During Thursday night’s Democratic primary debate, Oprah’s spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson — the only presidential candidate who wants to "harness love for political purposes" — proclaimed that her first move as president would be to challenge New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to a Mom-off. "My first call is to the prime minister of New Zealand, who said that her goal is to make New Zealand the place where it’s the best place in the world for a child to grow up," she said. "I would tell her, 'Girlfriend, you are so wrong,' because the United States of America is going to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up." It was a weird moment, to say the least. While it is clear the presidential hopeful is signaling that child advocacy is a large part of her platform, what’s less obvious is why she zeroed in on Ardern, and exactly how she plans to back up her trash-talk.
Ahead, we analyze what happened.
Why did Marianne Williamson mention Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the debate?
Following the Christchurch terrorist attack, Prime Minister Ardern stepped into a role of “national healer,” a unifying leader who was nurturing with mourners and sensitive to spirituality. Although she was raised Mormon, Ardern now identifies as agnostic, according to The New Zealand Herald. “I have a real respect for people who have religion as a foundation in their lives. And I respect people who don't,” she said. “I just think people should be free to have their personal beliefs and not be persecuted for it, whether they be atheist or staunch church members.” After having a baby with her long-time partner last year, Ardern was also only the second world leader to give birth in office. Williamson, who is running her campaign on the power of love, is likely interested in Ardern’s international profile as a healer and a mother. And even if she invoked the Labour Party leader competitively, it seems Williamson aspires to be friends with Ardern — hence the “girlfriend.”
In an op-ed for Magic, Ardern said it was one of her administration's goals to "make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child." She outlined legislation like Best Start Payment, which would give new parents an extra $60 a week for the first year of a child’s life after paid parental leave, and Mana Ake, which provides health support for children in Canterbury and Kaikōura primary schools who were affected by the earthquakes. Ardern's focus on "wellbeing" in her country seems to be something that Williamson also aspires toward.
How does America compare to New Zealand in terms of living standards for children?
Currently, with the epidemic of school shootings, thousands of migrant children living in state-sanctioned squalor, and widening inequality, it is hard to consider the U.S. as a shining example of a place to raise children. The way the U.S. treats its children was a recurring topic throughout night two of the debates. Candidates brought up children during a number of debate topics, including immigration, healthcare, gun violence, poverty, and student debt. The word “child” (and different variations of the word) was mentioned over 45 times throughout the night. Children are often a conduit through which we speak about policies in America — from using younger generations to emphasize the need for environmental protections to citing statistics on children killed by gun violence to push for gun reform.
Issues related to child care, like universal Pre-K and maternal leave, are important to quality of life for younger generations, but there are several intersecting issues like gun reform and immigrants’ rights that also factor in. For example, around seven children die a day as a result of gun violence, and there have been 15 school shootings in America so far in 2019. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ardern banned assault weapons less than a week after a white supremacist opened fire in two mosques in New Zealand.
What is Marianne Williamson's plan for child care and other children's issues?
Williamson has child advocacy listed first on her campaign’s issues page. While she waxes on about the “millions of suffering children” and the ways she would advocate for them, she doesn't appear to have concrete plans. In fact, she has said plainly she doesn't think plans are all that important. “It’s really nice if we’ve got all these plans, but if you think we’re going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you’ve got another thing coming,” Williamson said when asked about healthcare policy, seemingly referencing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s unofficial campaign slogan. “We’ve got to get deeper than just these superficial fixes, as important as they are.”
As far as the other candidates go, Warren has been the most explicit with her plans, pushing universal child care and even going as far as creating a calculator to show people how much they would save once the policy is in place. Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has unveiled a "Family Bill of Rights" and has long advocated for 12 weeks of paid family leave for new parents and caregivers.
As candidates continue to invoke children in their policy arguments, we would love to see both: holistic approaches that recognize the multiple issues children are facing and policy plans that will truly make a difference. And there's nothing wrong with borrowing from leaders like Ardern and bringing some healing and mothering to the mix.