The Function of Marianne Williamson’s Candidacy

by Benjamin Studebaker

Marianne Williamson is running against President Biden in the Democratic primaries. As I write this, she is the only declared candidate, though Biden has given every indication that he will run for a second term.

I don’t have anything against Williamson personally or against her religious views. But there is a lot of evidence that Williamson is a weak candidate who cannot mount a competitive primary campaign against Biden. In this piece, I will present this evidence to you, and I will make the case that Williamson’s candidacy creates the illusion that the primary is being contested when in fact there is no meaningful left-wing opposition to Biden within the Democratic Party. This is not to suggest that Williamson herself intends to create this illusion or has any negative intentions of any kind. Nevertheless, her decision to run allows party apparatchiks to pretend the party is ideologically diverse and welcomes internal dissent when in point of fact it does not.

Why do I say that Williamson is so uncompetitive? Well, for starters, in 2020, Williamson’s poll numbers were consistently weak. Williamson dropped out of the race on January 10, 2020. Here are her poll results in the last 10 national polls she was included in before she dropped out:

Jan 3-11, IDB/TIPP – 1%

Jan 8-9. IPSOS/Reuters – 1%

Jan 5-7, YouGov/Economist – 0%

Dec 30 – Jan 5, Morning Consult – 1%

Dec 28-31, YouGov/Economist – 0%

Dec 28-30, Winston Group – 0%

Dec 27-29, Harvard/Harris – 0%

Dec 23-29, Morning Consult – 1%

Dec 27-28, The Hill/Harris – 1%

Dec 22-24, YouGov/Economist – 1%

There are a handful of polls taken in September and October that have her on 2%. But in most polls, she finishes a full point or more behind candidates like Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, and Julian Castro. No one would seriously pretend that Gabbard or Delaney or Castro could offer meaningful opposition to Biden. But we do see a lot of people suggesting that Williamson’s candidacy is serious, that it makes this a contested primary, that it shows that there is a left wing of the Democratic Party that is really trying to beat Biden in 2024.

Now, it might be claimed that Williamson’s numbers only look bad because Bernie Sanders was running in 2020, and most of Williamson’s potential voters were already on the Sanders wagon. Sanders has explicitly said he will not challenge Biden in the 2024 primaries. Without Sanders, might Williamson do better? The data we have on this does not look good. A March 3-5 2023 Morning Consult poll put Biden and Williamson in a head to head. In that poll, Biden got 77% and Williamson got 4%. The remaining participants preferred to answer “Other” rather than give their support to Williamson.

We also have favorability data on Williamson that shows that she is distinctly unpopular with Democratic primary voters. In December 2020, Morning Consult found that Williamson had a net favorability rating of -4%. This means that the percentage of voters who viewed her unfavorably was four points larger than the percentage that viewed her favorably. This was, by far, the worst net rating in the field:

I’m not here to pass judgement on Williamson. If anything, I think the left should be a bit more hospitable than it is to people with theological perspectives. Political organizing is no substitute for religion, and we need to accept that people we can politically cooperate with will often have religious views that differ from our own. I don’t know if Williamson’s religious views are specifically the reason she has never polled well. I hope they are not the reason.

Nevertheless, it is clearly a fact that Williamson is not polling well and has no history of polling well. She does have a history of writing books that sell well, and we know she received an $87,500 advance for A Politics of Love. That has not, however, translated to political success. In 2014, she ran for congress, hoping to represent California’s 33rd district, a district that includes San Bernardino. It’s a district in which Obama, Clinton, and Biden all won more than 60% of the vote. Williamson received endorsements from Jesse Ventura and Dennis Kucinich. Alanis Morissette wrote a song for her. She finished 4th in the primary. She has never won an election or held public office.

