamson has helped herself on TikTok by embracing the platform and using it the same way other creators do, which helps her appear more authentic. She also told me that her team reached out to one of the first stan accounts, @marrianne4prez, and brought the author in-house to show them how to do it. But Burbank noted that even the nonnative stuff does extremely well. “Videos of her giving speeches regularly go viral,” Burbank said. “She seems more unfiltered and ready to call out corruption and offer root solutions this time around.” She said a recent extended livestream of hers held an audience of 5,000-7,000 throughout, ending up with two million likes.
“Kids are just so critical and done with systems being broken, not being able to have access to health care, education,” Burbank said. “The actual deliverance of public goods is something that she’s always talking about.”
Marianne Williamson greets supporters as she launches her 2024 presidential campaign in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2023.
Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP
IN CAPTURING THE hearts of young people on TikTok, Williamson is perhaps reproducing a phenomenon on the left that already swept through the right half a decade ago or more. I mean no offense when I say Marianne Williamson has the potential to become the Jordan Peterson of the left, fusing a politics of personal accountability with the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment that is achieved in significant part by fighting collectively with those around for a better world. Put another way, the Marianne Williamson phenomenon among young people is what you get when you combine Bernie Sanders and early Jordan Peterson. The Sanders slogan of 2020, “Not Me, Us,” is expanded by Williamson’s campaign to suggest that the me and the us are interrelated, that fighting for the “us” makes the “me” a better person, one more able to confront the traumatizing reality of contemporary society together than alone.
Early in his rise, Peterson also encouraged personal responsibility and offered his fans ways to improve their own lives and sense of self-worth, primarily through videos on YouTube and his bestseller, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” A Canadian psychologist, he would often urge his viewers to keep their bedrooms clean as a symbolic first step toward getting their life in order, as well as something concrete that makes their day-to-day life more ordered. That he amassed an audience in the tens of millions or more spoke to a collective — or, as he saw it, individual — yearning he met.
But Peterson has since lost the sense of uplift that originally distinguished him, leaning into a mean-spirited, reactionary politics and diving deeper into conspiratorial thinking. While Williamson speaks to the same spiritual void, she has a more constructive response: that you are responsible not just for improving your condition within the world, but also for constructing a new world along with others. There’s meaning, at least, in the struggle for it.
In one Williamson talk reposted to TikTok, she directly addresses the anxiety and trauma dealt with by the younger generation but urges people to consider that for, say, Iranian protesters or civil rights demonstrators crossing the bridge in Selma, trauma was motivating rather than debilitating. “I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’re coddling our neuroses a little bit too much right now,” she says, with orchestral music in the background. “This is not to minimize the pain. Sometimes you call your girlfriends, you call the people in your life: “Can I share my pain?” And then that call is over, and the person who loves you on that call says, ‘Promise me you’re going to go out there this afternoon and show ‘em what you got.’”
She added, “We need to say, ‘Meditate, take a shower, pray in the morning, and kick ass in the afternoon.’”
If anything, it might make more sense to think of Jordan Peterson as a Marianne Williamson of the right, as her rise to prominence predates his by several decades. But Peterson’s innovation was to code his worldview as rooted in or at least connected to right-wing politics. Williamson said that Peterson was given space to be seen as political in a way that she wasn’t. “He became specifically political,” she said. “He brought it in, and people didn’t say, ‘How dare you? Stay in your lane?’ Because in his world, they weren’t doing that. In my world, when I started talking about political things, [people said,] ‘Stay in your lane. How dare you?’ Even though my first political book was published in 1998.”
THE WORLD’S TOP left-wing expert on the phenomenon that was early Jordan Peterson may well be Current Affairs editor and writer Nathan J. Robinson, who, in 2018, watched hours of Peterson’s videos and read his works for the essay “The Intellectual We Deserve.” Robinson said the comparison of the Williamson phenomenon to that surrounding Peterson, insofar as it helps us understand where young voters are, has much to recommend it. But he said we need to focus on how Peterson is received rather than credit him with any genuine effort at reaching people.
