Laurie Penny: It's not good enough just to want to be in power

Many cling to a sense that if we only wait long enough, fairness and equality will eventually come about

Share
Related Topics

If you want to know more about a person in five seconds, ask them how much it matters that a former high-school bully is polling at 46 per cent in the race for the American presidency. According to several independent witnesses, the young Mitt Romney spent his early teenage years menacing effeminate students at his elite prep school. On one occasion, he apparently encouraged his classmates to hold down a fellow pupil called John Lauber, using scissors to hack off the weeping, struggling boy's hair, which the future multimillionaire governor of Massachusetts considered too long. When the incident came to light some weeks ago, Romney first denied any memory of it, then wrote it off as a "prank". Perhaps it was, but only the sort of prank you laugh at because you're worried someone might hit you if you don't.

To some people, that's a harmless piece of trivia. Personally, though, I can't help going over that scene in my mind whenever Romney's face appears on television, with its bared teeth and robotic tan sheen of a Ken doll gone feral. It's hard to stop imagining the Republican front-runner 50 years ago, standing over that crying boy on the ground, holding a pair of scissors. I know it's not fair. Nobody should have to spend their adulthood accounting for all the ignoble things they did as a teenager, and in Romney's case, there are far more immediate issues, such as his plan to hand a colossal tax break to the top 1 per cent of earners while cutting social services. Nonetheless, the possibility of a school bully growing up to lead the nominally free world is one that, for a good many people, makes the stomach lurch.

The bullies don't grow up to win. For a significant minority of us, that's one of life's fundamental principles: however horrendous school might be, when you grow up, the victims are vindicated and the bullies get what they deserve. That's the simple story that teenagers everywhere were clinging to many years before agony columnist Dan Savage created the "It Gets Better" campaign, designed to give hope to suicidal victims of homophobic bullying – the sort of bullying which Romney laughed off as "pranks". The message, reiterated on camera by a roll call of pop stars and politicians, including a stupendously awkward-looking David Cameron, is simple: things may be tough now, but keep your head down, don't rock the boat, and you'll be fine. Hang in there, kid.

As well as being an important and necessary anti-bullying campaign, "it gets better" is also an extremely familiar sentiment for left-wingers in Britain and America today. Many of us still cling to a sense that if we only wait long enough, fairness and equality will eventually come about. It's certainly one of the key principles on which Barack Obama was first elected: directionless hope, hope for change you can believe in, in the absence of change you can actually see. "It gets better" is an article of liberal faith in treacherous times: hang in there. Keep your head down. Weather the storm.

The trouble is that sometimes it doesn't get better. Sometimes, if you keep your head down, the bullies win. Sometimes they grow up to be rich win the Republican nomination. Sometimes poverty hits an 18-year high and millions lose their homes, jobs and healthcare while the rich get richer and the poor get angrier, and, in times like these, times of confusion and suffering, those who still vote flock towards politicians who look and sound like they want power and know what to do with it.

This year, Americans are facing the same choice that we in Britain faced in 2010: a choice between a candidate promising vague, mitigated change, and one who looks as if he's been bred in a special farm for future world leaders. Some liberal US commentators have taken Romney's healthy poll numbers as final evidence that the voting public has lost its collective wits. However, when millions of people decide that they will vote for an empty can of expensive spray tan if it happens to be wearing a red rosette, it's not because they're all stupid. It's about fear and frustration, neither of which is a respecter of intellect.

Hope can be hard to hang on to. In his forthcoming book Twilight of the Elites, MSNBC host Chris Hayes explains that for Barack Obama, who glided into the White House in the 2008 election on an air cushion of elation, both his victory and his political setbacks can be explained by "his ability to connect to our core sense of betrayal and inability to deliver us from it".

Hope, as Obama once put it, is indeed audacious, but it is also exhausting. After four years where the bold, hard changes necessary to create a truly fairer country have failed strikingly to materialise, Americans of all stripes are getting tired of hope, just as British people were tired after 13 years of watching the Labour Party kowtow to a neoliberal consensus that culminated in a catastrophic crash. That kind of hope starts to hurt, after a while. There was a time when the voting public believed in a better tomorrow. Now they'll settle for politicians who have the decency to screw them with the lights on. It's the sort of political climate where bullies thrive.

Bullies, however, have power only if nobody stands up to them. When you picture young Mitt Romney chopping off little John Lauber's hair, remember who the most important people are in that picture. They are the kids standing by and watching. In frightening, desperate times, the impulse to cede power to those who merely feel themselves deserving of it can be overwhelming. Even in a post-hope generation, all it takes is a few people to say no – but, so far, the top ranks of liberal politics on both sides of the pond have been a corridor of foot-shuffling silence.

twitter.com/pennyred

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The plan could lead to up to 15,000 people being operated on annually  

The obesity crisis affects the whole of Europe... apart from France

Rosie Millard
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'