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Editors' Picks Interviews

Interview with Marianne Williamson, 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate, on Love and Apathy

Bellah: How’s the campaign progressing? What are you currently working on as the campaign moves forward? Any changes?

Williamson: The campaign is progressing fabulously, thank you for asking. I’ve seen consistently deeper understanding of a conversation that I think so many of us are yearning to have.

I don’t wake up in the morning and worry about what I should be saying to a particular group; I wake up in the morning and think about what I think needs to be said. And I think subconsciously, we all have a kind of collective yearning for a new conversation and a new path forward.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that your life, in essence, ends on the day that you stop talking about things that matter—and I think there’s definitely a hunger in our society or those things that matter. 

Our culture is so dominated by unimportant things. It’s like if all you did all day was eat junk food. We’re hard-wired for something healthier and more nourishing than that. 

I think we do have meaningful conversations in the private sphere. But in the public sphere, especially politically, we talk so superficially. Out of that superficiality grows some very dysfunctional political realities—and those political realities will not be transformed until we have deeper conversations with ourselves.

That’s the conversation I’m trying to have and promote through my campaign. I think those words are landing with a lot of people—and I feel heard. I’ve been a writer for a long time. I know when my words are landing, and I know when I’ve written something that people care about. 

With everything that’s happening today, and particularly with Trump as President, people are aware that there’s something missing, and that they’re not getting to say what they feel needs to be said in the public sphere. 

In simple terms, people aren’t stupid. If there’s any difference between myself and the more conventional political establishment and figures, it’s that they really underestimate how smart people actually are. And I think when you just talk to people about what’s real, they get it, That’s what I find so exhilarating about the campaign: how ready and willing people are to engage in a conversation about the very critical political challenges that face us all.

What conversations are people yearning for?

Let’s take a look at what’s happening right now with the Amazon burning. That’s like humanity’s lungs being on fire. A critical mass of people are speaking out and saying that inaction toward this environmental crisis could imperil the survival of the species—people get that. 

When I talk about the millions of traumatized American children who are going to school every day to classrooms that don’t even have the adequate school supplies to teach a child to read, and that children who don’t receive adequate educational opportunities are drastically more likely to live in poverty or be incarcerated later in life—people get that. 

When I talk about rights, and 350 years of institutionalized violence against black people in America and how it’s time to take serious reparative measures—people get that. 

When I talk about the fact that the military-industrial complex dominates our national security agenda, and that we’re solely focused on endless preparation for war at the expense of peace—people get that. 

That’s what I mean. It’s not like people are waking up and saying,  “Oh! I had no idea that these were real problems!” It’s people saying, “Thank God someone’s finally talking about these issues!”

The whole country is like an alcoholic family system. The kids have this agitation because they feel something’s not being said. I’m not saying anything that anyone isn’t already saying; I’m just saying it when the microphone is on and the platform is high enough for people to feel heard. 

Because it’s not like politicians are lying—they’re telling the truth—but they’re not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And I believe that we’re going to have to go that deep if we’re going to have a chance at transforming this country.

How exactly does love transform into a political force? You talk about how people somewhat performatively tweet things out, or say things, but how does a symbolic love create real change?

It creates real change because it makes you incapable of keeping your mouth shut, sitting and conspiring in silence when injustice and evil are having their way. As they say, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

An example that I find particularly inspiring has to do with Afghani women. The United States is currently negotiating with the Taliban about our troop withdrawal. And obviously I want the troop withdrawal as much as anyone, but the conversation and the negotiation of that troop withdrawal has not in any way included important post-conflict social issues, like women. 

even before 9/11, I was aware, as I’m sure a lot of other women across the world were, of the brutal behavior of the Taliban towards women. With the aftermath of 9/11 and the Taliban routed from many places around Afghanistan, women gained some freedoms to, for instance, leave their homes without the escort of a man, or show their faces in public. in the current negotiations with the Taliban, it has been very striking to me that the United States government has made these talks with the Taliban all about an exchange in which we would withdraw, while they would  ensure no other terrorist organizations gain a foothold in the region. 

But, in all of this, there is never a mention of the women. The absence of that conversation to me is an example of something that challenges us and confronts us with a bigger question than “Oh, should I get another latte?”

A generation cannot live righteously if we are only living for ourselves. And as a woman who considers herself a feminist, sisterhood is absolutely everything. This can’t just be sisterhood with women in American either, it has to be sisterhood with women internationally too. I can’t as an American woman, not say “Okay, what the hell is going on here?”

And then, when I saw a Washington Post article about my stance on the Afghani women, I realized that speaking up, without knowing if anyone is going to hear you or care, can really land with people sometimes. It may be a tweet, an Instagram or Facebook post, an article that you share, write, or even comment about! Each of those is a way of speaking up, derived from an inability to keep silent any longer about things that you believe matter.