“To me, Jordan Peterson is something of a charlatan, so if you describe somebody as a Jordan Peterson of the left, they are essentially a fraudulent pseudo guru dispensing bullshit, packaged as wisdom,” Robinson said. “So there’s a cynical view of what it means to be the Jordan Peterson of the left in a way that no one would want to be. But whenever I’ve analyzed Jordan Peterson, part of the analysis has always been, ‘Yes, but.’”
The “but” is the effect that he has had on people, almost exclusively young men. “He speaks to a lot of desperate people who want someone to talk to them in the language of uplift,” Robinson said. “How to fix your situation and speaking to people who are disaffected and who are lonely and who don’t know how to get themselves together. And of course, his individualistic solution is horrible. But I have to say, I’ve read ‘12 Rules For Life,’ and I’ve read Marianne Williamson’s ‘The Politics of Love.’ And I do think that both of them try and fill the spiritual void in people’s lives. I love what Marianne Williamson does in bringing a sort of moral language into politics.”
Given the reputation Peterson has since earned himself, it’s not the friendliest comparison in the wrong light, and I asked Williamson for her take on it. “When he began, I really liked him. And I’ve watched with horror as he moves in this extreme right-wing direction,” she said. “When he began, his power lay in the fact that he was speaking to the whole person, but then he veered off into a strange direction.”
But “the need is clearly there,” she said. “When you talk about being a figure that young men can look up to and learn from, I was really moved on my latest swings through New Hampshire and South Carolina, to hear how many young men came up to me and said, ‘I’m here because I heard about you from Kyle Kulinski,” she said, referring to the progressive YouTube broadcaster, “and then proceeded to tell me things that had nothing to do with politics, that had to do with the fact that they had been floundering, not knowing what to do with their lives going into what they called some dark places.”
Robinson said that Peterson’s drift into more conventional reactionary politics has cost him with his original audience, which wasn’t there for that. “He’s actually become very bitter and cynical now, and a lot of people, I think, have abandoned him,” he said. “I get letters all the time from former Jordan Peterson fans because he’s not really doing what he was doing a few years ago. Now he’s just ranting about climate change and stuff.”
The differing analyses from Peterson and Williamson of who and what is oppressing young people reach back to the long-standing difference between right- and left-wing populism. Peterson identifies an elite cabal that gathers annually in Davos under the guidance of the World Economic Forum — on Friday, he was attacking Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “WEF puppet” — as the masters of the universe. It is not merely their wealth but their cultural power Peterson identifies and thus channels class war into culture war — a model that conveniently excludes from the villain category “good” billionaires with the correct cultural politics, such as Elon Musk. Williamson, meanwhile, identifies what she calls the corporatocracy more broadly, keeping the analysis in material terms.
Old left meeting New Age, said Robinson, has potential to appeal in the 21st century. “I actually like this fusing of the self-help thing with the political thing. And in fact, while some people might have contempt for it, to me, it seems like a potential huge source of support and power for her,” Robinson said. “It’s not a surprise to me that she’s big on TikTok.”
By now, that the Democratic Party will be caught unaware should go without saying. The party missed the Sanders phenomenon in 2016, which was perhaps understandable, as there hadn’t been any precedent for his campaign since Jesse Jackson’s in the 1980s. Getting caught off guard a second time, in 2020, and nearly being beaten by Sanders, suggested the party was incapable of absorbing what lessons his campaign had taught Democrats.
Yet the second shock woke the party up, and the Biden campaign, after its near-death experience, worked closely with Sanders and his allies, hoping to bring his supporters into the fold, rather than keeping them at arm’s length, as Hillary Clinton had done to her detriment four years earlier. Throughout 2021, White House chief of staff Ron Klain had the Congressional Progressive Caucus on speed dial, a direct result of the success of the progressive wing of the party. But like the goldfish they are, party leaders are already forgetting it. Klain has stepped aside for a new chief of staff who is dragging Biden rightward again. While Biden flirts with banning TikTok, Democrats are likely to keep missing what’s going on there and what it means.
How the party engages with the types of young voters investing their hopes in Marianne Williamson could shape their relationship to the party for decades to come. It shouldn’t take a — what’s it called? — a little globe, a crystal ball, or a magic eight ball to see that.