Why, then, are a number of left-wing media outlets claiming that Williamson should be taken seriously? In 2020, many progressive writers argued that it was important for the left to support Joe Biden in the general election. One of the reasons people on the left were reluctant to support Biden was the belief that if Biden won, he would run again in 2024, and this would prevent the left from running a competitive presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries until at least 2028. Biden’s progressive supporters answered this critique with a couple key arguments:

  1. The left would contest the primary in 2024, and it would be able to mount a competitive campaign in part because it would be widely recognized that Biden was too old to run again.
  2. The left had enough of a presence in congress to push Biden in its direction on many issues, making him the most progressive president in history.

At this point, the second argument is in very bad shape. Biden has not passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. He has not secured subsidized childcare for working families. He has not secured free community college. There has been no floor vote on Medicare-For-All. Biden’s student debt relief plan appears unlikely to survive judicial review. He is often given credit for his investments in green energy, but the war in Ukraine has driven up global oil and gas prices, pushing many poorer countries to build new coal power plants. Pakistan, for instance, is quadrupling its coal-fired power generation. Biden’s global minimum corporation tax agreement fixes the rate at just 15%, lower than the prevailing rate in the United States. Susana Ruiz of Oxfam described it this way:

“This deal is a shameful and dangerous capitulation to the low-tax model of nations like Ireland. It is a mockery of fairness that robs pandemic-ravaged developing countries of badly needed revenue for hospitals and teachers and better jobs.”

Unable to make a positive case for Biden, the progressive media outlets need to prove to viewers, listeners, and donors that the first argument really was based in fact. The trouble is that no candidate who could plausibly damage Biden in 2024 is willing to run against him. Only fringe figures within the party are willing to run against Biden, and they are not able to make the 2024 primary robustly competitive. Most Democrats now claim that the GOP is a proto-authoritarian party, and therefore they must support establishment centrist candidates indefinitely to ensure the GOP never wins again. Many progressive media personalities buy this argument, and they are committed to selling the administration’s paltry achievements as triumphs. They’ve written the Biden administration a blank check. It is irrelevant to these people that this blank check ensures that no progress is made on healthcare, education, labor rights, or tax rates. Their politics is motivated primarily by fear. They have been terrorized into adopting a position that is not substantively different from the position of say, Nancy Pelosi.

Of course, blatantly admitting that you no longer care about achieving anything doesn’t sell. Therefore, the progressive media personalities who promised their readers and listeners that the 2024 primary would be competitive must now pretend that Williamson is running a competitive insurgency campaign, when this is clearly and unambiguously false.

If they were still committed to doing politics rather than squeezing money out of people who are desperate for hope, they would point out that Williamson is not good enough, that there needs to be a real challenger to Biden. It’s not politically acceptable for people like Sanders to stand aside and say they will back Biden in 2024 no matter what he does. These people led their readers and listeners to believe that a real effort is being made to capture the Democratic Party for the left. That effort is not succeeding, and that needs to be acknowledged. People who want to continue to enjoy public trust need to admit that this has not gone the way they hoped it would. New strategies and tactics are required that acknowledge these failures.

Unfortunately, these personalities have become financially dependent on the perpetuation of old strategies and tactics that do not work. Their incomes depend on continuing to create a sense that this stuff will eventually work, no matter how much evidence is generated to the contrary. It is not possible for them to acknowledge this reality and continue to earn a living doing what they do. They will cover their eyes and ears and go on saying the same things, so long as the subscriptions and donations continue to flow.

For those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear, the time has come to think about alternative ways of doing politics. But we must take seriously the obstacles and constraints that are so often disregarded in the name of selling hope. This starts with calling the Williamson candidacy what it is – a desperate attempt to deny the reality that the Biden administration has utterly obliterated any possibility that the Democratic Party might be captured by the left for years to come.

This is not to suggest that there is some other, obvious, better thing for us to do. Right now, all of the things people talk about doing strike me as not very likely to work. But we have to start thinking bigger, because it makes absolutely no sense to spend the 2024 election cycle pretending that Williamson’s candidacy can do anything for poor and working people – unless it pays the bills.