Just don’t shut up! We have been so mentally trained to just chatter endlessly about things that ultimately don’t matter, and it’s killing us.

How do you think your points raised on reparations in the second debate particularly engaged with people?

A traditional political operative would not say, “Let’s talk about reparations for African-American and native peoples in order to get votes. That’s something where your traditional political operative or campaign strategist would throw up their hands and go “No!”

But that’s not what I’m doing here. I don’t believe in the current leadership model—which is so endemic to our current political system—in which leaders strategize with polling and focus groups to figure out their platforms. They’re losing out on some of the most important topics because the number of people voicing that issue is small. So I’m just talking about what I believe needs to be said, and that’s what leadership ought to be.

We have a lot of people in this country who believe that social change goes along a horizontal axis. I believe, and history supports this, that social change occurs along a vertical axis. So there are all these leaders who try to dumb down the message and dumb it down some more and dumb it down some more, just so more people will agree with them and not find contention in the details—because there are none! They call that politics. I see it the opposite, you have to go as deeply as you can, do as radical a truth-telling as you can about what you feel matters, and have conviction. 

That’s a force-multiplier. Ten convicted people can hold more political force between them than 100 non-convicted people. Conviction in this way creates the force.

I believe in reparations because I believe that America cannot have the future that we want until and unless we are willing to clean up the past. I’m running for president because I want to help Americans navigate this time and I want to see them open up a future of unlimited possibilities. I know that we can’t do that unless we clean up these two very wounded places—our country’s history with black Americans and our country’s history with Native Americans. 

The fact that other people get that doesn’t surprise me. Americans are not stupid. I’m not saying anything that other people aren’t already saying, I’m just saying it on the debate stage when the microphone is on. 

That’s true—and this is just now, despite people in these communities pushing for years, coming to the political fore. A lot of your speaking up surrounds this concept of “truth-telling,” do you see this as a new political strategy?

Well, what does that say about us? What does it say about us when you’re believing that telling the truth is not already at the fore? This ought not be a new approach. 

Exactly. We’ve always had this understanding that things “in politics” may be a little over our heads, out of our grasp, or even a little Machiavellian. However, I think that this idea of foundational “truth-telling” is working against that conception, is that true?

Absolutely. Because our founders, theoretically, posited a very profound governing principle, that the wisdom of the people would determine the governance of the country. Now, because of extraneous factors like the undue influence of corporate money, we do not have the direct will of the people driving public policy. The will of the people in this country is not bad, the issue is that our government has been corrupted by multinational corporate money. Because of this, our own government is pushing forward short-term profits for huge corporate entities instead of pushing forward its people or the people of the world or the planet on which we live. That is the cancer of our politics today.

Like the eastern concepts of truth, there’s something about truth being told in any moment that we know is important. Like when you have an issue with someone that festers for so long and you finally sit down with them and talk about it honestly, and both of you say “I’m so glad we talked.” There’s something refreshing, almost like a reset button, when truth is told. That’s how things finally change and that’s how lives transform. That’s also how relationships, communities, and this country will transform. But I believe you’re going to need a president who’s a radical truth-teller and you’re not going to get that from someone whose entire career is entrenched in a system driven on falsities and lies. 

Does this truth-telling distinguish you from other democratic candidates vying for the nomination? For example, Senator Sanders stirred a lot of controversy when he made the statement that Israel ought not accept aid from the U.S. if they won’t accept our representatives as visitors. Would that be a similar instance of truth-telling?

Well, that’s one of the things we all love about Bernie: he tells it like he sees it. And I do think we have to be open to the fact that one person’s radical method of truth-telling may not be the other person’s radical truth telling—because nobody has a monopoly on truth. But I believe that’s a solid example; Bernie is absolutely a truth-teller.

You say that nobody has a monopoly on truth. How is this expected to create a collectivized or coordinated truth-telling political strategy then?

I think that honestly, whether you’re talking about the left or the right, some of the most dangerous phenomena in history have leaders who broke no deviation from their perspective. And because of this, I think it’s a good principle to believe that none of us have a real monopoly on truth When you’re voting for president, you’re not necessarily electing someone who you think is going to help you on every single issue—but you can elect or vote for someone based on the condition that they share a basic understanding of what is important and valuable. 

I could say, for instance, that love ought to be more important than money, or my radical truth could be that humanitarian principles and human rights ought to be the bottom line of society. That’s what you build a movement around. And it’s not a bad thing that people don’t agree—that’s the principle of a free society that you may not agree with everyone else and you don’t have to. The idea that everyone brings their own perspective is a good thing. 

For instance, we have millions of chronically traumatized American children. We have millions of children who are going to schools that don’t even have adequate supplies to teach a student how to read. And if a child cannot read by age eight, the chances of them graduating high school ten years later are drastically decreased, and the chances of them being incarcerated after ten years are drastically increased. That is a radical truth. 

Within that, there ought to be some debate—how are we expected to address that? So nobody has a monopoly on answers, but there are ideas. I have a plan for establishing a Department for Children and Youth. If I brought a bunch of policymakers, educators, child psychologists, there ought to be some debate between them on how best to address this issue, but the radical truth between them is that we are going to rescue these children. 

In that sense, could it be said that both the beginning as well as the end of this political strategy is driven by truth? 

It’s driven by the idea that there is such a thing as right and wrong. And we’ve lost our spine as a nation, there’s too much of a morally relativistic perspective that is too tolerant of certain things. For instance, we should not have a nation willing to tolerate millions of children living in chronic trauma, especially as one of the richest countries in the world with a capacity to mitigate if not remedy this issue. 

We shouldn’t tolerate children living in food insecurity, we shouldn’t tolerate fossil fuel companies ravaging the planet, and we shouldn’t tolerate the dominance of the military-industrial complex and its endless preparation for war at the expense of proactive waging of peace. This is a matter of life and death. There is a spine that comes with a sense of moral certitude, but that conflicts with a system so corrupted as it is now. 

A lot of people who are speaking up on key issues will be turning 18 or be in their early 20s when 2020 comes around—how does the campaign plan on appealing to these voters?

I’m not really trying to get anyone to do anything. I think that the greatest method of enrollment is just to speak from your own truth, I think people hear you from the level you speak from. If I’m trying to empower people, it wouldn’t make sense for me to try and empower you through disempowering you from speaking your own voice. And I think it’s disempowering to people to just say what I think they want to hear in order to get their votes. That’s a very 20th century approach to me. 

I feel you ought to speak what you feel most ought to be said. I once read a book by Arnold Patton that said, “If you genuinely have something you need to say, there’s someone out there who genuinely needs to hear it.”

People are smart, they aren’t stupid. If I say something that speaks to you then you’re smart enough to go online and search “Marianne 2020.”

I think that we’re all smart and that we all want the country to move in a better direction, and if people hear someone and go “Wow, that’s the direction I want,” then they’re capable of moving from then on. 

What’s on the horizon? Specifically in the context of the campaign as some democratic candidates have dropped, how does Marianne 2020 see itself?

Well I’ve gotten into the third debate, and I’m not feeling in my heart that I’m going anywhere. I’ll be in South Carolina and Nevada and Idaho. As long as I’m having these conversations that matter, I’m going to keep going. Why would I quit?

So even if the outcome of this campaign isn’t necessarily the presidency, that conversation won’t stop, will it?

Nowadays, one of the most amazing things about American politics is its unpredictable nature. I mean, Donald Trump is the president. All this traditional so-called “wisdom” about who can win and who can’t win is falling apart—I don’t think those voices should be guiding my campaign or my life. 

I don’t think anyone is running who doesn’t believe they can do the best job. I’m running because I believe that to be so. Now, the will of the people is a very profound concept. That’s what democracy means. They’re going to choose that person who they deem most qualified, but even if they don’t choose me, at least they’re choosing for themselves, and at least it’s not the mass media, corporations, or people trying to silence them and take their decision away.

Do you think this meaningless talk is a particular problem? What about with younger voters who feel disengaged from or apathetic towards the political system?

The general trend is that young people are always the voice of audacity that does not shut up. While some younger Americans may feel disaffected, a great majority are speaking up or starting to realize the power of their  voices. This is just as young people spoke up in my generation. The places I see political audacity today are in the young and the old.

In the young, political audacity is the rebirth of a generation: the regreening and replanting of idealistic notions of what the country could be. For the first time in young people’s lives, they have the power of their words as well as their actions. That’s a beautiful thing, and any society is doomed where that regreening does not happen.

But also, political audacity comes when you pass a certain age. When I turned 50, someone told me, “50 is the age where you no longer care what people say.” 

And then when I turned 60, I realized that it was the age where you no longer care what other people say, but you cannot not say what you want to say.

It’s those years in between where people are being sucked into the capitalist illusions, making the world as the world defines it, and getting waylaid by some of those forces. 

Now when you say it is “apathy,” I don’t think apathy quite names the concern. Beneath the surface of most apathetic people is someone who is paralyzed  by fear or resignation. But human beings aren’t apathetic—we’re hard-wired to care. And when we’ve been apathetic for so long, it’s almost like a muscle spasm, like we’ve suppressed an innate urge by blocking it.